History made as the restored St Mary’s Cathedral is reopened and blessed

By Catherine Sheehan

On the Feast of the Immaculate Conception of the Blessed Virgin Mary, St Mary’s Cathedral in Hobart was officially reopened after extensive restoration work over the past five months.

To mark the historic occasion, a special Mass was celebrated on the evening of 8 December during which the new altar was dedicated and the Cathedral blessed.

“May this cathedral church be pre-eminently a place where God is worshipped and the grace of salvation flows forth upon the people who gather here and upon this island of Tasmania,” Archbishop Julian Porteous said during his homily.

Photo: Tony Lomas

Concelebrating the Mass with the Archbishop was Apostolic Nuncio to Australia, Archbishop Charles Balvo, Emeritus Archbishop of Hobart, Adrian Doyle, Cathedral Administrator, Fr Leonard Caldera, and General Secretary of the Australian Bishops Conference, Fr Stephen Hackett MSC.

In attendance was Her Excellency, the Governor of Tasmania, the Honourable Barbara Baker.

“Christians have always sought out the best artisans and artists to adorn their churches,” Archbishop Porteous said.

 “I am indebted to the wonderful skilled artisans and artists who have contributed to this renovation of St Mary’s Cathedral.”

Photo: Tony Lomas

In his address to the Archbishop, project manager for the restoration, and Archdiocesan Master of Ceremonies, Michael McKenna, said the liturgical setting of the Cathedral had been “reordered mindful of the building’s architecture, cultural heritage and patrimony and appropriately focused on the requirements of the modern liturgy and the community of the faithful who call the Cathedral ‘Parish’”.

Mr McKenna said the project team had aimed to “restore to the building those elements which had since disappeared over time but having been restored add to the Cathedral’s sublime beauty and in a particular way join us to the generations who prayed before us and whose patrimony we are the present custodians”.

“May our contribution written on this majestic building, be for those who follow a profound and definitive statement of hope in the Faith that we profess” he added.

Project manager for the restoration of the Cathedral, Michael McKenna, addresses the Archbishop. Photo: Tony Lomas

He also thanked the Archdiocese’s Executive Director Administration and Finance, Chris Ryan, and the Diocesan Finance Council for ensuring the provision of necessary funds for the restoration, and the State Government for providing financial support through its Building Projects Support Program.

L-R: Apostolic Nuncio to Australia, Archbishop Charles Balvo, Archbishop Julian Porteous, Archbishop Emeritus of Hobart, Adrian Doyle, and Cathedral Administrator, Fr Leonard Caldera. Photo: Tony Lomas

After reciting the prayer of blessing, the Archbishop sprinkled the entire Cathedral and the congregation with holy water.

During the Rite of Dedication, the Archbishop anointed the new altar with Sacred Chrism oil.

Crafted from Mount White sandstone, the altar was a gift from the Porteous family in memory of the Archbishop’s deceased brother, Richard.

Photo: Tony Lomas

A first-class relic of St Therese of Lisieux, donated by the Hutchinson family in memory of the late Mrs Mary Hutchinson, was also installed into the altar.

 “The altar is the centre of every church,” Archbishop Porteous said.

“Indeed, we could say that a church is the building to house an altar at which the Sacrifice of the Mass is offered.”

The Archbishop anoints the new altar with Sacred Chrism Oil. Photo: Tony Lomas

Referring to the description of the Jewish temple in the book of Exodus (Ex 37), the Archbishop said, “As from the temple streams of life flowed, so too now from the altar streams of saving grace flow not only upon the congregation gathered but they flow out to all the world”.

“Our churches and our liturgies are our best efforts to offer fitting worship to the majesty and splendour of God, to find in beauty a way to lift and inspire the human spirit,” Archbishop Porteous said.

“In the liturgy we are transported to another realm, to glimpse something of what is revealed to us in the sacred texts.”

The Governor of Tasmania, the Honourable Barbara Baker, pictured centre, attended the Mass of Dedication and Blessing. Photo: Tony Lomas

Parishioners of the Cathedral, Callum and Kate Woods, said they were pleased to see the results of the restoration work.

“It’s so great to return to the Cathedral after the months of renovations,” Kate said.

