Cathedral address: 249 Elizabeth Street, Brisbane 4000
The cathedral takes its name from the cathedra, or bishop’s seat, symbol of the chief pastor and teacher of the local Church.
In the cathedral, parish communities find a sign of their fellowship with each other and the expression of their unity with the Church throughout the world. The cathedral is therefore not only an important place for those who use it regularly, but for the whole diocese of Brisbane.
- The effect
The stones of St Stephen’s Cathedral are silent witnesses to the joy and hope, the grief and anguish of generations of Catholic families.
In the quiet corners of this cathedral, those who shed tears of regret have found peace, those who sighed with weariness have gone out with new strength, those who were lost have discovered a way.
Under the arches of this building, candles of hope and trust have flickered through the years. Here, those in love have pledged to be true to one another all the days of their lives. Here, they have brought their children to be baptised and confirmed as followers of Christ.
Here, they have said their last farewell to those whose death they mourn. Here, on countless occasions, the local Church has gathered around the bishop to celebrate its unity in the Eucharist.
- Patron Saint
The patron saint of the Archdiocese of Brisbane’s cathedral is Saint Stephen, known as the Protomartyr (or first martyr) of Christianity. His name means ‘laurel wreath’ or ‘crown’ in Greek.
Acts 6:11 tells the story of how Stephen was tried by the Sanhedrin for blasphemy against Moses and God and speaking against the Temple and the Law. He was then stoned to death (c. A.D. 34-35) by an infuriated mob, including and greatly encouraged by Saul of Tarsus, the future Saint Paul. Stephen’s final speech is presented as making an accusation against the Jews of continuing to persecute prophets who spoke out against their sins:
Which one of the Prophets did your fathers not persecute, and they killed the ones who prophesied the coming of the Just One, of whom now, too, you have become betrayers and murderers. (Acts 7:52)
Saint Stephen is traditionally invested with a crown of martyrdom for Christianity and is often depicted in art with three stones and the martyrs’ palm.
As he was dying, Saint Stephen experienced a theophany. His theophany was unique in that he saw both the Father and the Son.
Behold, I see the heavens opened, and the Son of man standing on the right hand of God. (Acts 7:56)
The complete text of the life of St Stephen from the Gospels is featured in the glasswork that lines the lower ground floor of the Francis Rush Centre.
St Stephen’s path to martyrdom is also artistically portrayed in the Rivers of Stone, an sculptural artwork by Brisbane sculptor Rhyll Hinwood. This art is found in the liturgical space between the Francis Rush Centre and the cathedral (the north side of the cathedral).
- Cathedral story
The building and the site of St Stephen’s is part of the heritage of all the citizens of the city of Brisbane.
The penal colony of Moreton Bay was established in 1824 and was declared open for free settlement in 1842. The following year, Archbishop Polding visited from Sydney and established a mission to the aborigines of Stradbroke Island leaving it in the charge of four Passionist priests. By the end of the year, newly-ordained Fr James Hanly was appointed first parish priest of Brisbane. Land was obtained for a Catholic church and its foundation stone was laid in 1848.
Opened in 1850, the first St Stephen’s is the oldest building on site and one of the oldest in the city. The tiny church became a cathedral when James Quinn was appointed first bishop of the diocese in 1859. He arrived in Brisbane on Friday night 10th May 1861 and, the following Sunday in St Stephen’s, took possession of the diocese. Two and a half years later, on the feast of Stephen in 1863, he laid the foundation stone of a bigger cathedral.
After eleven difficult years of construction, the cathedral was finally opened, though it took another ten years before the gable and towers of the west facade were completed in 1884. The 1880’s saw the cathedral enriched with stained glass windows, a marble altar, new stations of the cross and a bell. After 1874, the old cathedral was used as a school, first by the Christian Brothers, then by the Sisters of Mercy. Soon a worthy building for St Stephen’s school was erected on the site and was blessed by Archbishop Robert Dunne in 1892. It is now restored and used for the cathedral offices.
Dunne, whose early years as bishop saw the cathedral improvements of the 1880s, left 5,000 pounds in his will towards the completion of St Stephen’s. Although his successor, James Duhig, had plans to build a new cathedral, extensions went ahead: the transepts and new sanctuary were opened in 1922.
Construction of the new cathedral of the Holy Name began at the end of the 1920s but, crushed by debt at the time of the great Depression, it was never completed. Ironically the sale of this site fifty years later enabled, among other projects in the Brisbane Church, the renovation and refurbishment of St Stephen’s during 1988-1989.
- The Nave
This major renovation of the cathedral was necessary to preserve and maintain the fabric of the building. It also provides more adequate facilities for the cathedral: an underground carpark, choir practice room, toilets and additional sacristy space.
Most of all, however, the renovation was occasioned by the reform of the liturgy-which has taken place in the Catholic Church since the Second Vatican Council.
Provision needed to be made for new ways of celebrating Eucharist, Baptism and Penance.
The main worship space with its seating, sanctuary and choir has been arranged to facilitate the full participation by all in the action of the liturgy.
