History of an Icon
The history of St Joseph’s Cathedral Rockhampton is woven like a tapestry through the history of the Bishops of the diocese.
To date, each of the ten Rockhampton Bishops has contributed to its present magnificence. St Joseph’s Catholic Cathedral has stood for over a century on the inner city corner of William and West Streets, Rockhampton. Its architecture and beauty and the magnitude of its stature, make it a focal point of the Rockhampton Diocese. It is as much for the people of the Diocese as visitors.
St Joseph’s features a particularly fine black and white chequered Italian marble floor, sandstone block construction and authentic leadlight windows hand-crafted in England. These windows depict themes from the New Testament. Balancing the sandstone and tile construction is the deliberate use of timber, creating a warm and natural atmosphere. Compared to modern church design, the design of St Joseph’s and its character remind us of the transcendence of God.
In 1876 Bishop Quinn suggested that the then Dean, Father Charles Murlay, purchase a site suitable for a cathedral and initiate a building fund. The deeds for the land were secured on 3 February 1877, and before Dean Murlay left Rockhampton in 1883, his committee had raised 4000 pounds. On 21 May 1882, Bishop John Cani was consecrated the first Bishop of Rockhampton. Plans were completed for the cathedral by 1892. The architect was FDG Stanley of Brisbane. Two years later tenders were called and construction began on 11 June 1894. Bishop Cani laid the memorial stone on St Patrick’s Day 1895. The building stone was quarried at Stanwell, 24 kilometres west of Rockhampton. The quarry’s leasehold had been acquired by Bishop Cani for a mere fifty pounds.
Economic recession, a lack of money, and a building fund not equal to the debt brought work to a halt. Possession was denied, and Bishop Cani was to die before his vision was fulfilled. On 23 July 1902, his remains were transferred from the cemetery and buried at the cathedral (to the left as you enter). His epitaph reads: “With reverent hands he helped to build this stately cathedral but a nobler monument was his saintly life and tender love of the orphans.”
Bishop Higgins arrived on 20 July 1899 to a cathedral building with only three walls and without fittings or furniture. Within two months, thanks to the generosity of several people, the Cathedral was completed with a temporary wall costing 323 pounds.
On Sunday 15 October 1899, Cardinal Moran, Archbishop of Sydney, celebrated Pontifical High Mass and preached to open the Cathedral. St Joseph’s has occupied much time and energy of subsequent Rockhampton Bishops. Many of the Cathedral’s historic stained glass windows were commissioned and installed during Bishop Higgins’ six years episcopacy.
Rockhampton’s third Bishop, the Most Rev Dr James Duhig, was involved in paying off substantial cathedral debts before his transfer to Brisbane in 1912. During the seventeen year episcopate of Bishop Joseph Shiel, the Cathedral’s flying buttresses were found to be insecure and were removed and the building strengthened in 1918.
Definite plans by Bishop Romuald Hayes to complete St Joseph’s by Easter 1949 – the Cathedral’s Golden Jubilee – were prevented by the outbreak of war and his death in 1945. The war brought new concerns for St Joseph’s priceless stained-glass windows. Concerned about damage, Bishop Hayes ordered their removal from St Joseph’s in March 1942. It is believed they were railed to the nearby Neerkol Orphanage to be buried underground and retrieved and resurrected in peaceful times.
Bishop Andrew Tynan also made plans to complete the Cathedral, but he too died suddenly in June 1960 before work was begun. The 1960s saw Bishop Francis Rush make renovations to St Joseph’s before his transfer to Brisbane. It was not until 1980 that the eighth Bishop of Rockhampton, Bishop Bernard Wallace, acted on expert advice that the temporary rear wall was unsafe and endangered the structure. After much planning and successful fundraising, his plans to complete St Joseph’s were finally fulfilled. Bishop Bernard Wallace effected the completion of St Joseph’s in simple Gothic style in harmony with the whole building. On 22 May 1982, His Eminence, Sir James Cardinal Freeman, Archbishop of Sydney, dedicated the completed St Joseph’s.
The elements of nature were to provide the next chapter in the history of the Cathedral. In 1987 St Joseph’s Cathedral Administrator, Fr Bryan Hanifin, announced that the historic, irreplaceable stained-glass windows were extensively damaged and in need of urgent repair. A massive operation saw the windows returned to their manufacturers in England, John Hardiman Studios, where workers took out each piece of glass and replaced the lead.
New windows were commissioned and inserted in the newly-constructed east wall over a period of years during the completion of the back wall. The weekday Mass chapel behind the main altar features the bright Resurrection window, complemented by the more subdued windows of the Crucifixion and Pentecost. In the Blessed Sacrament Chapel behind the Tabernacle are windows illustrating the theme of the Last Supper.
On the other side of the weekday Mass chapel, expressing devotion to Our Lady, are the Rosary windows depicting the Annunciation, the Visitation, the Nativity, the Presentation and the Finding in the Temple. More than 100 years after Bishop Cani’s arrival in Rockhampton in 1882, the vision to complete St Joseph’s Cathedral was fulfilled by the dedication of Rockhampton’s eighth Bishop, the Most Rev Bernard Wallace.
In 2009 due to significant movement of the building and deterioration of the structure in parts the ninth Bishop of Rockhampton, Most Rev Brian Heenan, made the decision to undertake a conservation program to stabilise and preserve the building. An appeal was launched across the Diocese and community to support this work. Expert contractors, Classical Stone, were engaged to undertake the extensive work. Over the next few years the ground level around the building was lowered and new paving laid, new fencing surrounding the structure, the stonework was cleaned and re-pointed form top to bottom, inside and out, protective glass was installed over the stained glass windows and damaged stone work was repaired and replaced – including the replacement of the top section of both the spires. The restoration works were completed in 2013 at a cost of $6.5 million.