The current church at St Mary's was blessed and opened on 2nd July 1893. It replaced the first St Mary’s - a small wooden church built on the site of the present car park around 1864. The land on which it was built was a grant of land from the NSW government in 1859 (before news of the declaration of the state of Queensland became known). The chapel was expanded in 1868 when two aisles were added almost doubling its size. Sparsely inhabited in 1861, the population was only 1080, South Brisbane was a small but growing residential suburb. By 1871 the number of inhabitants had increased to 4222.
St Mary's original Chapel in South Brisbane, where Mary MacKillop taught in approx. 1870
In the 1880s, Brisbane experienced an economic and building boom and South Brisbane's population trebled, reaching 22,849 in 1891. South Brisbane was proclaimed a town, and many fine buildings were built, including a town hall and a library which still stand today.
The expansion of the population meant that the chapel was no longer adequate to the needs of the South Brisbane congregation and a meeting was held in August 1889 to discuss the construction of a new and larger church. The Catholic Church had begun acquiring allotments adjoining the original church reserve in 1884 and by 1889 it had amassed considerable land at the northwest end of the block bounded by Cordelia, Peel and Merivale Streets. Fundraising for the construction of a new church commenced in 1890 and by the end of 1891 half the cost of the building had been collected. Architects Simkin and Ibler produced drawings of the proposed church. An imposing edifice with Italianate and Romanesque revival details, it was designed to accommodate a congregation of 800 people.
George Simkin and John Ibler were architects practising in Brisbane in the 1880s who joined in partnership from 1889 to 1894. One of their early projects, the Breakfast Creek Hotel, is a well-known Brisbane landmark. Much of their work together was for the Roman Catholic Church and included important commissions such as Dara, Archbishop Dunne's residence at Petrie Bight, St Stephen's Roman Catholic Girls School, Charlotte Street, Brisbane and a convent for the Sisters of Mercy, now known as Cloisters, at Warwick. Simkin and Ibler worked in a variety of architectural styles and their designs are noted for an eclectic, sometimes flamboyant, use of ornament.
St Mary's approx. 1900
Cardinal Moran laid the foundation stone of the new church on the 25th September 1892 in a ceremony attended by Archbishop Dunne, Archbishop Carr and other high-ranking clergy. Blessed and opened by Archbishop Dunne on 2nd July 1893, St Mary's cost £2 150 to build. Despite the economic crisis and devastating floods of the early 1890s £1473 had already been raised for the project and a further £400 was collected at the opening. Due to the limited funds only part of the proposed church was built, the nave and aisles. The concrete rendering was postponed and several parts of the building including the eastern end and the rose window were temporarily constructed from timber. A description of the church as it appeared at its opening, noted the ample provision made for ventilation and the high altar installed in the new church that had previously been used at St Stephen's Cathedral.
From 1866 the original chapel had been a dual-purpose building also functioning as a school. After the opening of the new church it continued to be used as a school until 1909 when substantial new school buildings were built on the southwest portion of the site. The chapel then served as the infant's school until 1926 when extensions to the school incorporated rooms for infants. A substantial bell housed in a timber belfry was erected in 1914 adjacent to the church and in 1915 a convent for the Sisters of Mercy was constructed, diagonally opposite the school on the corner of Cordelia and Peel Streets. The most significant change to the church since its construction in 1893 was the completion of the sanctuary, including vestry and sacristy, in December 1929. Designed by Cavanagh and Cavanagh Architects in a similar manner to the original building, the sanctuary was constructed of reinforced concrete and brick by B Robinson. The third Archbishop of Brisbane, James Duhig, officially opened the additions. The interior of the chancel with its marble wall linings and altar rails, terrazzo floors, domed plaster ceiling and stained glass windows was more ornate than the rest of the church. A new marble altar by sculptor and monumental mason, Frank Williams of Ipswich, who carried out all the marble work, was installed. The original chapel, no longer required for school purposes, was demolished at this time.
