The Cathedral’s origins can be traced back to 1822 when the first permanent Tasmanian priest Fr Philip Conolly constructed a temporary wooden chapel near the present Cathedral site.
It took three attempts before the first section of the Cathedral was finally built between 1860 and 1866. A donation of £10,000 from philanthropist Roderick O’Connor finally secured the project.
Structural problems caused by faulty building resulted in the Cathedral being largely dismantled and re-constructed to a modified design between 1876 and 1881. The East window, containing the Hardman stained glass window was recovered from the original Cathedral and reinstalled. The first stained glass window installed in the Cathedral, the Hardman window is a memorial to Bishop Willson and his Vicar General, William Hall. These pioneers, in spite of their hard work, did not live to see the completed Cathedral.
St Mary’s Cathedral has many unique and well loved features.
The baptismal font is of international significance. Studies have revealed that it is likely a font from the Norman period (1066-1200) which was brought by Bishop Willson to Hobart and stored until its installation in the Cathedral in the 1890s. Its cylindrical form and elaborate arches and detail are unique. The age and history of this font makes it one of the most important fonts in Australia. Research into its origins is continuing.
The exquisite Hardman Studio window, newly restored, floods the building with its beauty and light, One of the most important nineteenth century windows in Australia it was designed by the leading English stained glass maker of the period, John Hardman and Co, Birmingham. The window is a memorial to Robert William Willson (1794–1866), the first Bishop of Hobart Town, and his Vicar-General, William Hall (1807–66). It is in the style of a fourteenth century Gothic window; the five lancets depict pivotal scenes from the Gospel and the tracery at the top of the window details heavenly images. A clear glass protector has been installed on the outside of the window to protect it from wind load, water damage, hailstones, and accidental breakage.
In more recent times three stained glass windows by Sydney stained glass artist Stephen Moor have been installed: The Rose window in the West end of the Cathedral (1981), and in the transepts the memorial to Archbishop Guilford Young, the Pentecost Window (1989), and the Heroic and Saintly Women (1995). The dazzling colours of these windows dance across the walls and add beauty to the Cathedral.
The magnificent Cathedral pipe organ is a central feature of the Cathedral. Built in 1893 by leading organ builder George Fincham, it was installed in the organ gallery on completion of the Cathedral’s west end. Its attractive case and decorations provide a feast for the eyes while its glorious sounds are the mainstay of liturgical celebrations. Cathedral organ concerts featuring visiting and local musicians also greatly contribute to the cultural life of Hobart.
The surviving remains of the original high altar can be seen in the elaborate top of the tabernacle at the rear of the chancel. The original altar was carved by Byron Malloy and installed at the re-opening of the Cathedral in 1881.
The exquisite carved limestone statue of the Virgin and Child, formerly standing in a niche over the entrance to St Mary’s Convent in Harrington Street and placed on permanent loan in the Cathedral by the Presentation Sisters, was designed by Pugin and carved by a craftsman in the employ of George Myers, his favoured builder, probably c.1847 at Myers’ workshops, Ordnance Wharf, Lambeth.
The statue was made for Pugin’s close friend, Robert William Willson, first Bishop of Hobart Town.
Just sixty-six centimetres high, the statue is a perfect, archaeologically correct evocation of an English medieval Virgin and Child, but totally original. Pugin never copied. He only used his unrivalled knowledge of medieval art and architecture as a source of creative inspiration. The modelling of the features, drapery, hair, etc. and the composition are of the highest order.
St Mary’s Cathedral was the vision of the first Bishop of Hobart Town, Robert William Willson. Bishop Willson chose the design and spent years raising the funds. He was particularly inspired by his friend Augustus Welby Pugin, designer of the entire interiors of the British Houses of Parliament and father of the modern English Gothic Revival movement.
Opened in 1866, St Mary’s Cathedral is located in Harrington Street, Hobart, between Patrick and Brisbane Streets. Designed by William Wardell, one of Australia’s greatest nineteenth-century architects, it was completed except for its steeple between 1876 and 1898 to a modified design by Henry Hunter.
Henry Hunter, Tasmania’s best known and most prolific architect, designed a great many landmarks across the State. His buildings included over forty Catholic, Anglican and other churches, from Devonport to Southport and Swansea to Waratah, Hobart Town Hall, the Tasmanian Museum, many schools, convents and commercial buildings, and a large number of houses.
St Mary’s Cathedral has served the Tasmanian community for 140 years, touching the lives of thousands. The nobility of the architecture and the quality of the fabric is a testament to the aspirations and generosity of generations of Tasmanian Catholics and other kind benefactors. The imposing pillars and stonework, exquisite stained glass and the magnificent pipe organ are works of leading artisans from Australia and overseas.
This outstanding Gothic building is undergoing significant restoration so that it may continue to play a central role in the Catholic Church of Tasmania and serve the city of Hobart and the people of Tasmania.