The day was a culmination of the 150th year since Bishop James Murray, the first resident bishop, sailed to Morpeth, proceeded to Maitland by carriage and claimed St John’s as his cathedral. It was also a day of deep personal satisfaction for Bishop Bill, who had written, “I have it in my imagination that, like St Francis, I’ll see to the repairs of an ancient church which will long live as a sacred place.”
For the 300 or so people who participated in the Mass of Dedication, the occasion completed a significant chapter of the diocesan story – and began a new chapter.
Bishop Bill’s opening of the church with a (somewhat unprepossessing) key, presented by architect Kurt Daley, was both literal and symbolic, following the reading of the Decree of Erection by Chancellor Matthew Muller.
Bishop Bill has recounted the story in various contexts and recapped during his homily on Sunday.
In November 1865 Bishop Murray was appointed Bishop of the Diocese of Maitland. The papal brief which defined its new boundaries was issued on 14 April, 1866.
Bishop Murray returned to Ireland to obtain extra priests for his new diocese and arranged for a community of Dominican Sisters to follow him to Australia. He departed Cork in July 1866 and arrived in Sydney in October. He then set out immediately for Maitland and took possession of St John’s Church as his Cathedral on 1 November, 1866, the Feast of All Saints. It continued as the Cathedral until Bishop Gleeson opened the nearby church hall as the Pro Cathedral on 26 November 1933.
Newcastle was still a part of the Archdiocese of Sydney and so the expansion of the Catholic faith into northern and north-western NSW was carried out from Maitland, until the Dioceses of Armidale and Lismore were established in 1869 and 1878 respectively.
So Maitland, the only town in NSW to have two Catholic churches, was very much at the heart of the Catholic faith for a large part of the population for many years and St John’s as the Cathedral was central to the broader establishment of the Church in that territory.
In 1873, Bishop Murray took possession of the Newcastle end of his diocese from the Archdiocese of Sydney. He moved into his new Bishop’s House in Cathedral Street in 1883.
It is apparent that the Church of St John the Baptist in Maitland was central to the development of the Catholic Church in Maitland and northern NSW.
Many could trace their faith stories through family members who either attended Mass, were baptised, married, or whose funerals were celebrated at St John’s. It is very likely that many who may now be resident across our vast nation or overseas would have similar connections.
Sunday’s reading from the book of Nehemiah told of the Israelites listening to Ezra the priest tell their own story which had been sadly lost. He was “translating and giving the sense”, and this, Bishop Bill said, echoed the experience of our own indigenous peoples whose language, in many cases, has been lost. “The rebuilding of their temple is the occasion for rebuilding their soul, retelling their story…This place is so much bound up in our story. Our forefathers and mothers’ first instinct was to provide a beautiful place of worship….
“The real church is built of living stones…as St Paul wrote, ‘Didn’t you realise you were God’s temple and that the Spirit of God was living among you?....the temple of God is sacred, and you are that temple.’”
A feature of the liturgy was the spirited singing, led by a choir and instrumentalists from the parishes of the Chisholm Region. The hymn composed especially for the 150th year, “Take Heart, God is Among Us” by Medowie’s Basil Morrow, was sung enthusiastically with two of Basil’s students, Tyrah-Lee Read & Lillie Kerslake, joining the choir. Basil’s words tell the diocesan story with truth, understanding and hope.
The anointing with chrism of the altar and walls, followed by incensation, is a ritual not often seen. After the candles were lit for Mass, the restored bell rang out in celebration!
A plaque commemorating the act of dedication was presented to Bishop Bill by parishioners and will be affixed to the interior of St John’s.
Special guests included Bishop Emeritus, Michael Malone; “Mr Maitland”, Milton Morris AO; Missionary of Mercy, Richard Shortall sj and Member for Maitland, Jenny Aitchison.
Before the procession from the parish hall (formerly the Pro Cathedral) to St John’s Chapel, and after the conclusion of Mass, there were endless photographs, stories and reunions and a wonderful spirit pervaded the celebration of what Bishop Bill called “a giant of a project”.
The last word should go to poet, RD (Br Elgar) Murphy fms, who wrote, in “Tower View, Maitland”:
….This is the climate of aspiration where
Needled spires point the true north and roofs
Crown rising stone like hands at prayer;
Where faith is the deep-set roots
Of trees that, though endowered with the jacaranda’s
Private heaven, await through night
The absolution of the rain,
The benediction of the light.