With the influx of Catholic immigrants into the area after World War Two, St Mary's became an important gathering place for a number of ethnic groups. Prior to the war the Lebanese community had used the church for Mass, which was said by their own priest, until their church in Ernest Street was constructed. A variety of Catholic communities, who lived initially in South Brisbane after emigrating, were invited to use the church. Italian, Dutch, Polish, Lithuanian and Slovenian people attended St Mary's for services conducted by their own priests. The Dutch Men's Choir performed at the church during the 1950s and 1960s. As late as 1993, the Lithuanian and Slovenian communities regularly met at the church. The Lithuanians conducted a regular Sunday Mass. The Slovenians, whose priest lived in Sydney, used the church less frequently. A plaque in Lithuanian is mounted on a wall at St Mary's. The school closed in 1964 and the school, convent and belfry have since been demolished. The St Vincent de Paul centre now occupies the site of the school. Of the original complex of buildings at St Mary's only the church and presbytery, which has been substantially altered, remain.
The suburb of South Brisbane has changed dramatically since the town of South Brisbane was proclaimed in 1885. The town boundaries then included Kangaroo Point, Woolloongabba, Highgate Hill and West End, and St Mary’s was the main catholic church in that area. St Mary’s started a fund in 1885 to build a new church at Kangaroo Point and then started another fund in 1889 to build this new St Mary’s. Kangaroo Point then became a separate parish, and that reduced the population of South Brisbane. In the 1920’s a new church was built in the new parish of West End, reducing once again the population of South Brisbane and St Mary’s.
Another factor affecting St Mary’s was that the residential nature of South Brisbane declined dramatically in the 1920’s, as the railway and wharves contributed to a more industrial nature. Newer outer suburbs were opening up and these were more desirable areas for families.. South Brisbane became an area full of industries rather than full of family homes. People who had had long association with the church no longer lived in the area. By 1964, when the school closed, there was only a small residential area around the church, and by 1980, the church was an island in an industrial area, with a small congregation and no money.
By that time, the church needed painting and a new roof, and the presbytery was in poor condition. With the financial and practical help of devoted parishioner, Gordon Smith, the presbytery was painted and made liveable for Fr Peter Kennedy, the administrator of St Mary’s, and south east Qld prison chaplain. In 1985, while still prison chaplain, he had the church painted, inside and out, on a work release program for prisoners.
The church was placed on the State Heritage list in 2004, and that is when efforts were started to apply for funding from Federal and State bodies for maintenance and restoration work to be done on the Church. An architect was engaged to draw up a conservation management plan.
And then in 2006, the Brisbane City Council announced it would build a bridge across the river which would cause traffic to increase along Merivale Street, beside the church. The Council acknowledged that St Mary’s church was part of the South Bank Cultural Precinct, and they made an offer to the diocese to finance noise and dust reduction measures for St Mary’s - problems that were anticipated with the increased traffic from the new bridge.
Hence the installation of air conditioners and an air flow system, the repair and sealing of the doors and windows, with the restoration of the leadlight and stained glass windows and double glazing. All of this work was/is being overseen by City Council heritage and acoustic consultants, and is managed by the archdiocesan property and building officers.
Timeline History of St Mary's Catholic Parish
||The NSW Dept of Land & Public Works wrote to the Vicar General of Sydney diocese that there was no objection to the appropriation of land applied for, for R.C. Church purposes, at the intersection of Merivale & Peel Sts, South Brisbane.
||The small wooden chapel of St Mary was the first Catholic church in the South Brisbane “mission” of the Brisbane diocese, covering all the area across the river from the established town of Brisbane.
||St Mary’s became a schoolroom during the week, with a pupil teacher Mary O’Meara, working under the auspices of the Sisters of Mercy.
||The Sisters of St Joseph under Mother Mary MacKillop took over the schooling at St Mary’s. The Sisters’ Convent was established in a former hotel in nearby Montague Rd, South Brisbane. After 10 years of working there, the Sisters of St Joseph were removed from Queensland by Mother Mary MacKillop following the difficulties encountered with Bishop James Quinn.
During these years, a church and school were established at Kangaroo Point, catering for those Catholics on the eastern end of the South Brisbane ‘parish’.
||The Sisters of Mercy took over the teaching at St Mary‘s, but were living still at All Hallow’s across the river.
||The parish of South Brisbane was formally established and a presbytery built to house the appointed parish priest. The foundation stone was laid for a new large church.
||In February, a huge flood of the Brisbane River damaged the Victoria bridge, severing road contact with the north side of Brisbane.
