In Pursuit of a Catholic Cathedral for Canberra: A History of the 'Cathedral Hill' Site

By Flannery, David | Journal of the Australian Catholic Historical Society, Annual 2003 | Go to article overview

In Pursuit of a Catholic Cathedral for Canberra: A History of the 'Cathedral Hill' Site


Flannery, David, Journal of the Australian Catholic Historical Society


In the early years of Canberra's development as Australia's national capital, the pursuit of cathedral sites by the Christian denominations in the city was a protracted endeavour. Theft allocation by the Commonwealth was, at times, a vexatious subject. This paper chronicles the desire and attempts by the Catholic Church to establish a national centre for worship in Canberra on a site known as 'Cathedral Hill',--a parcel of land, adjacent to Commonwealth Avenue, with commanding views over Lake Burley Griffin and the Parliamentary Triangle to the south. It is well known today as the location of the Catholic Archbishop's House constructed in 1931.

The story commences with the 1929 proposal for a grand and monumental cathedral there, and then discusses the 1978 concept for a smaller church building to be called the National Shrine. Both these buildings were never constructed.

Canberra--the National Capital

After the federation of the Australian colonies in 1901, the search commenced in earnest for a location for the new Federal Capital. Wrangling between politicians from the two most populous and already well-established cities of Sydney and Melbourne ensured that a neutral site should be chosen for the location of the Parliament and its administrative public service. In October 1909, after a prolonged and controversial investigation, the Federal Parliament gave approval to the definition of boundaries for the new federal territory, centred on a site for a new city on the Molonglo River. The Federal Capital Territory formally came into being in January 1911 and the name Canberra was announced by Lady Denman in a lavish ceremony on Capital Hill in March 1913.

Planning for the city commenced in 1911 with the announcement of an international competition for its design. This was won by American, Walter Burley Griffin, ably assisted by his wife Marion Mahoney, whose magnificent illustrations were included in his competition submission. Sadly, however, due to interference and harassment by the Departmental Board (1), which was overseeing the implementation of his plan, Griffin was forced to leave Australia in 1920. This, coupled with the cessation of most development during the war years, prevented any significant physical progress to be made on the development of Canberra until the early 1920s, when revived enthusiasm for the establishment of the capital allowed the transfer of Parliament to occur on 9 May 1927.

Throughout the 1920s, in this climate of rejuvenated excitement, much interest in Canberra and its development was generated within the Australian population, not the least of which came from the churches. Walter Burley Griffin's 1911 plan for Canberra included sites for the two major denominations, Catholic and Anglican. These, however, were proposed in separate parts of the city consistent with the division of suburbs for workers on the northern side of the Molonglo River and government officers on its southern side. But with the establishment of the Federal Capital Advisory Committee (FCAC) in 1921, which became the Federal Capital Commission (FCC) in 1924, the Government recommended and approved alternative cathedral sites, thus totally disregarding Griffin's intention.

The pursuit of a Catholic site

Canberra's first Catholic Parish Priest was Father Patrick Maurice Haydon (1890-1949). He was ordained and appointed as assistant priest in Queanbeyan in 1912; elevated to Parish Priest in 1918 upon the transfer to Campbelltown of the previous incumbent, Fr Matthew Hogan; and worked tirelessly there until his Canberra appointment in 1928. McGilvray writes:

   For over twenty-one years he was to guide
   the destiny of the Catholic community, and
   he became as much a part of Australia's Capital
   as any man. Historians of the future will
   link his name with those of other notable figures
   who played conspicuous parts in the
   epic story of Canberra's beginnings. … 

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