St Francis Xavier’s, on the end of Wakefield Street just of Victoria Square, is the major Roman Catholic church in Adelaide, the City of Churches. It takes its name from St Francis Xavier who was proclaimed patron of foreign missions by Pope Pius X.

The foundation stone for the Cathedral Church of St Francis Xavier (to give it its official name) was laid by the Vicar General, Father Michael Ryan on St Patrick’s Day, 17 March, 1856 and the first part of the Cathedral, reputedly modeled on Byland Abbey in Yorkshire, England, opened on 11 July 1858.

Personally, I see little or no resemblance to Byland Abbey (ruins). Perhaps its original incarnation was more closely aligned than the present day version.

The church was cleverly designed so that it could be built in stages as funding permitted. In the early days of the Colony of South Australia, the Catholics were the poor cousins of the Anglicans and other Protestant denominations and, indeed, the first part of the Cathedral might not have been built as early as it was were it not for a generous 1854 bequest by William Leigh, a friend of the Bishop, from Woodchester in England. The church’s financial woes worsened in the early 1850s with a flight of those parishioners who had money (including the cathedral’s architect (also Colonial Architect), Richard Lambert) to the Victoria goldfields. These were gold rush days.

Lambert never returned to Adelaide and it was subsequently discovered that his plans were a plagiarised version of a set of plans previously drawn by eminent English architect, Charles Hansom. Hansom replaced Lambert as the Cathedral’s architect and the Cathedral was built, on foundations designed by Lambert, to a toned down version (to save money) of Hanson’s original plans.

Sadly, Bishop Murphy who was the main inspiration behind the Cathedral, did not live to see its opening, dying on 27 April 1858. The good bishop was, however, buried beneath the sanctuary of the cathedral. A brass plaque marks the spot within the Cathedral.

Since 1858 the Cathedral has been extended four times. These extensions took place in 1860, 1887,1926 and, most recently, in 1996 when the upper part of the tower was added allowing for a formal dedication of the ‘finished’ Cathedral to occur, on the 11th of July 1996.

Above is a 1971 picture of the Cathedral prior to the tower being completed – courtesy of the National Trust.

In researching this review I came across a most intriguing piece of ‘comparative analysis’ (ok, there was a dispute over how churches should be funded going on at the time) on Catholics v Protestants and on this Cathedral v the Congregational Church on Freeman Street, in which the Reverend Thomas Quinton Stow was pastor at the time. The Freeman Street church, since gone, is not to be confused with the later rather delightful Stow Memorial Church, now the Pilgrim Uniting Church, at 12 Flinders Street. The article was published on 26 April 1857 in the Mercury and Sporting Chronicle, as St Francis Xavier’s was being built:

‘……Whatever opinions may be entertained of their* peculiar tenets, it is an indisputable fact that throughout the Australian colonies, they exhibit a greater amount of practical attachment both to doctrines and interests of their Church than all the Protestant sects put together, and we desire no better illustration of the beauties of voluntaryism than a comparison of this magnificent temple with the gamboge-colored dog-kennel in which Mr Stow does the pastoral.’

*the Catholics

Magnificent as the cathedral was, during construction in 1857, it is all the more beautiful today and is one of the finest examples of Early English Gothic Revival style, architecture in Australia, strongly influenced by English Gothic Revivalist architect, Peter Paul Pugin (who was the architect for the significant 1887 extension and whose work heavily influenced the 1926 extension).

During that 1926 extension, architect, CH Bagot, incorporated a significant amount of catholic symbolism around the number seven into the structure of the Cathedral. Catholics have seven sacraments and there are seven gifts of the Holy Spirit and seven fruits of the Holy Spirit.

In today’s Cathedral there are, among other sevens:

Seven entrances to the cathedral
Seven small gables on the roof
Seven freestone arches separating the nave from the aisles, and
Seven pairs of slim Gothic windows.

Also, I read, that if you stand near the altar and look towards the rose-window you will see seven beams of light. It being cloudy on the day of my interior visit I was not able to put this claim to the test.


This is one of those building which, irrespective of your faith, or lack of faith, you cannot help but admire due, as much to its stunning architecture as to its serene and beautiful interior.

Inside, the cathedral is very welcoming with beautiful amber lighting towards the back penetrating in through small panes of glass in the Cathedral’s large internal doors and subdued lighting, elsewhere, via its multitude of stain glass windows. While most of the items I comment are at ground level don’t forget to look up and see the gorgeous woodwork supporting the roof, especially that in the nave.


Ok, so what’s in here worthy a special look?

In front of main altar, on the ground, you will see a brass plaque marking the grave of Bishop Murphy, Adelaide’s first Catholic Bishop and the inspiration behind this cathedral though, as I have indicated earlier, he died around four months before it was formally opened in 1858. By way of slight digression, it is interesting to note that while there are countless churches within the square kilometre marking the centre of Adelaide, only two people are buried within the area, Bishop Murphy and William Light. Light was the Colony of South Australia’s first Surveyor-General and thus planner of Adelaide (see other reviews) and is buried in Light Square, a short distance west of the Cathedral.

