St. Mary's Cathedral
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Description of St Mary's

  • Length: 107m
  • Width of Nave: 24.3m
  • Height of Ceiling: 22.5m
  • Height of Central Tower: 46.3m
  • Height of Front Towers & Spires:74.6m

St. Mary's Cathedral is the spiritual home of Sydney's Catholic community. It is the seat of the Archbishop of Sydney, and stands on the site of the first Catholic Chapel in Australia. Constructed in local sandstone, the Gothic Revival style of its architecture is reminiscent of the great medieval cathedrals of Europe. St Mary's is not only a great legacy from the past, however: it is vital part of the present spiritual and cultural life of the city and the nation. The Cathedral is dedicated to the Blessed Virgin Mary, under the title of Immaculate Mother of God, Help of Christians.   

What a Cathedral is

The Catholic Church around the world is made up of particular Church communities, led by a bishop. As chief pastor and teacher of his Church, the bishop has an official chair, called a cathedra, in the main church building of his particular community (called a diocese).

This church with the cathedra is called a Cathedral. It is the place where the Church community gathers with their bishop for the most significant feast-days and other important events. A Cathedral is not necessarily a large Gothic building and not every large Gothic church is a Cathedral!

William Wilkinson Wardell was commissioned by Archbishop Polding to design a new St. Mary's following the fire of 1865 which ruined the original cathedral.

Wardell was born in 1823, and as an architect in England had become an accomplished practitioner of the Gothic Revival style championed by A.W.N. Pugin, and like Pugin, Wardell became a convert to Catholicism.

He came to the Australian colonies in 1858, living in Melbourne. Wardell designed several important buildings in Melbourne, including St. Patrick's Cathedral. In Sydney, St. John's College within the University of Sydney stands as further testimony to his skill. Polding wrote to Wardell, ``... And now for the design itself of our new cathedral. I have little to say beyond this, that I go to the architect of St. John's College of the University of Sydney to ask him for something that shall again be an honour to himself and the Catholics of the diocese. I leave all to you and your own inspiration in the matter. I will not even say that your conception shall be restricted to the Gothic style of any particular period. Any plan, any style, anything that is beautiful and grand, to the extent of our power."(letter of 10 October, 1865).

Polding was not to be disappointed by Wardell, for the building he designed is indeed ``beautiful and grand". Constructed of dressed Sydney sandstone, St. Mary's stretches some 106m. (350 feet) in length, and the central tower rises to 46m. (152 feet). When the intended spires are built, the Cathedral will soar to 75m. (245 feet).

St. Mary's is designed principally in the Geometric Decorated style of Gothic which first evolved around the 13th century. It is not a copy of a particular medieval cathedral, but is a unique design, drawing on certain elements of its medieval forbears. In keeping with many medieval English cathedrals, there is a strong emphasis on the length-wise dimension of the building, while viewed from the side it is more reminiscent of a typically French cathedral. Viewed from the front facade, it is more reminiscent of a French cathedral, with twin towers flanking a rose window.

The customary East - West orientation of cathedrals was abandoned by Wardell, probably because the fall of the land together with the great length of the building would have made such an orientation impractical. Instead of being at the East end, therefore, the Sanctuary of St. Mary's is located at the North end of the plan, with the main facade and principal entrance at the South end.

Even so, the slope of the land and an apparent error in the ``starting point" of the building on the site necessitated the addition of a flight of more than thirty steps to the front of the building by the architects, Hennessey & Hennessey, who took responsibility for the completion of the Cathedral to Wardell's design after his death in 1899.

One of the consequences of the North - South orientation of St. Mary's is that for most of the day, the sun shines directly through only the three windows at the Northern end, making the cathedral more dark inside that one might expect. However, in the early morning the cathedral is filled with rich, warm light as the sun beams through the amber glass of the fourteen clerestory windows along the Eastern side. This effect is repeated with even greater brilliance in the late afternoon, as the sun penetrates the Western elevation of St. Mary's.

A visitor to St. Mary's will see many features on the outside of the building: the flying buttresses of the chancel and nave; the canopies and statues in the Northern gable, the text of the Ave Maria and other invocations carved high up on the walls; the many carved saintly heads which gaze benignly down, and, way up on the towers and turrets, the more menacing figures of the gargoyles.

Moving inside the church through the main doors, the eye is drawn forward, along the length of the Nave, toward the white pinnacles of the High Altar Screen, and the rich colours of the Great North Window beyond.

The columns of the main arcade are of the same warm sandstone as the exterior and interior walls, which has also been used in the vaulted ceilings of the side aisles and chapels. The ceiling of the Chancel is vaulted in timber, and the roof of the Nave is of double hammerbeam construction. Looking up towards the ceilings, the visitor will notice many more of the saintly heads first seen on the outside walls.

As is usual in Gothic cathedrals, St. Mary's has three levels of arched openings along its length: the high arches of the main arcade, the gallery-like openings of the triforium, and the windows of the clerestory.