“We were so impressed with the extraordinary calibre of the work done. In particular the terrazzo flooring and inlaid designs are beautiful, and the incorporation of stencilling around the sanctuary elevates the space. It’s wonderful to see St Mary’s in all her glory.”

The first class relic of St Therese of Lisieux is sealed in the new altar. Photo: Tony Lomas

“It was great to attend the reopening and blessing and to see the Cathedral filled with so many people of different backgrounds,” Callum added.

“Job well done to the many people involved in the renovations and in organising the reopening.”

St Mary’s Cathedral was closed in early July 2022 to allow restoration work to commence on the 162-year-old building. The entire interior of the Cathedral was repainted, vinyl flooring replaced, and new terrazzo tiles installed. New heating and lighting systems were also installed and the former St Joseph Chapel re-established.

Much of the work was carried out by St Joseph Affordable Homes, under the direction of CEO, Ben Wilson, and under the supervision of Michael McKenna, project manager for the restoration.

Highlights of the reopening of St Mary’s Cathedral
View the livestream from the event

Features of the restoration:

‘Auspice Maria’ Seal

A brass inlay in the terrazzo finish floor of the forward sanctuary is a Marian symbol familiar to most Catholics consisting of two intertwined letters ‘A’ (Ave) and ‘M’ (Maria) surmounted by a crown and surrounded by a circle of twelve stars. The Book of Revelation describes a woman “clothed with the sun, and the moon under her feet, and upon her head a crown of twelve stars” (12:1, 2 & 5). In Catholic tradition that woman is the Blessed Virgin Mary, especially in connection with the Immaculate Conception. The symbol is called the Auspice Maria and is Latin for “Under the protection of Mary.” Placed at the threshold to the sanctuary the revered monogram serves to remind us too that, as St Louis de Montfort explained, it is through Mary that we come to her son, Jesus.

The Cathedral Altar and its ‘Agnus Dei’ Mosaic Centrepiece.

Just beyond the Auspice Maria brass lies the Cathedral’s new stone altar, a gift of the Porteous family in prayerful memory of the Archbishop’s deceased brother Richard.  It is crafted from Mount White sandstone from the Archbishop’s home state by Gosford Quarries to a design by architect Sidney Rofe. The altar mensa is supported by four Wombeyan marble columns. The altar was constructed and finished by Tasmanian stone masons, Heritage Stone.

A quatrefoil detail in the altar’s forward face contains a beautiful mosaic designed by artist Sr Agar Loche pddm of the Sister Disciples of the Divine Master whose charism includes the desire to help the people of our times to “pray in beauty”. Consisting of venetian coloured marble tesserae, the composition is rich in meaning evoking the symbols of Christ and His sacrifice.

At its centre is the lamb standing slain upon the throne of the seven sealed book. This is Christ, dead and risen (Rev 5:6). An emerald rainbow circles the Lamb’s throne indicating that His promise of eternal life is guarantee (Rev 4:3). The jewelled cross reminds us of Christ’s victory over sin and death.  Its green branches bear fruits of pomegranate, referenced in scripture, and which in the Middle Ages became a symbol of the resurrection.

The Tabernacle

The tabernacle is set into a canopy of pure white Ross stone, which is the exposition throne of the original High Altar, removed by Archbishop Young in the 1950s as part of the last significant works to the Cathedral’s interior. It was carved in Hobart in 1880 by Bernard Molloy to the design of Henry Hunter.

It now sits upon a new and substantial construction crafted from Mount White sandstone matching the Cathedral’s new altar to a design by architect Sidney Rofe. Weighing almost 2 tonnes the new tabernacle base was constructed and finished by Tasmanian stone masons, Heritage Stone.

The Mission Cross

The Cross Crosslet is a heraldic cross consisting of four Latin Crosses arranged at right-angles to each other with the tops pointing to the ‘four corners of the world’. Representing the four evangelists: Matthew, Mark, Luke and John it is considered as a symbol of the evangelising mission of the Church affording an alternative name: Mission Cross.  There are four such crosses inscribed in the sanctuary floor which with the altar at their centre combine to evoke the Five Wounds of Christ.