Talking of Bishop Murphy, it is worth mentioning, even though you are unlikely to get to see it unless they include it on the tours to which I refer below, that the Cathedral’s main bell, cast in memory of Bishop Murphy in 1859 and called the Murphy Bell, is one of 13 bells located in the tower, the upper part of which wasn’t added until 1996.

While looking at the main altar it is worth noting that its top is the cathedral’s original altar top and has five crosses, representing the five wounds of Christ carved into it. Behind the altar you will not fail to notice the great southern window dominating the chancel, the three windows of which depict six scenes from the life of Jesus and Mary, the crucifixion of Christ taking prime place on the centre window.

To the right of the altar, facing the south window is the Cathedra (Archbishop’s Chair) and pulpit – barely discernible in my main picture.

The cathedra is carved from a beam of cedar from the Sydney home of William Davis where the Blessed Sacrament was stored following the imprisonment and deportation, in 1818, of the only priest then in Sydney, Fr Jeremiah O’Flynn.

O’Flynn seems to have been a bit of a character. Prior to his arrival in Australia he had run foul of the church and authorities on numerous occasions at home, in Ireland, and in the West Indies. Indeed, he had been specifically requested not to go to Australia (his intent being to minster to Irish convicts) by the church in Dublin and the Colonial Office in London, on account of his insufficient education and poor command of English. Deported from Australia (too high a risk in the new Colony), by the Governor of New South Wales, not an easy feat in itself given that the traffic of Irish people at the time was almost exclusively inbound to Australia, O’Flynn returned to Ireland and thence the West Indies. Within a short time he was banished from San Domingo and went to Philadelphia where he became embroiled in a conflict. After that he returned to San Domingo only to be expelled again. He returned to Philadelphia and Susquehanna County where he ministered to a group of Irish Catholics without further incident until his death in 1831.

I fear I have digressed.

The pulpit, which is dedicated to those who died in World War I, was carved by a local wood carver in a fourteenth century style and depicts grapes and vines, symbolising the Eucharist.


Just back from the altar on the west wall is a small shrine to St Joseph (pictured above). This contains a statue of St Joseph and a young Jesus together with an interesting bas-relief depicting the ‘Flight into Egypt’. The flight into Egypt is related in the Gospel of Mathew and tells of Joseph and Mary fleeing into Egypt with their infant son, Jesus, after learning of King Herod’s intention to kill the infants in his realm having heard of the birth of a newborn ‘King of the Jews’ – Jesus. Herod wasn’t up for competition. The statue and bas-relief were crafted by B. van Zetten in 1994.

106Directly across the Cathedral, on the east wall, is another small shrine, this time to St Patrick, the patron of the Archdiocese  and, of course, patron saint of Ireland. St Patrick, whose statue here was carved by Mrs L Mimovich, needs no introduction from me – I hear you breath a sigh of relief!

The rear (or rather north end) of the Cathedral is given over to the Great Rose Window and the choir loft. A closer look at the window will reveal pictures of the four Evangelists, Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John and a number of saints including St Francis Xavier, after whom the Cathedral is named.

Before winding up this review I would like to tell you, if I may,  about a few things at the northern end (the main entry area) of the Cathedral.

The pictures above depict the beautiful interior entry doors to the central nave of the Cathedral which, to be honest, are my favourite feature in the Cathedral. In addition to loving the woodwork itself I like the inclusion of various coats of arms, etc. in the glass. Looking outwards from the nave, into the light, you can see coats of arms of various popes, bishops and the City of Adelaide. Also featured are a phoenix, a pelican, Baptism and the Eucharist.

Just inside the beautiful internal doors are the baptismal font and accompanying statue of St John the Baptist. The octagonal font and statue were carved in Tuscany in 1925. Both items look particularly good in the amber light seeping in through the stain glass windows.

While the display of regimental colours is common in Anglican and various other Protestant churches I have rarely seen them in Catholic places of worship. For this reason it is worthy of particular note. The colours here belong to the 43rd and 2/43rd Infantry Battalions of the AIF (Australian Imperial Forces). The colours were laid up in the Cathedral in 13 December 1964 and honour the memory of 606 officers and men killed and 1937 injured in World Wars I and II. In 1995 the colours were rededicated to commemorate the 50th Anniversary of the landing of the 2/43rd Battalion on Labuan Island, North Borneo.

I strongly encourage you the visit this Cathedral should you have the opportunity to visit Adelaide.

A few practicalities for your visit

Opening hours – 7:30am until 6:30pm daily

A short self-guided tour pamphlet – ‘10 Minute Cathedral Tour’ is available in the vestibule. I do however recommend you linger longer than ten minutes to soak up the atmosphere of this place.

Guided tours, which must (oddly) be booked two weeks in advance, are offered on Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday, they begin between 9.30am & 10.00am and between 1.30pm & 2.00pm.

The Cathedral has an extensive offering of masses and other religious activities, details of which can be found on its website.

Address: 39 Wakefield St
Directions: Just off Victoria Square, east side.
Website: http://www.adelcathparish.org/

For my next Adelaide – CITY EAST review click HERE.
For other Adelaide reviews click HERE.

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