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Darwin - Cathedral



St. Mary's Star of the Sea Cathedral

The idea of the War Memorial Cathedral in Darwin was actually first mooted by war troops stationed there after St. Mary's Church had been severely damaged in an air-raid in 1942.  The troops had a close affinity with St. Mary's while they were in Darwin.  Some of the Chaplains were MSCs and the troops worshipped at St. Mary's which was, and still is, the garrison Church.

As Darwin grew after the war, the need for a new St. Mary's became more evident.  Mr Ian Ferrier, of the firm J.P. Donoghue, Cusick and Edwards of Brisbane, designed the new building.

The first sod was turned on 16th December, 1957, and the foundation stone was blessed by Bishop O'Loughlin on 13th July, 1958.  This stone was cut from a piece of crystalline metamorphosed rock from Rum Jungle, the site of the first uranium mine in the Territory.  The stone shows extensive silification.  It is rich in symbolism, uniting as it does what was a powerful centre of Territory development with the vital centre of spiritual inspiration.  Mr Carl Johansson was in charge of building operations until 1962 when Mr John D'Arcy took over.

The Cathedral was blessed and opened by Bishop O'Loughlin on 19th August, 1962, and consecrated on 20th August, 1972.  It is dedicated as St. Mary's, Star of the Sea, and is the centre of the Church's activity in the Diocese of Darwin.  At the same time the Cathedral is a war memorial to those servicemen, Australian, American, British and Dutch, who lost their lives in the area during the war, and to the civilian residents who died in the war.  The memorial character is reflected in a series of stained glass panels in the west window donated by the Australian and American Armed forces, and depicting their respective emblems.

The lines of the Cathedral's contemporary neo-gothic design are majestic.  Special features are a series of parabolic arches, 16 metres high, and the extensive use of local sawn stone.  The white porcellanite stone was cut from the cliffs of Darwin Harbour in the Church's own quarry at Larrakeyah.  Apart from the walls, porcellanite was used in the baptismal font and pulpit.

The Cathedral is dominated at the main entrance by a 26 metre tower, topped by a cross 6 metres high.  The graceful tower sets off the building contours.  A spiral staircase gives access to a gallery at the top, commanding a panoramic view of the city of Darwin.  The roof of the Cathedral is copper.

Designed to meet local tropical needs, the entire length of both nave walls can be opened up by a series of glass panel doors.  Windows in the walls above provide further ventilation and are protected by the broad roofing overhang and concrete grille.

Sanctuary and High Altar
The sanctuary and its ecclesiastical furnishings reflect the distinctly missionary background of the Diocese.  The terrazzo in the altar designs and sanctuary incorporate pearl shell collected by divers from the Arafura Sea.  Alluvial gold panned at the old Arltunga Mission in Central Australia are used in gilt work.  The sedilia (stools) are of local cypress pine, and the parquetry floor of the sanctuary is made from ironwood (Erthophleum chlorostaches) milled at Garden Point, Melville Island.  The door of the tabernacle on the Sacred Heart Altar is of distinctive design, incorporating the Southern Cross.

Set below the eastern wall, which is made up almost entirely of the richly coloured Star of the Sea window, and the barrel-vaulted ceiling, the chancel is in graceful harmony with the nave and transcepts of the Cathedral.

Relics of the Past
As the Cathedral is a Northern Territory War Memorial shrine, it was thought appropriate to include in the foundations various relics of the early days in various parts of the Territory.  These include a brick from Port Essington, a musket ball from Fort Dondas, a relic of The Gap police station from Alice Springs, native relics such as microliths, a stone axe and a stone knife.  The microliths are small spearheads of aboriginal manufacture, probably several centuries old.  They were excavated from beneath the earth floor of a natural shelter on a hill known as Yarrar within the territory of the Murinbata people.  The stone knife is fashioned from a tough pink quartzite.  It was discovered on an island off the north coast of Arnhem Land.

When the foundations of the Cathedral were laid, coins of the realm were placed with the other relics to represent the time of the building.


Star of the Sea Window
A feature of the Cathedral is the striking stained-glass window, representing Our Lady, Star of the Sea. 

The artist, Mr William Bustard of Brisbane, has brought this out by placing a star atop the window from which rays radiate downwards.  Immediately under the star is a representation of the Madonna and Child.  Then there is an expanse of sky through which three seabirds are flying, and underneath a symbolic representation of the sea with fish, and waves in blue.

Three cherubs decorate the apex of the window.  One is black to represent the Aborigines among the congregation.  The window was donated to the Cathedral in memory of relatives of the Byrne brothers of Tipperary Station.
The artist has windows in five Australian Cathedrals.

Many years of violent tropical weather and blazen sun eventually took their toll on the window and in 1990 it was decided that considerable repairs were needed.  Most of the 70 panes that comprise the window were badly distorted and many of the individual pieces of glass were either broken or missing.  The lead calme that holds the glass together had decayed to the point where it could no longer be relied upon to maintain the structural integrity of the window.