The new church was opened on 2nd July beside the small wooden chapel , but not finished to its design.
||A new convent primary school was opened, on the Cordelia St side of the church. The original chapel now became the Infant school.
||The Sisters of Mercy built a convent on the corner of Cordelia and Peel Sts, completing the cluster of parish buildings. This was probably a peak time of attendance at the church and the school
|| the development of wharves and the railway along the inner city area of the river severely impacted on the residential area around St Mary’s.
||Major works were completed in the parish - a new sanctuary added to the church, an infant section added to the school, and the original small wooden chapel demolished. By this time the parish of West End was established with a church and a school, and this catered for the large residential area in the south-east region of the former South Brisbane parish - further depleting the residential area around St Mary’s.
||Many migrants families moved into the area, and St Mary’s became a Mass centre for four groups - Polish, Dutch, Lithuanian and Slovenian. South Brisbane now known as an industrial area rather than a residential area.
||The convent school closed
||The Sisters of Mercy convent closed
||The last parish priest left. St Mary’s was deemed to be no longer a parish. The people attending church services numbered no more than 50.
A St Vincent de Paul hostel for homeless men opened on the site of the former school.
Fr Peter Kennedy was appointed Prison Chaplain for south-east Queensland and Administrator of St Mary’s. In September 1980 he moved into the presbytery at South Brisbane.
||Fr Peter building house on land at Numinbah Valley with plans for a spirituality centre there, while still operating three weekend church services at St Mary’s. Numbers of people attending these services increasing. Few of those attending live locally - people come from all areas of and around Brisbane.
||People challenged by Fr Peter to be more involved if wanting things to happen at St Mary’s, because of his work at Numinbah. First ’gathering day’ held with about 90 people attending. Decision to form three groups to look at how St Mary’s might move forward as a community and under what sort of leadership.
||Elected Leadership Team in place. Part-time liturgy worker and community-worker employed. Attendances at weekend liturgies around 800.
||Establishment of Micah Projects. Leadership team and community worker resign. Decision by Fr Peter to take back control of the community and to work more closely with Micah Projects. Fr Terry Fitzpatrick and Fr Peter Kennedy financially supported by the community. A part-time liturgy worker was employed by the community.
||~ A community council was appointed
~ Focus of community was social justice and hospitality
~ Numbers attending St Mary's slowly decreased until 2004, and then gradually increased again. In 2008 there was a sharp increase in numbers
~ The liturgy had changed over the years, welcomed by many, but not by all. Changes from 2004 onwards caused some people to leave, but others to attend. In 2008 the changes were challenged by the Archdiocese.
~ From the end of April, Fr Peter Kennedy and all of those who support him, no longer attend St Mary's.
The Dean of St Stephen's Cathedral is appointed the Admininstrator of St Mary's.
Micah Projects Ltd moved out of the parish house at the end of June.
||Fr. Ken Howell celebrates the first Mass of his administration on 25th April before a large crowd of interested observers. A large press contingent is also on hand, probably hoping for some sensational happening. However, the ceremony runs smoothly and is a memorable religious experience.
A new nucleus of dedicated parishioners then became the regular congregation at St. Mary’s. As well as the clergy from the Cathedral, a large group of generous priests give their time to celebrate Masses. Homilies are always interesting as the congregation is treated to fresh aspects of the scripture from so many viewpoints. Numbers attending steadily increase. Fr. Ken quickly organises regular parish meetings and sets up a support network and resources to assist his administration.
||Special celebrations occur when Mary MacKillop’s canonisation is scheduled. Members of the Josephite community attend as Archbishop Bathesby visits South Brisbane to celebrate Mass and also blesses the newly installed icon of the then Blessed Mary MacKillop, patroness of the Brisbane Archdiocese. Later in the year the world watches as St. Mary of the Cross MacKillop is canonised on 17th October.
The Go-between Bridge opens and the Brisbane City Council approves a grant for St. Mary’s to make refurbishments to reduce traffic noise.
The church corrugated iron roof is able to be replaced, thanks to a very generous donation.
||The Prisons Chaplaincy returns to use the parish house as its office thus helping the parish finances.
Air-conditioning and airflow systems are installed as part of the BCC grant.
Painting of the church begins and plans for the replacement and repair of stained glass windows is in place.