St Joseph's Cathedral

The history of St Joseph’s Cathedral Rockhampton is woven like a tapestry through the history of the Bishops of the diocese.

To date, each of the nine Rockhampton Bishops has contributed to its present magnificence. St Joseph’s Catholic Cathedral has stood for over a century on the inner city corner of William and West Streets, Rockhampton.  Its architecture and beauty and the magnitude of its stature, make it a focal point of the Rockhampton Diocese.  It is as much for the people of the Diocese as visitors.


St Joseph’s features a particularly fine black and white chequered Italian marble floor, sandstone block construction and authentic leadlight windows hand-crafted in England. These windows depict themes from the New Testament. Balancing the sandstone and tile construction is the deliberate use of timber, creating a warm and natural atmosphere. Compared to modern church design, the design of St Joseph’s and its character remind us of the transcendence of God.

It was 3 May 1862, when Brisbane’s Bishop Quinn sent two priests on a pastoral visit to the small flock of Catholic settlers in Rockhampton. Fr James Scully and Fr Patrick Duhig arrived on the ship ‘Clarence’ to celebrate the first Mass in the Court House with fewer than fifty Catholics.

Before returning to Brisbane two weeks later, they appointed collectors to raise funds to build a church.  Dedicated to St Joseph, the new church, on the corner of Derby and Alma Streets, was blessed and opened on 4 January 1863 by Fr J Moynahan from Brisbane, who came to look after the infant church.

In November that year, Fr Charles Murlay (later Dean Murlay) was appointed to the Rockhampton Diocese which at that time extended from Gladstone to Townsville and west to Blackall. Fr Murlay established a vital Catholic community in Rockhampton during his twenty years as parish priest.

In 1876 Bishop Quinn suggested that Dean Murlay purchase a site suitable for a cathedral and initiate a building fund. The deeds for the land were secured on 3 February 1877, and before Dean Murlay left Rockhampton in 1883, his committee had raised 4000 pounds. On 21 May 1882, Bishop John Cani was consecrated the first Bishop of Rockhampton. Plans were completed for the cathedral by 1892. The architect was FDG Stanley of Brisbane. Two years later tenders were called and construction began on 11 June 1894. Bishop Cani laid the memorial stone on St Patrick’s Day 1895. The building stone was quarried at Stanwell, 24 kilometres west of Rockhampton. The quarry’s leasehold had been acquired by Bishop Cani for a mere fifty pounds.

Economic recession, a lack of money, and a building fund not equal to the debt brought work to a halt. Possession was denied, and Bishop Cani was to die before his vision was fulfilled. On 23 July 1902, his remains were transferred from the cemetery and buried at the cathedral (to the left as you enter). His epitaph reads: “With reverent hands he helped to build this stately cathedral but a nobler monument was his saintly life and tender love of the orphans.”

Bishop Higgins arrived on 20 July 1899 to a cathedral building with only three walls and without fittings or furniture. Within two months, thanks to the generosity of several people, the Cathedral was completed with a temporary wall costing 323 pounds.

On Sunday 15 October 1899, Cardinal Moran, Archbishop of Sydney, celebrated Pontifical High Mass and preached to open the Cathedral. St Joseph’s has occupied much time and energy of subsequent Rockhampton Bishops. Many of the Cathedral’s historic stained glass windows were commissioned and installed during Bishop Higgins’ six years episcopacy.

Rockhampton’s third Bishop, the Most Rev Dr James Duhig, was involved in paying off substantial cathedral debts before his transfer to Brisbane in 1912. During the seventeen year episcopate of Bishop Joseph Shiel, the Cathedral’s flying buttresses were found to be insecure and were removed and strengthened in 1918.

Definite plans by Bishop Romuald Hayes to complete St Joseph’s by Easter 1949 – the Cathedral’s Golden Jubilee – were prevented by the outbreak of war and his death in 1945. The war brought new concerns for St Joseph’s priceless stained-glass windows. Concerned about damage, Bishop Hayes ordered their removal from St Joseph’s in March 1942. It is believed they were railed to the nearby Neerkol orphanage to be buried underground and retrieved and resurrected in peaceful times.

Bishop Andrew Tynan also made plans to complete the Cathedral, but he too died suddenly in June 1960 before work was begun. The 1960s saw Bishop Francis Rush make renovations to St Joseph’s before his transfer to Brisbane. It was not until 1980 that the eighth Bishop of Rockhampton, Bishop Bernard Wallace, acted on expert advice that the temporary rear wall was unsafe and endangered the structure.

After much planning and successful fundraising, his plans to complete St Joseph’s were finally fulfilled. Bishop Bernard Wallace effected the completion of St Joseph’s in simple Gothic style in harmony with the whole building. On 22 May 1982, His Eminence, Sir James Cardinal Freeman, Archbishop of Sydney, dedicated the completed St Joseph’s.

The elements of nature were to provide the next chapter in the history of the Cathedral. In 1987 St Joseph’s Cathedral Administrator, Fr Bryan Hanifin, announced that the historic, irreplaceable stained-glass windows were extensively damaged and in need of urgent repair. A massive operation saw the windows returned to their manufacturers in England, John Hardiman Studios, where workers took out each piece of glass and replaced the lead.

New windows were commissioned and inserted in the newly-constructed east wall over a period of years during the completion of the back wall. The weekday Mass chapel behind the main altar features the bright Resurrection window, complemented by the more subdued windows of the Crucifixion and Pentecost. In the Blessed Sacrament Chapel behind the Tabernacle are windows illustrating the theme of the Last Supper.

On the other side of the weekday Mass chapel, expressing devotion to Our Lady, are the Rosary windows depicting Annunciation, the Visitation, the Nativity, the Presentation and the Finding in the Temple. More than 100 years after Bishop Cani’s arrival in Rockhampton in 1882, the vision to complete St Joseph’s Cathedral was fulfilled by the dedication of Rockhampton’s eighth Bishop, the most Rev Bernard Wallace.

This material is taken from a publication that was produced in October 1990 to commemorate his time as Bishop of Rockhampton – 23 April 1974 to 4 May 1990.



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