At intervals along the Nave walls, triple archways lead to the Confessional rooms. Small columns of Moruya granite divide these openings. On the Eastern side of the Nave, a larger archway forms the entrance to the Baptistery, with its apse-like form and ornate ceiling. Stained glass windows pierce the walls of the Nave, Transepts and Chancel.

Our Lady Help of Christians, in whose honour the Cathedral is dedicated. Under this title, Mary is the Patroness of Australia. The statue was donated to the Cathedral in the 19th century.

Arched Openings





In the Western Nave aisle, stairs lead down to the Crypt, remarkable for the beauty of its floor of terrazzo mosaic. In vaults beneath the floor of the Crypt lie the mortal remains of the deceased Archbishops of Sydney and pioneer priests such as Fr. J.J. Therry, the founder of St. Mary's.




The Sanctuary contains the original High Altar, the newer timber Main Altar, the Archbishop's throne or cathedra, the Lectern for the proclamation of the Word of God. Surrounding the Sanctuary are the Chapels, which are dedicated to: The Sacred Heart; St. Joseph; The Blessed Virgin Mary (the Blessed Sacrament is reserved in this chapel); St. Peter; The Irish Saints. The Sanctuary, Chapels , and the aisles that join them, together form the Chancel.


altarsThe High Altar and screen, and the altars in the chapels of the Sacred Heart, St. Joseph, Our Lady and St. Peter, were designed by Wardell and constructed of New Zealand Oamaru stone. The altar in the Chapel of the Irish Saints is a later addition designed and executed in Italy of marble. The High Altar also has marble columns with carved alabaster capitals. A free standing timber altar, usually draped with rich cloth frontals, was placed in the main sanctuary after the liturgical reforms of the Second Vatican Council.

The FontThe Font

Located in a special chapel called the Baptistery, the baptismal Font is made of ``Royal Sienna" marble carved in Sydney.


Mosaic floors are a feature of the main Sanctuary, the Chapels, Baptistery and the Cathedral crypt. The brightly coloured floor of the crypt is an outstanding example of terrazzo mosaic.

Stained Glass Windows

The stained-glass windows in the Cathedral were crafted in England, at the Hardman studios of Birmingham, from 1881 onwards.

In the area of the sanctuary and transepts the windows mostly depict the fifteen ``mysteries of the rosary", climaxing in the Great North Window with the ``Coronation of the Blessed Virgin Mary". There are also windows in the chapels with themes of the Sacred Heart; St Joseph; St Peter; St Patrick & St Brendan; St Gregory sending St Augustine to convert the  English; and a memorial to Cardinal John Henry Newman.The windows in the Nave mostly show scenes from the New Testament, and the first four on each side also show notable moments in the history of the Church in Sydney prior to completion of the Cathedral. The ``rose" windows depict, in the West Transept, Adam with the prophets and patriarchs of the Old Testament; in the East Transept, Christ with St John the Baptist, the Apostles and Evangelists. The southern rose window shows St Peter and sixteen of the Popes.

Stained Glass WindowsStations of the Cross

The fourteen large oil paintings of the Stations of the Cross were acquired by Cardinal Moran in 1885 during a visit to Europe, and hung in the aisles near the sanctuary prior to the extension of the Cathedral.

The Bells

The bells of St. Mary's hang in the central tower. These fourteen bells were installed in 1986, replacing an earlier peal of eight bells transferred when the central tower was completed in 1900 from the tower of the old cathedral, where they had been hung in 1882. These in their turn had replaced the original bells of St. Mary's, first hung in a wooden belfry near the old Cathedral in 1842. All three peals of bells have come from the same foundry, now known as the Whitechapel Foundry, in London.

The bells are rung manually in the English ``change-ringing" manner.

The Organs

Archbishop Polding acquired a fine organ for the first St. Mary's. Built by Bevington & Son in London, with a case designed by A.W.N. Pugin, this 34 stop, 2 manual and pedal instrument was the largest in Australia when it arrived in 1841. It was destroyed in the tragic cathedral fire of 1865. The first pipe organ in the present Cathedral was built by C. J. Jackson of Sydney in 1874, had 26 stops, and was demolished in 1959. The organ in the gallery over the main doors is by Whitehouse Bros. of Brisbane, dating from 1942. It is a 26 stop, 2 manual & pedal instrument.

The organ in the Chancel, whose pipes are in the triforium above the sanctuary, is by R.W. Sharp of Sydney, and dates from 1960. It had long been desired to provide organs well suited to the great size and diverse musical needs of St. Mary's. In 1997, the Canadian organ builders, Orgues LeTourneau, were commissioned to build a large new organ to be located in the West Transept. This splendid 46 stop instrument was installed and blessed just prior to Christmas, 1999.

The ``Pieta"

A Carrara Marble replica of Michelangelo's famous statue was given to the Cathedral in 1971 by David Jones LTD and placed in the West Transept.

The CryptThe Crypt

Located beneath the Nave, the crypt, last resting-place of the deceased Archbishops of Sydney, is notable for the beautiful terrazzo mosaic floor, depicting the story of the Creation, and symbolic titles of the Blessed Virgin Mary.

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