David Hilliard's address to the Friends of the Cathedral Church of St Francis Xavier, Adelaide, 25 October 2008

David Hilliard holds academic status as Associate Professor in the department of History at Flinders University where he taught for many years.

When we survey the people who have been associated with this cathedral over the last 150 years we looking at a vast company, numbering tens of thousands, of every class and occupation, nationality and ethnic background. In its composition it must surely be the most diverse of any Christian congregation in Adelaide. All we can easily discover about the great majority of cathedral parishioners and attenders are their names in church registers, on lists of donors and in the membership records of societies and committees. With time, working through directories, electoral rolls and other records, we could discover quite a lot about these individuals but this would be a major historical project, absorbing months of research. In this address my aim is rather less ambitious. I wish to focus on a selection of people associated with the cathedral who over 150 years have achieved prominence in the life of Adelaide, and South Australia.

First, we should survey the history of this building. The first Catholic bishop of Adelaide, Francis Murphy, purchased the land in 1850 from William Paxton, a director of the Burra Burra copper mine. The Catholic community in Adelaide in the 1840s was not numerous and certainly not wealthy. This site in Wakefield Street, close to but not fronting Victoria Square, was well away from the commercial centre of Adelaide. The Catholic Church could not afford the usual one-acre block but only half an acre, to be paid for over 18 months. Then there was no money for a building until finances improved in the mid-1850s when Bishop Murphy arranged for an English architect Charles Hansom to prepare a design. This was in the Early English style. The foundation stone was laid on 17 March 1856 and the first section, the first five bays of the nave, was dedicated on 11 July 1858, three months after the bishops’ death. Section 2 of Hansom’s design, the chancel and side-chapels, was carried out under Murphy’s successor Bishop Geoghegan and dedicated in November 1860. The next major addition, under Archbishop Reynolds, was a wide aisle on the eastern side completed in 1887. Further extensions, comprising two bays of the nave, an aisle on the western side, the Wakefield Street façade and the bottom stages of the tower, were initiated by Archbishop Spence and opened in 1926. The tower with its peal of bells was completed in 1996.

The worship at the cathedral was quite unlike that of Adelaide’s other major churches. Protestant journalists who wrote accounts of services they attended in 1895 and 1903 were struck by the social mixture of the congregation – ‘rich and poor sat cheek by jowl’. They were impressed by the reverence and rapt attention of the people, who prayed quietly beforehand and did not look around, and by the ‘gorgeous’ ritual of the 11 o’clock High Mass – ‘the most interesting service in the Church of Rome’. However, they were rather critical of the singing of the choir and the puny sound from the inadequate organ. These descriptions of services at the cathedral are in Quiz and the Lantern, 10 January 1895 and the Register, 10 August 1903.

Charles Hansom (1817-1888)

The first person on my list never came to South Australia but his name is widely known. Charles Hansom, the architect of the first section of the cathedral, was a prominent English Catholic architect, based in Bristol, who designed churches, convents and other buildings in the gothic revival style.

The Gunson family

The Gunsons were the Catholic medical family in Adelaide for several generations. They attended the bishops, the clergy and the nuns. The first was John Michael Gunson, Irish by birth, who came to South Australia in 1852 and opened a medical practice.

Lady Galway (1876-1963)

Lady Galway was the wife of Sir Henry Galway, a retired army officer who was a tactless and controversial governor of South Australia during the First World War. When they married she was a widow, the Baroness Marie Carola Franciska Roselyne D’Erlanger.

John Aloysius FitzHerbert (1892-1970)

J.A. FitzHerbert was professor of Classics at the University of Adelaide from 1928 until his retirement in 1957 and the first Catholic to hold a professorial chair in South Australia.

William Joseph Denny (1872-1946)

W.J. Denny was attorney-general in three Labor governments in the early 20th century and the best-known Catholic politician in South Australia during that period.

Albert Augustine (Bert) Edwards (1888-1963)

Denny was a Catholic Labor politician who made it to power and influence. Bert Edwards embodies another stream: the Catholic Labor politician who was a loose canon and had a reputation.

Frank Walsh (1897-1968)

Frank Walsh was Labor premier of South Australia from 1965 to 1967. He was born at O’Halloran Hill, one of eight children of Irish-born parents, and was educated at Christian Brothers College.

James Govenlock (1918-1984)

James Govenlock, organist and director of music at the cathedral from 1949 until his death, was one of the most sensitive liturgical organists of his day in Adelaide.

Dame Roma Mitchell (1913-2000)

Dame Roma Mitchell hardly needs an introduction as the main outline of her life will be familiar to almost everyone here.

Throughout its history the cathedral has relied for much of its financial support on the gifts and fund-raising efforts of women, and it was women who donated many of the cathedral’s ornaments and furnishings. See the large number of women in the panels in the narthex listing the benefactors who enabled the extensions of 1926. However, the women have been much less prominent than the men so it is hard, without a good deal of research, to find out more than their names. However, we can identify a few of them. Mrs T.R. (Gertrude) Scarfe was the wife of Thomas Scarfe, one of the original directors of the firm Harris Scarfe, which began in the 1860s and became a company in 1900. The Scarfes were one of the leading business families in Adelaide: Thomas was an Anglican with a Catholic wife. Also on the list are the names of Mrs and Mrs F. Tennant. Frederick was a younger son of Andrew Tennant, a very wealthy pastoralist and company director. In 1914 he had married beneath what his Anglican and upper-class family expected. His wife Kathleen was the daughter of an Irish cab driver and variously described as a dancer and a beautician so Frederick became distanced from his family. The Tennants lived in a big house on the Esplanade at Glenelg. Kathleen Tennant became known in Adelaide society circles for her magnificent jewellery and dresses imported from Paris. At a ball in 1934 for the visit of the Duke of Gloucester she was the only woman present to wear a tiara. So she personified wealth and glamour.

Let us now look at some other women parishioners of the cathedral. The Misses Ellen and Margaret Considine lived in Considine Place near Whitmore Square. From the 1920s until the mid-1950s they ran the Catholic Depot in Gawler Place, initially close to the cathedral and later nearer the city centre. This was the shop where several generations of Adelaide Catholics bought their prayer books, statuettes, holy pictures and rosaries. There was Irene Kennedy who was matron of the Royal Adelaide Hospital from 1966 to 1973 and prominent in the Legion of Mary. There was Kathleen Brewer whose generosity enabled the creation in 1980 of the shrine of St Patrick in the cathedral. Bobbie Johnston who owned a commercial art gallery in 1994 donated proceeds from its sale to pay for the shrine of St Joseph. Lena Lewis (who had died in 1992) donated eleven bells for the tower, purchased from St Mary’s Cathedral in Sydney and installed in 1996. 

So what a varied crowd they are: such a range of people. One would like to bring them together in one room and see how they got along. Of all the churches in Adelaide, only at this cathedral would we see such a cross-section of humanity, and that has been its strength. I wonder who the notables of the next 50 and 150 years will be.