Day 124: For Whom the Bell Tolls

St Stephen's Cathedral bell

The Catholic Church can usually lay claim to the finest cathedral in any city, but in Brisbane a big old bell is part of its claim to fame.

Although plans to build the biggest and best cathedral of any denomination in the southern hemisphere went amiss, St Stephen’s is still a fine cathedral and its grandeur earns its place in the ABC (another bloody cathedral) of any good tourist.

St Stephen's Cathedral
St Stephen’s Cathedral

But it’s the cathedral bell in the grounds that is truly intriguing. It had auspicious beginnings and is in excellent company.

It was cast at the Whitechapel Bell Foundry in London, which was founded in 1570 and is the oldest manufacturing company in Great Britain.

In 1752, more than a century before the Brisbane bell was commissioned, the foundry had produced the famous Liberty Bell, the symbol of American independence, now located in Philadelphia.

And 30 years before, in 1858, the foundry cast its biggest-ever bell, London’s famous Big Ben, which weighs 13.5 tons.

The St Stephen’s bell weighs 2.856 tonnes and arrived in Brisbane in July 1887, on board the RMS Dacca. It was donated to the church by a Mrs Kelly of Boundary St who stumped up the £250 to buy it.

St Stephen's Cathedral
The original St Stephen’s church is the oldest in Brisbane. Its belltower is tiny.

In April 1888, the bell “of very large size” was blessed by Archbishop Robert Dunne and The Brisbane Courier reported its chief duty would be to “warn the faithful of the hours of divine service”.

The Courier gives a long report of the pomp and ceremony of the day and summed up “Once consecrated, it cannot be used for any but sacred purposes.”

I’m not sure quite where the bell hung or how, at that weight, they got it up to where it had to go.

St Stephen's Cathedral bell
The bell with the chapel in the background

The only sign of a belltower today is on top of the original St Stephen’s church which squats beside the cathedral in Elizabeth St and it certainly wouldn’t have fitted there. Even if it did fit, it’s unlikely the old sandstone church could have carried its weight.

The bell itself now sits firmly on concrete blocks in a courtyard at the rear of the cathedral, where various bypassers have taken the trouble to scratch their initials into its last coat of paint.

The St Stephen’s story starts in 1846, when with 30 per cent of the Brisbane settlement being Catholic, the first church was soon under way. It opened in 1850, and is the oldest surviving church in Queensland.

Made in the gothic revival style of many a small English church, it is of locally quarried sandstone, although its shingle roof has been replaced by slate.

After separation and the birth of Queensland in 1859, the Archdiocese of Brisbane was created and the little church declared a cathedral.

This of course, was never going to work with the flock growing rapidly and by 1874, the more impressive structure next door, had opened its heavy wooden doors.

Mary MacKillop St Stephen's Cathedral
The image of Saint Mary MacKillop was carved from a 100-year-old camphor laurel tree

The old church became a schoolroom and later a storeroom, offices, meeting area and for choir practice – but it did survive demolition.

Today it is the dedicated St Stephen’s Chapel and has a shrine to St Mary MacKillop, who lived briefly at Kangaroo Point and is Patron of the Archdiocese of Brisbane.

Her unusual sculpture, by Brisbane artist John Elliott, was carved from the trunk of a 100-year-old old camphor laurel and the relic set into the stone near the shrine is a piece of the original coffin in which Mary MacKillop was buried.

St Stephen's Cathedral
St Stephen’s Cathedral

The cathedral itself was built over decades, each generation adding embellishments and making improvements.

The spires were added in 1884 and marble and stained glass installed. It has some of the finest stained glass windows in Australia and although it is magnificent, it’s the bell in the garden that makes it unique.


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