History of St Francis, Paddington

Paddington  originally formed  part  of  the  Sacred  Heart Parish,  Darlinghurst,  but  it  is recorded  that Mass  was  occasionally  celebrated   in  a  cottage  in  Underwood  Street.     The  district  of   Paddington, incorporated  as a  municipality  in  1860,  was centred  on what  was then  the main highway to  South  Head.  A parishioner,  John  McDonnall,  writing  under  the  pseudonym  ‘Dunluce’  in  a 1929  issue  of   The  Catholic Press, indicated that the Catholic population of  the area  in the  1860s “began  to  be very numerous, for there were many  Irish  girls  employed as domestic  servants  in  the  neighbourhood  and  in  adjoining  Woollahra.    These experienced great difficulty in hearing Mass, on account of the distance of  Darlinghurst or Waverley, so the residents decided to erect a school-church of their own”.

The school-church was erected  in  1866 on the site of the present school building, built of  Australian hardwood and measuring 75ft by 20ft.   It was used as a school until  1929.   On May 12th 1866, soon after the erection  of  the school-church,  Paddington  and Double  Bay,  which  at  that  time  included  Woollahra  (now Edgecliff), were separated from the Sacred Heart Parish, Darlinghurst, and formed into a separate district.

The Franciscans  were  entrusted  with  the  pastoral  care  of  Woollahra  and Paddington  in  November 1879  and  Fr  Martin  Augustine  Holohan was the  first  friar  to  take  charge  of  both  districts.    Fr  Martin’s successor,  Fr  Leonard  Dunne, OFM, was instrumental  in  securing  a  temporary  church  in  Stewart  Street,  a property  known as Glammis  Hall.  This  building,  made of  galvanised iron,  was  originally a church  in  Scotland and re-erected  in  Australia  as a  Congregational  church  in  Bourke  Street,  Surry  Hills.   Later  on it  was re- erected  in  Stewart  Street, Paddington, and used for “dances and entertainments”.   Fr  Dunne paid £800 for Glammis Hall and it became known as St Leonard’s Church, in honour of the Franciscan Saint Leonard of Port Maurice,  Fr  Dunne’s  patron saint.   St  Leonard’s was used as the Paddington  church  for  five years and later sold for £1,000,  ending its days as a produce store and fuel depot.  The site is now owned by Telstra.

Paddington was established as a parish in its own right in 1887 and Fr  Bernardine Lawler ofm, became the first parish priest.   The number of parishioners continued to grow.   By 1890 a quarter of  Paddington’s residents were Catholic, and nine percent  were Irish-born.   Paddington’s  25 percent of population who were Catholic  was exceeded only  by the City  (33  percent),  Hunters  Hill (38 percent),  Redfern  (28 percent)  and Waterloo (27 percent).   Paddington was more Irish and Catholic than  most other metropolitan areas.   It was obvious that  St  Leonard’s was too small.   Fr  Bernardine Lawler ofm  began preparations for a larger church. The new church  was to  be named after  St  Francis of  Assisi and  built in Oxford Street adjacent to the old wooden school  building.    The  original  facade  of  this new  church,  described  by  some as  Tuscan  Gothic, incorporated  coloured  marble  features  and  mosaics  into  the  basic  sandstone  and red  tuck-pointed  brick structure.    The Freeman’s  Journal had this to  say:   “The  main  front  will  be enriched  by being inlaid  with various  coloured  marbles  and  Venetian  glass  mosaic.    When completed  with  transepts  and  sanctuary  the church will be one of the largest in or about Sydney.”

The foundation stone was blessed and laid  on March  23rd  1889, a ceremony attended  by about  1000 people.  Cardinal Moran officially opened the new church on Sunday 22nd June 1890.    The architect was John Barlow,  and  the  contract  price  for  the  nave was £4,500.    Only the  nave of  this  church  (the  nave of  our present  church)  was  ever  completed,  and all of  the  mosaic  ornamentation  around  the  rose window facing Oxford  Street  has long  since disappeared,  the  victim  of  time and pollution.    Although  considered  a fairly large  church  when erected,  St  Francis  soon became overcrowded,  despite  the  celebration  of  five  Masses each Sunday.   {Canon Law at the time prohibited the celebration of Mass after Midday).

