30 January 2018

Land sales resurrect old cathedral restoration

| John Thistleton
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Saints Peter and Paul’s Old Cathedral

Scaffolding hides a section of Saints Peter and Paul’s Old Cathedral. Photo: John Thistleton.

Demand for residential land in Goulburn has opened the way for a $500,000 loan followed by millions of dollars to complete restoration of Saints Peter and Paul’s unique greenstone cathedral.

An appeal launched in 2006 has raised and spent about $4 million on the complex project. Another $5 million is needed.

The Canberra Goulburn Archdiocese loan will pay for work to complete the tower restoration. Unsightly scaffolding hiding a significant corner of the landmark cathedral, the only one of its kind in Australia, should come down in 18 months if the next phase of work goes to plan.

Lifelong parishioner and appeal chairman Bob Stephens says a new revenue stream will complement local fundraising efforts. “(Archdiocese headquarters) Canberra wants to see us complete the task, and so we managed to do a deal with them,” says Mr Stephens, referring to the 50 per cent profits from an archdiocese residential development flanking the picturesque Wollondilly River, Joseph’s Gate.

“Anyway, it’s turned out to be a terrific project. I don’t know what we are going to realise off it, but it will be enough for restoration and other works,” Mr Stephens says.

On the northern fringe of Goulburn, the first three stages surround the old St Joseph’s orphanage. Of the 54 residential blocks, 45 have been sold. Blocks range from $180,000 to $215,000. Many more blocks will be released in subsequent stages. Those already sold have to be registered and developed, which will take 12 months. “After that the money starts flowing in,” Mr Stephens says.

“We were not going to get that $5 million through any other source other than adding value to church property (St Joseph’s). I would hate to be raising $5 million in the community now, it would be a 100 year job,” he says.

“In the meantime, we are in desperate need of $500,000 to complete the tower, Canberra has offered us an advance and is in the process of formalising that.”

Brian Watchirs

Restoration project manager Brian Watchirs beneath the tower, with stonework from the original 1848 church in the background. Photo: John Thistleton.

Provided the money arrives as planned and specialist trades people can be engaged, the overall project should be completed by 2021.

The edges of rare green porphyrite stone used to build the church are as sharp as they were when cut in the 1870s, but the foundations have needed underpinning, and more work is needed to fix dampness and decay. The last time significant work was done inside the old cathedral was 1928. Plate-sized sections of old paint are lifting off interior walls which are cracked, chipped and crumbling. Until issues like dampness are overcome, it has been pointless repairing walls and painting inside.

Former parish priest Father Laurie Blake re-launched the appeal – first started in 1983 – in 2006, when supporters declared the project would be completed in six years. Eleven years later after grants, donations and planning applications, the project is about half-way completed.

Restoration project manager Brian Watchirs says the most recent work restored the top third of the bell tower. Now the bottom two thirds and other exterior sections need work worth about $1.5 million.

Fundraising has stalled and a Royal Commission into institutional responses to child sexual abuse has made the task harder.

A former altar boy at the cathedral, Mr Stephens is under no illusion of the hurdles ahead. “Asking for money for the church is not all that popular these days, with all the challenges they’ve got. You can ask for money for a kid in an orphanage, but don’t ask any for the Catholic Church,” Mr Stephens says.

“The faithful recognise where the Royal Commission is going and what it is doing and there has to be compensation (for victims of sexual abuse). The church is dealing with that head on from the Pope down. It does impact on fundraising and we have to be mindful of that when we are approaching people,” says Mr Stephens.

Restored altar rails and brass fittings are in storage, awaiting to be re-installed at locations yet to be determined. Heating, lighting and the sound system will be enhanced. Mr Stephens says once everything is finished, including full colour on the stations of the cross, the imposing cathedral will be an even bigger tourist destination than it is today.

Why the long delay beyond 2012? “We didn’t know what we didn’t know,” says Mr Stephens. Getting specialist trades like stone restorers when money became available was tricky, says Mr Watchirs.

He says key people in NSW Heritage keep changing. “We have learned now to start from the beginning each time we apply for grants. We presumed they had a file on SS Peter and Paul’s Goulburn, but they don’t,” Mr Watchirs says.

“When we put the spire on, the bureaucratic involvement in that just about drove me bloody mad,” says Mr Stephens.

Mr Watchirs says one of Goulburn council’s complaints about the spire was the tower already exceeded by three metres the height restriction in the precinct, even though it pre-dated that restriction. As well, a sandstone quarry near Bundanoon was no longer an option for materials after Chinese interests bought it.

“I’m not worried about the timetable,” says Mr Stephens. “I visited Salisbury Cathedral in 2011 and they were in their 120th year of restoration. It just shows you what the faith does, just works on.’’

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