Pub: Sydney Morning Herald
A prayer at the altar of permanency
In Parramatta the Catholic Church tries yet again to build an enduring home, writes Elizabeth Farrelly.
Cathedrals are architecture’s tortoises. Agonisingly slow in the making, slower still to evolve and tagged never to be removed, they are our admonishers against fashion and impatience; our exemplars of longevity; our shells of concretised time.
The St Patrick’s site in Parramatta, though, has hosted by both accident and design no fewer than four churches in a mere 175-year eye-blink.
May the new incumbent, a cathedral this time and from the revered pencil of Romaldo Giurgola, prove more blessed in the endurance department.
Church Street, Parramatta, is named for St John’s Anglican of which the Rev “Flogging” Sam Marsden was founding chaplain and runs kilometres across town. Marist Place, home to St Pat’s Catholic, gets to convert a mere half-block of Marsden Street.
Of course Catholics were not the sole beneficiaries of Marsden’s bloody, boundless zeal, but Australia’s first Catholic Mass took place nevertheless in a jail, on a corner of what is now Prince Alfred Park, on May 22, 1803.
Even then, permission to erect so much as a temporary Catholic chapel at Parramatta was withheld until 1827. But since that time, the community has made up in turnover what it lacked in acceleration. Now church No 5 is under way, designed by Giurgola and furnished by some of our most finely tuned artists.
Parramatta’s first Catholic church, a clergy-designed Georgian box described by the archbishop himself as “shapeless”, sat unfinished until 1836, by which time a second, bigger Georgian basilica was nearing completion close by.
This, the first St Patrick’s Parramatta, was scarcely more enduring, being demolished in the 1850s for a Pugin design, one of a number imported by said archbishop, John Bede Polding, in 1842.
A.W.N. Pugin Augustus Welby Northmore to his pals was a Catholic convert, fervent gothicist and architect of breathtaking energy.
Surviving three marriages to produce eight children, dozens of publications, countless buildings and yet more imitators before dying of exhaustion at 40, he is sometimes credited with single-handedly generating England’s gothic revival. Without Pugin, it is argued, there could have been no William Morris or G.E. Street, no Webb, Rossetti or Burne-Jones.
In this context, the Parra-matta Pugin looks relatively modest; a simple six-bay nave in the austere early English style with octagonal iron-clad spire and decorated gothic sanctuary including double lancets, carved cedar reredos and white marble altar as mandated by Pugin’s doctrine of design propriety. Too modest, perhaps; in 1935 it was demolished and rebuilt, to a design by Clement Glancey snr with double the capacity.
Mercifully, the Depression dictated recycling. The 1850s sandstone blocks were split to increase their coverage, with brick substituted wherever possible and much of the Puginian detail carved bosses and gargoyles, copings and reveals, cornices, crosses and corbels redeployed. Until that spectacular arson attack of 1996.
The cathedral was gutted windows smashed, shingles incinerated, trusses curled, furniture trashed, stone spalled. But disaster also offered renewal; Mitchell Giurgola Thorpe was appointed and options weighed until a master plan was reached, extending the existing cathedral (rather than building anew) and demolishing all buildings on site but three; burnt cathedral, heritage presbytery and current presbytery, 1950s redbrick.
The brief required an 800-seat worship space, linked axially to the original which would act thenceforth as entry space, aligning narthex (or vestibule), baptistery and blessed sacrament chapel, in that order. This meant replacing the old, northern, Victoria Road entrance with new doors at the old church’s south end and attaching the new nave near the centre of its side wall.
Also on the wish list were a large paved forecourt, 70-space car park and 400-seat parish hall linked by cloister to the new cathedral. An entire precinct, plus artworks. No small ask, for $12 million all up.
The result is intelligent, elegant, coherent and possibly beautiful, bringing graciousness and order where there was abrupt disjunction.
As well, though and here’s the rub the brief required observance of “current liturgical practice as mandated by the Second Vatican Council”. Of course the extent to which Vatican II, with its demystifying focus on simplicity, utility and congregational eye-contact, actually required “Mass in the round” is still a matter of some debate.
Cambridge scholar Eamon Duffy, for one, argued recently that making the priest as opposed to, say, the rising sun the focus of attention has fostered “a depressing clericalism quite at odds with the teaching of the council”, depriving the Catholic eucharist of that expectant reverence that was once its essence.
At St Patrick’s, however, Vatican II has had particular and significant architectural impact, arranging pews not across the nave, as is traditional, but along it, on a series of gentle curves around the altar.
An ephemeral gesture, perhaps. But one which, cemented in place by raking concrete floors (to ensure mutual congregational eye-contact) and resonating throughout the liturgical layout cross, cathedra, ambo, hovering aureole and the 11-tonne altar itself, profoundly affects the spatial semantic of the whole.
It is, to my admittedly heathen mind, a loss; driven as much by what Dr Duffy calls our “modern emphasis on the present experience of community”, that is, politics as by theological precept.
Call me old-fashioned, but I reckon God is less about here, us, now than the yet-to-be-realised. This makes worship essentially mysterious and aspiring, suiting an architecture of shadow, as much as light; direction, as much as stasis. It makes me a Latin Mass Luddite, with absolutely no qualification for the role. More significantly, it supports gothic’s claim to be what Pugin called the true Christian or Pointed Architecture.
But where might it direct the modern architect, labouring on what Giurgola’s assistant, Pamille Berg, describes as this most “privileged and risky enterprise, trying to give form to the most important thing in people’s lives their spiritual practice”?
The new cathedral will be a many-splendoured thing; grand in scale, simple in conception, beautifully crafted, not least by artists Anne Ferguson, Robin Blau and Kevin Perkins, working in stone, metal and wood, respectively, and flooded with light.
Not quite up there, perhaps, with Rafael Moneo’s breathtaking new $200 million Our Lady of the Angels in Los Angeles, with its fountain courts and walls of lucent alabaster, but strong, real and joyously habitable nevertheless.
My tentative fear regret, if proved relates to a bright worldliness, endorsed by the centralised plan, flattish ceiling (with spinal Louis Kahn lantern) and sheer numbers of lux flooding through that two-metre clerestory, plus extra clear-glazed windows, around the nave.
Just as the Age of Reason’s flat-ceilinged churches seemed to take the god out of gothic, so modernity appears compelled, in its devotion to light over darkness and “now” over “then”, to obliterate the mysterious Other.
Within the old cathedral, by contrast, now a smooth white ghost of its cremated ex-self, will gather swathes of relative gloom; here, near Ferguson’s serenely beautiful in-floor font, a shaft of penetrating light would be welcome. A lantern at this point would note the crossing, as old axis clicks its heels to new, and if anything enhance one’s sense of ritualised nexus with things spiritual.
It is clear, in an era when churches compete for market share, that the successful ones emphasise success they focus more, not less, on worldly self-interest. And light, in any case, can be modified post-hoc.
If Parramatta proves LA’s Cardinal Mahony right, moreover, and cathedrals become a twice-a-millennium experience, as opposed to twice-a-century there’ll be plenty of time for tweaking.
ILLUS: Spires dreaming …
the new St Patrick’s cathedral under construction in Parramatta.
Photo: Jennifer Soo