The ‘ah ha’ moment of restoration for the old Goulburn Cathedral



A hand-written hymn, holy cards and rosaries recall the early days of worship for Restoration Committee Chair Dr. Ursula Stephens. Photo: John Thistleton.

In the final stages of the superb restoration of the former Saints Peter and Paul Cathedral, other historical treasures have been unearthed.

When floors were raised to allow for the installation of crossbeams as part of the $10 million project at Goulburn Church, contractors found prayer cards, sheet music, rosaries and candlesticks. A special find is a hand-written hymn in Latin for a formal mass.

A large community celebration and high mass will mark the reopening of the much-loved Old Cathedral next month.

The prayer cards, rosaries and hymns probably belong to daughters of Our Lady of Mercy, who sang at Mass many years ago. The choir loft has not been used for a long time due to its dangerous floor.

Restoration committee chair Dr Ursula Stephens said the memorabilia would be added to other historic items collected over the years, including an early priest’s traveling mass kit. This leather box contained everything needed to celebrate a mass. The first chalices are part of the collection.

Beautifully crafted wooden structures, including modesty boards once used in front of the pews and an ancient narthex (a structure that determines the entrance to a cathedral), in dark red cedar with intricate carvings, have also been discovered. The narthex will be redesigned in the future.

“Finding these pieces stored over time will help us tell the long journey of the expansion of Catholic tradition in Australia,” Dr Stephens said. “It’s the first cathedral outside of Sydney. The Diocese of Goulburn actually extended beyond the Victorian border when it was first established. The influence spread throughout southern New South Wales and beyond.

After overcoming extraordinary obstacles and delays, the Old Cathedral will reopen on Wednesday, November 30, with High Mass at 11 a.m., concelebrated by Archbishop Christopher Prowse, Bishop Pat Power (now retired) and 10 priests .

The important liturgy will include the anointing of the new altar, one of 12 consecration points to be anointed with oil.

All the religious orders that have been in Goulburn over the years, the Sisters of Mercy, the Sisters of Saint Joseph, the Christian Brothers and the Passionists, will be represented at the mass. A local Catholic choir will be joined by the Canberra Cathedral Choir.

“It’s going to be a huge community celebration,” Dr Stephens said. “It’s going to blow people away.”

After such a meticulous restoration, the new place of worship will surprise some parishioners. But for Dr. Stephens, one thing stands out.

“Of all the things that represent the ‘ah ha’ moment of the restoration of the cathedral, it has to be these Stations of the Cross,” she said. “No one knew they were colored. The exquisite painting and repair was meticulous. They give you goosebumps when you see them.

A large stained glass widow above the main altar is in 14 pieces being repaired in Moss Vale. It will be reinstalled, the 1890 pipe organ will be cleaned and maintained, the Stations of the Cross returned and the last piece of grass will be laid outside before the reopening.

“Anything that can be done will be done by then,” Dr Stephens said.

“We are optimistic below our initial estimate, but it has been a real challenge.”

Numerous long bursts of heavy rain, COVID-19 throughout 2021, heavy restrictions on materials, and intruder vandal attacks slowed the final stages. An example of the delays is the stolen copper downspout.

“Trying to get it redone and remodeled and go back in time was a gigantic effort,” Dr Stephens said.

Due to the specialized nature of repairs and restoration, most on-site contractors are recognized heritage artisans. In high demand, they had to balance other work commitments across Australia.

Woman in the Cathedral

Dr Ursula Stephens inside the old cathedral, which is gradually being restored to its original grandeur. Photo: John Thistleton.

“They’ve been wonderful on working weekends, evenings and through the rain and wind that has been Goulburn’s winter to make sure we meet the deadline,” Dr Stephens said.

Meanwhile, the former cathedral’s application to become a basilica awaits a decision in Rome, and the committee is confident it will be successful.

Cleaned and repainted, almost every corner, the curved arches and columns of the old cathedral present historical points of interest. Dr Stephens expects religious and heritage tourists to visit Goulburn, a destination with inspiring historic buildings.

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