The Octagon – Sacred Geometry

Set into the sanctuary floor with the altar at its centre is a great octagon or eight-sided geometric shape. The Catechism of the Catholic Church affirms the significance of the number 8 for Christians in article #349: The eighth day.  But for us a new day has dawned: the day of Christ’s Resurrection.  The seventh day completes the first creation.  The eight day begins the new creation.  Thus, the work of creation culminates in the greater work of redemption.  The first creation finds its meaning and its summit in the new creation in Christ, the splendor of which surpasses that of the first creation.


The early St Mary’s chancel was elaborately decorated with colour and stenciling. The restoration works have restored the original colours to the chancel and some of the ornate stenciled detail. The chancel walls and arches now bear crowns and crosses reflecting the kingship of Christ. Situated among these more obvious symbols is one that will be familiar to Catholics even if we can’t remember its meaning.

The Christogram or symbol for Christ composed of overlapping letters IHS form an abbreviation for the Holy Name of Jesus Christ. In the Greek, Jesus is written ιησους which is transliterated as “ihsous” and pronounced iēsous. This is the Holy Name as it was written in the Gospels. The monogram draws on the first three letters of the Greek spelling of the Holy Name of Jesus.

The Eagle

The Cathedral’s new ambo takes the form of an eagle. Of the four evangelists, John is most closely associated with the Word, owing in no small measure to the opening passage of his gospel: “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God” (John 1:1).

The eagle is one of the faces of four living creatures of the prophet Ezekiel’s vision in Ezekiel 1:10 (human, lion, ox and eagle). It is entirely fitting, then, that in our liturgy of the Word, we should read the Word of God from a lectern comprising the symbol of John the Evangelist. In Christian art, the eagle often represents the resurrection and ascension of Christ because the sight of an eagle rising in flight is a powerful one.

Reestablishment of the former St Joseph Chapel

In 1898 the liturgical north-east chapel became St Joseph’s Chapel. Prior to this it functioned as a temporary baptistery which precluded the establishment of any permanent stone altar as with the Lady and Sacred Heart Chapels. By 1998 a wooden altar was constructed and a statue of St Joseph erected on a pedestal behind it. Some decades ago the chapel lost its identity when the altar was removed and the statue shifted to a simple plinth in the corner of the chapel which was among other things used for overflow seating.

The Cathedral’s former principal altar erected by Archbishop Young – the Bass altar as it is known, after its creator Australian sculptor Tom Bass – has in consultation with Tom Bass’s widow, been established in the former Joseph Chapel where its dignity as a significant piece of the Cathedral’s patrimony has been preserved, and it might continue to contribute to the devotional and worship life of the Cathedral.

Statue of St Peter

Situated in the Cathedral nave’s western side statuary niche, St Peter is rendered holding his traditional attribute – the keys to heaven and hell, which represent the powers of absolution and excommunication. Peter was one of the 12 Apostles of Jesus. Roman Catholic tradition holds that Jesus established St Peter as the first pope (Matthew 16:18). Jesus also gave him “the keys of the kingdom of heaven” (Matthew 16:19), which is why he is often depicted at the gates of heaven in art and popular culture. One key represents the power to bind and loose in heaven, spiritual authority; while the second represents the power to bind and loose on earth, temporal authority.

Statue of St Paul

Situated in the Cathedral nave’s eastern side statuary niche, St Paul is rendered holding a sword as his attribute, and a scroll. St Paul is frequently depicted with a sword for two primary reasons. The first reason is because St Paul is well-known for his epistle to the Ephesians, where he famously describes the “armor of God.” St Paul uses a similar analogy with the Hebrews “For the word of God is living and active, sharper than any two-edged sword” (Hebrews 4:12).

For this reason, St Paul is frequently also holding a book or scroll – the “word of God,” representing his epistles in the New Testament. The second reason relates to what is a long-standing tradition of depicting martyr saints with the instruments of their death. In this case the sword is a reminder that Paul was beheaded in Rome in 67 AD.

Tags: Bellerive-Lindisfarne, Bridgewater-Brighton, Burnie-Wynyard, Campbell Town, Central Tasmania, Circular Head, Claremont, Flinders Island, Front Page News, George Town, Glenorchy, Hobart, Huon Valley, King Island, Kings Meadows, Kingston-Channel, Launceston, Meander Valley, Mersey-Leven, Moonah-Lutana, Northern Deanery, Richmond, Sandy Bay, Scottsdale, South Hobart, Southern Deanery, St Mary's Cathedral, St Marys, West Coast, West Tamar