Darwin-based glass artist Jon Firth of Unicorn Glass Studio was engaged to undertake the restoration project, which took two years to complete.  As each panel was reset in place it was covered with safety glass, offering a high degree of protection against Darwin's extreme weather conditions.

Two Darwin Catholic ladies, Eileen Cossons and Viola Prichard, raised a large part of the funds necessary for the restoration by holding cake stalls at the end of each Mass.  The cake stalls ran for many, many months and was a huge effort on the part of these two ladies, plus other ladies from the parish, who donated cakes and slices.


The Stations of the Cross, which adorn the nave of the Cathedral, were executed at Spilimbergo, Italy, in Venetian mosaic, according to drawings made by Miss Lola McCausland of Brisbane.

There are two outstanding features amongst this beautiful presentation of the way of the cross.  In the eighth station 'Jesus comforts the women of Jerusalem', the woman in the centre is depicted as an aboriginal girl.  In the fourteenth station 'Jesus is laid in the sepulchre', the figure at the right is rendered in the likeness of Fr W.M. Henschke in whose honour the stations were erected.

The stations were erected by parishioner subscription.  


A striking feature of the Cathedral is a large oil painting depicting the Virgin Mary and Child as Australian Aborigines.  It is the work of a visiting European artist, Karel Kupka, of the Ecole des Beaux-Arts, Paris.

The painting, in oils, is 1.3 metres high and 1 metre wide.  The  figures are slightly larger than life-size.  The Virgin Mary is depicted with the characteristic features and skin colour of an aboriginal woman.  Her face is a composite portrait from many sketches of different 'sitters', done by the artist on various Territory missions.

She is garbed in white.  The collar of her dress is red, embroidered in an aboriginal design.  The Holy Child, also typical aboriginal features and dressed in a white smock, edged with aboriginal designs in red, is seated on the Mother's shoulder in the typical aboriginal style of carrying an infant.  Behind the heads of Mother and Child are golden haloes, painted flatly in the style of a Byzantine icon, but edged also with perimeters of authentic tribal design in red.

The background of the picture is an intricate pattern of abstract totemic designs, faithfully copied from bark paintings, cave drawings and decorations of native artifacts from all tribes of the Northern Territory, Central Australia and the Kimberley.

The shrine of the Aboriginal Madonna is a focal point for Aborigines, and a reminder that the message of Christianity is universal. A print of the Aboriginal Madonna is available from the Diocesan Office.   


The tower of the Cathedral holds a peal of four bells.  They were cast in Germany.  The first bell is called 'Mary' and was donated by the Italian Community in Darwin and is inscribed with the Coat of Arms of Pope John XXIII, who was reigning when the Cathedral opened, and of Bishop O'Loughlin.

The other three bells are, respectively:

'Larrakeyah' in memory of the people who originally inhabited this part of Australia;
'Jesus' for the Jesuit Fathers who were the first missionaries here from 1882 to 1902;
'Isabella' after the daughter of George Norcock and Henrietta Bridgeman, the first baby baptised by the Jesuit Fathers on October 1st, 1882.    


When the Japanese bombed Darwin in 1942, 'Zeros' strafed the old church repeatedly with machine gun fire.  Shrapnel gouged rough gashes in the altar and pierced a statue behind the altar, from front to back.  The figure, despite its wound, remained unshattered.  The statue became known as the Wounded Angel and today it has an honoured place in the Cathedral in an alcove off the south side.


This painting in the Cathedral is by Miriam-Rose Ungunmerr-Bauman.  She was asked to paint a picture to go with her talk called 'Dadirri', meaning silence or stillness.  It was the time when the saltwater crocodiles lay their eggs in the mounds they have prepared along the river banks or in the swamps amongst the cane grass.  The painting is in three parts.  The upper part depicts nature, which is our calendar.  It tells us when to hunt for fruits, yams, animals, reptiles, fish or birds.  By looking at certain flowers that are blossoming, or which way the wind is blowing, we know what to look for and gather.

The bottom of the painting is ourselves.  The circles and lines mean that we have been washed with Jesus' blood coming from the paperbark chalice.  The yam under the cross is Jesus' body.  The cross means that Jesus died for our sins and rose to life again.  At the top of the cross there are flames coming from fire sticks.  Jesus is the light of the world.

The tree in the middle represents the Aboriginal people.  Pope John Paul II said to them:  'You are like a tree standing in the middle of a bushfire sweeping through the timber.  The leaves are scorched and the tough bark is scarred and burned, but inside the tree the sap is still flowing and under the ground the roots are still strong.'  When the wet season sets in and the rain comes, the tree grows and blossoms.  The storm winds come too.  The white lines on each side of the tree are the water and wind representing the Holy Spirit.