In  1915  Archbishop  Kelly decided  that,  in spite of war conditions, the work of completing the church should continue.   But  it  became obvious  that  even if  the  church  were  completed  according  to  the  original plan, it  would still  be too  small for Paddington’s  Catholic  population.   A  new  church was  thus  commissioned, designed  by Bart  Moriarty,  but  it  was to  be  constructed  in  two  phases.    Phase  1  included  the sanctuary, sacristies  and transepts.   Phase  2 would have required  the demolition  of  the  1890  church  to make  way for the far grander  nave of  Moriarty’s  design.   The foundation  stone  was laid  on the last  Sunday of  July  1917. However,  the cost  of  completing  the church  immediately was  prohibitive and it  was decided  to make  use of the existing  portion  of  the old  church  as a temporary  nave of  the new.    The new building (the sanctuary, transepts  and sacristies)  was blessed  and  opened  on  Sunday  June  16th  1918.    When  the cost  of  the new portion  was  paid  off  (it  had  cost  £10,000)  the whole  of  the new  design  was  to  have  been  completed. However, phase 2 never eventuated, so our present church consists of the nave of the 1890 church designed by John Barlow, and the transepts, sanctuary and sacristies of the  1919 church designed by Bart Moriarty.

It is  now clear  that  Moriarty  drew  more  than  a  little  inspiration  for his  design  from the  Sacred Heart  Basilica in Timaru, New Zealand.   The parish priest of Timaru, Fr Tubman, had commissioned the noted Dunedin architect,  Frank  Petre,  to draw  up  plans  for a  church  based on  photographs  of  the St  Thomas Aquinas  Cathedral  in  Reno,  Nevada.   Fr Tubman had a brother  on the  staff  of  the Reno Cathedral  and was inspired  by that building  during  a visit  in  1907.   When work  commenced  on the construction  of  the Sacred Heart  Basilica, the name of the building surveyor  was  Bart  Moriarty.   The line of succession  is  thus, Reno’s St Thomas Aquinas Cathedral, Timaru’s Sacred Heart Basilica, and Paddington’s St Francis of Assisi  Church.

Marble communion rails  were  installed  in  1925, and sometime  later a huge marble pulpit was erected, high against  a pillar  with  a concave  marble dome and curved  back opening  towards  the church  to throw the preacher’s voice far over the pews.   The high altar was erected  in  1928.   A photograph of the interior of the church  in the  late 1920’s indicates that the stained glass windows high in the apse had not yet been installed. These windows,  from  left  to right,  depict  the  fundamental  mysteries  of  the Christian  faith:   the  birth  of Christ, his death, his Resurrection, and Christ sitting in judgement.

Following   the  second   Vatican   Council,   a  number   of   changes  were   made   to  accommodate   the requirements  of  the newly-revised  liturgy.    In the mid-1970’s  a square  timber  platform  was  built  in  the crossing, in front of the old sanctuary, allowing seating in the two side chapels to be turned to face  the altar platform.   This created a closer  contact  between the celebrant and people during  liturgical  celebrations, but it also split the congregation into three blocks.   Aesthetically, the square was at odds with the round arches, the dome and semi-circular apse.

The sanctuary  area as  you see  it  today is  the result  of  renovations  initiated  by Fr Nick  Lucas  in consultation with architect  John O’Brien.   The renovations were completed  early in  1990.   John was insistent that the semi-circular terrazzo extension to the original sanctuary (replacing the timber  platform)  should pick up the shape  of the arches, and this was achieved  with a very pleasing  effect.   A  new altar and lectern were  built  out  of  marble from the original  pulpit  and harmonized  magnificently with  the old high altar.   The church  was  repainted  and a new lighting system was  installed.   The new  baptismal  font of  brass and iron has as  its  pedestal  the old  font  –  turned upside  down.   A  new stained  glass  window  depicting  the baptism  of Christ  in  the Jordan  faces   the newly-positioned  font.    The  original  pews,  some  made  by the Christian Brothers  in  the  woodwork  room of  the old  Intermediate  Technical  School, have been  stripped  to original timber and re-coated, and many have been altered to create the in-the-round effect.   The presidential  chair is new, but its design was taken from a nineteenth century church furniture catalogue.

Alterations to the sanctuary and pews, the preparation and  erection of the marble work, and the installation  of new  lighting  cost  approximately $60,000.   Painting  of  the entire building and other  much• needed  structural repairs cost much more, but the cost was  spread over  many years.   In April of  1999, a devastating  hailstorm  hit  Sydney’s eastern suburbs.   St  Francis’  sustained  severe  damage – the roof  to the older part of the  church (the nave) had to be replaced, and many other areas of the church were severely damaged, including much of the stained glass.   Repairs and refurbishment have been ongoing since then.

Apse:  A semi-circular end to the chancel or sanctuary.  Nave: The main body of the church in which the congregation assembles.  The nave of St Francis  is the older part of our church and is easy to  identify because of the timber ceiling. Transept:   One arm of the crossing  in a cross-shaped church.  Crossing:  Area formed by the intersection of transepts, nave and chancel (or sanctuary).