History of the Cathedral - Living our heritage

Today St Mary’s Cathedral is one of Australia’s most beautiful and significant buildings but it did not happen overnight. The Cathedral evolved through a long and patient timeline following a fire which destroyed the first St Mary’s Cathedral in 1865.As Australia’s largest Cathedral building, this English-style Gothic revival building constructed of honey-coloured Sydney sandstone, is regarded as the Mother Church for Australian Catholics. Its central Sydney location ensures a strong and visual presence of the church in Australia’s largest city.Architect William Wardell was commissioned by Archbishop John Polding to design a new St Mary’s following the devastating fire in 1865 razed the original Cathedral. According to Archbishop Polding to Wardell in a letter dated 10 October, 1865: “Any plan, any style, anything that is beautiful and grand. I leave all to you and your own inspiration”. Despite the building’s European origins, Wardell used Australian native flora throughout as a decorative element to ground the Cathedral in its local setting. It took close to 100 years to finally complete St Marys with the first stage constructed between 1866 and 1900 and stage two between 1912 and 1928. However, the original Wardell design was only finally completed in June 2000 when the metal frames of the imposing Southern Spires were lowered into place by helicopter and then sheathed in Gosford sandstone.   According to the former Archbishop of Sydney George Pell: “This beautiful Cathedral Church is many things: a historic building, an architectural wonder, a monument to the role which Christianity and especially the Catholic faith has played in Australian life from the first days of European settlement and a magnificent tribute to the faith and commitment of generations of Catholics.” Dedicated to the Blessed Virgin Mary, under the title of Immaculate Mother of God, Help of Christians, the Cathedral celebrated its Sesquicentenary in 2018, 150 years since the laying of the foundation stone of the new Cathedral by Archbishop Polding. In 2021, the Cathedral celebrated the Bicentenary of the laying of the foundation stone of the old St Mary's Chapel. This celebration however was delayed due to the COVID-19 pandemic and was finally celebrated on 8th May 2022 with a Solemn Mass with the Bishops of Australia.

  • August 26, 1788


    The First Fleet arrives and Sydney is founded as a British convict settlement. Catholics are among the convicts and the soldiers.
  • August 26, 2016


    Father James Dixon who arrived in 1800 celebrates the first Mass authorised by the government.
  • August 26, 2016


    A choir is established by Catherine Fitzpatrick, which becomes the St Mary’s Choir.
  • August 26, 2016


    The first officially appointed priests, Fathers Philip Conolly and John Joseph Therry arrive and funds are raised to build a chapel in the colony.
  • August 26, 2016


    The foundation stone of the first St Mary's Chapel is laid by Gov. Macquarie and blessed by Fr Therry.
  • August 26, 2016


    Sydney's first Catholic bishop, John Bede Polding OSB, arrives on September 13th, as Vicar Apostolic of New Holland.  In 1842 Polding is installed as the first Archbishop of Sydney and thus St Mary’s Chapel is elevated to a Cathedral.
  • August 26, 2016


    St Mary’s Cathedral is destroyed by fire.
  • August 26, 2016


    The foundation stone of the present Cathedral is laid.
  • August 26, 2016


    Roger Bede Vaughan OSB is appointed as the second Archbishop of Sydney.
  • August 26, 2016


    Though unfinished, the Cathedral is open and dedicated.
  • August 26, 2016


    The Cathedral is officially opened by Cardinal Patrick Moran.
  • August 26, 2016


    The Cathedral, complete with south nave, is opened.
  • August 26, 2016


    The refurbishment of the Crypt is completed
  • August 26, 2016


    The first Pope to visit Australia, Pope Paul VI celebrates Mass in the Cathedral.
  • August 26, 2016


    The peal of 14 bells is consecrated.
  • August 26, 2016


    The southern spires are installed, complete from Wardell’s design.
  • August 26, 2016


    Pope Benedict XVI visits Sydney for the 23rd World Youth Day. During the festival, Pope Benedict XVI dedicated a new Altar for the Cathedral.
  • November 21, 2017


    Blessed Mary MacKillop is canonised in Rome and given the title of St Mary of the Cross, thus becoming Australia’s first Saint. Cardinal Pell unveils a statue of St Mary of the Cross at the Hyde Park entrance of the Cathedral.
  • November 21, 2017


    Pope Francis appoints Cardinal Pell as the first ever Secretariat for the Economy at the Vatican. Bishop Anthony Fisher OP is appointed as the ninth Archbishop of Sydney on 18th September. His installation took place on November 12th.