St Francis Xavier's Catholic Cathedral

St Francis Xavier's Catholic Cathedral

The first part of St Francis Xavier’s Cathedral was dedicated on July 11, 1858, two months after the death of Bishop Francis Murphy. Bishop Murphy’s pioneering work established the Roman Catholic church in South Australia. The cathedral represented the consolidation of his efforts.

Murphy was born in Ireland in 1795. He excelled in theological studies and was ordained a priest in 1825. He arrived in Sydney in 1838, where he was consecrated bishop in 1844. Soon after he arrived in South Australia.

As the colony’s first bishop, he began an ambitious campaign to sponsor and coordinate the cause of Catholicism. By 1858 there were 21 Catholic churches in the South Australia, the product of 14 years of energy and devotion.

The decision to build a cathedral was made in 1848. A committee formed and £600 was subscribed. Nothing was done until November 1850, when a notice appeared in the papers asking architects to design a Catholic church, “the successful party to be appointed to superintend the building”. Richard Lambeth’s proposal was chosen, and on April 12, 1851 work began on the foundations.

Lambeth’s design received a good deal of publicity, a sketch appearing in the Mercury and Sporting Chronicle of April 26, 1851. The design was described as “eminently calculated to stamp Mr. Lambeth as the ‘Pugin’ of South Australia, while its magnitude of dimensions bears most unequivocal testimony to the zeal of our Roman Catholic brethren, who although limited in point of number, and boasting but few wealthy members in their communion, could venture upon the erection of so noble an edifice. Whatever opinions may be entertained of their peculiar tenets, it is an indisputable fact that throughout the Australian Colonies they [Roman Catholics] exhibit a greater amount of practical attachment both to the doctrines and interests of their Church than all the Protestants sects put together, and we desire no better illustration of the beauties of Voluntaryism than a comparison of this magnificent temple with the Gamboge-colored Dog-kennel in which Mr. Stow does the pastoral.”

This curious account reflected the stormy debates raging a between advocates of voluntaryism (the idea that all denominations should be financially self-sufficient and independent of government assistance) and adherents of the Church Party (who believed in and accepted centralised financial assistance). These differences were based on inherited political positions and varied theological beliefs originated in denominations’ reaction to the provision of “state aid” aid during a brief period from 1846 to 1851.

The colony was formed in the spirit of religious dissent, allowing complete freedom of religious worship. For a time Catholics were allied with the Protestant Voluntaryists. They supported their priests by subscription, with bazaars and other fundraisers for building the cathedral. However they eventually accepted state aid. When this was discontinued in 1851, and at the same time most of the colony’s workforce rushed to the Victorian goldfields, work on St Francis Xavier’s ceased. Only the footings had been built, and there is no record of Lambeth’s involvement in any more work.

In 1854 Bishop Murphy sent a plan of the foundations to England, and the architect Charles Hansom drew up a revised plan. Charles and his brother Joseph (inventor of the hansom cab) had a large practice in church architecture, which included the design of Plymouth Cathedral.

A foundation stone was laid in 1856. George Strickland Kingston (afterwards speaker of the House of Assembly) was appointed local supervising architect and in 1857 English and Brown’s tender was accepted. The Observer of 17 July, 1858, recorded the cathedral’s dedication on July 11.

The completed section was 85 feet long and 52 feet 6 inches wide. It consisted of five bays of arches with temporary end walls. The southern part of that nave is part of the present structure but the aisles were later demolished and widened.

For at least the first hundred years there were few wealthy Catholics in South Australia. Construction of St Francis Xavier’s went by fits and starts as Catholic congregations and bishops and archbishops worked to raise the funds. By 1860 the sanctuary, sacristy, Lady Chapel and side chapel were built, using rubble from a quarry near Dry Creek. Most of this section still exists.

For more than 20 years the building stayed at that stage. Then in 1881, Pugin and Pugin of Westminster, successors to the celebrated Augustus Welby Pugin, were commissioned to design an enlargement. A foundation stone was laid on November 7, 1887 by Archbishop Reynolds. Edward John Woods began to carry out the Pugin plan, demolishing the eastern aisle and widening it.

There was another break until 1922. Archbishop Spence then instructed Woods, Bagot, Jory and Laybourne Smith to prepare drawings for the present building. These were based on the Pugin design, with an enlarged front and proposed enlargements of sanctuary, chapels and sacristies. Yet another foundation stone was laid in 1923. The contract went to J.T. Brown and the cathedral was finished to its present stage in 1926. At a cost of more than £60,000 the nave acquired two bays, the western aisle was enlarged, the facade finished, and the tower raised as high as the temporary bell chamber.


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The cathedral is a prominent element of Wakefield Street and Victoria Square. The gablets to the western side with in bluestone rubble and sandstone enrichment are particularly decorative. St Francis Xavier’s is a monument to the continued expansion of Catholicism in South Australia.

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Images of St Francis Xavier's Catholic Cathedral

  • St Francis Xavier's Catholic Cathedral, 2014
Charles Hansom, George Kingston
English and Brown
Building materials
Brick, Stone, Bluestone, Sandstone
Architectural styles
2 Victorian Period (c. 1840–c. 1890)
1851/04/12 - 1858/07/11 

Additional Works

Extensions including sanctuary, sacristy and Lady Chapel by George Kingston

Construction commenced
Construction completed

Extensions following Pugin Plan, by Edward Woods

Construction commenced
Construction completed

Enlargements to designs of Woods, Bagot, Jory and Laybourne Smith

Contractor J T Brown
Construction commenced
Construction completed
Architecture and design features
Charles Hansom, George Kingston, bell tower, turret, leadlight
Engineering features
Victoria Square- Tarndanyangga
Council Ward
Alternative Addresses
Town Acre
Planning Zone or Policy Area
Original owners
Original occupant
Later occupant/s
Purposes and use
Religious, Cathedral
AS2482 classification
15500 - Religious Building
Public Access
Opening hours only
State Heritage ID
ACC Reference No.
DPTI Heritage No.
Certificate of Title No.
CT 6018/83 F163051 A92
NTSA file exists
Heritage Status
State Heritage listed
State heritage listing
State Heritage listed
Date of State heritage listing
Local heritage listing
Date of Local heritage listing
NTSA listing
NTSA classified
Date of NTSA listing
Section 23 (4) crtiteria
Risk status
Historic Themes
3.1 Economic Cycles
3.1.4 Discovery of Gold in Victoria
6.3 Worshipping
6.3.1 Places of worship/Churches
Australian Curriculum references
Year 5: The Australian Colonies


  • ACA, Smith Survey 1880; Advertiser, 27 January 1926; MLSA, Historical Photographs
  • (Town Acre 338); Mercury and Sporting Chronicle, 26 April 1851; Observer, 22 March
  • 1856, 17 July 1858; Register, 16 June 1928; South Australian Register, 8 November 1886,
  • 25 July 1887; Southern Cross, 9, 23 September 1949; Woods Bagot Architects, Historical architectural plans; Woods Bagot, Ledger of commissions.

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