The tabernacle where the consecrated Eucharist is kept for the sick needed a chapel of its own where people could pray in silence.
St Stephen’s was designed and built over a hundred years ago as a place for worship. Once again there is a harmony between the building and the liturgy which is celebrated there. The renovation has attempted to keep and enhance what was best in the cathedral and to add what was necessary in a pure, timeless style that expresses its contemporary purpose while remaining in harmony with the old.
On entering the cathedral, the eye is drawn up at once to appreciate the full height and width of the cathedral. The quality of light in the cathedral is especially significant. The lighting, which picks up gothic forms in its contemporary design, not only adds sparkle to the cathedral but sets the arches and vaulting in relief, emphasising the space in the nave and aisles. The flexible system is able to produce lighting suitable for a range of occasions. The balcony over the main door helps to define the entrance space but, unlike the former choir gallery, does not impede the view of the nave. It will be used for television and still cameras as well as trumpeters, etc.
The cathedral chairs, each crafted from Queensland sycamore and equipped with a kneeler, show respect for the individuality of each person without compromising the sense of community which traditional pews were often able to achieve. They provide a seating system which is neat and flexible. Provision can easily be made for someone in a wheelchair to sit with their family or friends, and other seating arrangements are possible for special occasions.
- Stained glass
The clean simplicity of the renovation and the unencumbered aisles draw attention to the cathedral windows. These outstanding examples of the art of stained glass come from France, Germany, Ireland, England and Australia and make up one of finest collections of 19th century stained glass in Australia.
Most of the glass in the nave is from the 1880s while that in the transepts has been made since the 1920s. In 1989, the cathedral has been enriched with new glass by Sydney artist, Warren Langley. The subjects depicted in the windows fall into several groups. Scenes from Jesus’ birth and infancy (including the annunciation to Mary and the visitation) are portrayed a number of times. These are often shown together with other pictures Of the Virgin Mary. This group is concentrated in the right (south) aisle and transept.
A number of windows illustrate the story of Jesus’ suffering and death. They are concentrated in the left (north) aisle and transept. This theme is completed and balanced by images of Jesus’ glorification (the resurrection, the risen Christ and the ascension). The image of the ascension occurs at both ends of the cathedral. Jesus’ ministry is represented only by the sermon on the mount and the raising of Lazarus Finally, there is a group of saints who figure in the windows, mainly in the west window and the north transept (Stephen, Peter, Paul, Matthew, Mark, Luke, John, Aloysius Gonzaga, Philomena, Anthony of Padua, Therese of Lisieux, Margaret Mary).
A number of windows in the Cathedral also were financed by bequests from the Patrick Mayne family, whose history (factual or otherwise) was depicted in The Mayne Inheritance.
- The first church
The first church
Tradition suggests this little church was built to a design of Augustus Welby Pugin, the celebrated 19th century Gothic architect. He was a friend of Archbishop Polding of Sydney, and designs for a church sent to Sydney may have materialised in Brisbane when work on St Stephen’s began in 1848. It was erected on a site granted to the Catholics behind the women’s prison, as the 1850 painting above shows. Sandstone was found a short distance up the river at Goodna and this was deemed suitable to the task, though before many years it had begun to disintegrate. The little belfry was one of the first parts to crumble.
The first Mass was celebrated there on 12 May 1850 even though the building was not yet complete. As the surrounding areas grew in the 1860s, the congregation often overflowed into Elizabeth Street. A wooden annex was erected along one side of the cathedral. Doors were cut into the stone walls through which worshippers had some view of the altar. The annexe was used during the week as a school room by the Sisters of Mercy. With the erection of the new cathedral in 1874, old St Stephen’s became a school full time.
- Holy Name Cathedral
Holy Name Cathedral
In building the transepts of St Stephen’s, Archbishop Duhig acceded to the last wish of his predecessor but his heart was not in it. The scale of St Stephen’s did not match the grandeur of his vision for the Brisbane Church. He had already announced a new cathedral to be built on the site of Dara, the archbishop’s residence in Ann Street, Fortitude Valley. Plans for a massive Renaissance basilica were sketched by architect, Mr Jack Hennessey, the first tenders were called in 1925 and work began in 1927.
The foundation stones retained at St Stephen’s are a part of the history of Brisbane’s Holy Name Cathedral. They are a testimony to the aspirations and generosity of a generation of Catholic people and their archbishop. Located at the join between the 1921-22 extension and that of 1988-89, the stones serve to mark the entrance to the new Eucharist chapel for those who come for quiet prayer.
- Free guided tours of the Cathedral of St Stephen
Free guided tours of the Cathedral of St Stephen
Each day at 10:30am the Cathedral of St Stephen Welcomers and Guides offers a free tour of the Cathedral precinct by a trained tour guide. Join us to discover, explore, learn about, experience and appreciate this beautiful place.
Group tours by appointment.
249 Elizabeth Street, Brisbane, Queensland 4000, Australia.
07 3324 3030