RAY COLLINS: An historic occasion

The celebration of the 150 years since the arrival of the first residential Bishop in the Diocese of Maitland, Bishop James Murray, came to a fitting climax on Sunday with the dedication of the former St John the Baptist Cathedral as St John’s Chapel.

Bishop Murray was proclaimed as Bishop of Maitland in St John the Baptist Church on 1st November 1866 and he took St John’s as his cathedral from that point on. Sadly the old cathedral had proven to be too small for such a role and in my youth  in the diocese all major Diocesan liturgical celebrations were held in what was called the St John’s-Pro Cathedral, the Catholic Hall just up the road from the original cathedral.

It was named the Pro-Cathedral in an anticipation of a new cathedral being built at some stage in the future but that was not to be. Our current cathedral, Sacred Heart in Hamilton, shared the experience of St John’s in being a parish Church before being the seat of the Bishop when the revised nature of the diocese was proclaimed as the Diocese of Maitland-Newcastle in 1995.

St John’s in recent years had fallen into a considerable state of disrepair and crumbling and falling sandstone had  rendered it too dangerous to continue in its role as a chapel with its ceiling converted into classrooms for the nearby St Peter’s campus of All Saints College.

Bishop William Wright, on becoming the 8th Bishop of the diocese, undertook to repair the old cathedral so that it could return to its function as a chapel. The results of the refurbishment were evident  to the many parishioners who participated in last week’s Bishop Murray Pilgrimage Walk  from Morpeth to St John’s,  retracing the steps of Bishop Murray who in October 1866 arrived in Morpeth by steamer and travelled onward to Maitland in order to take up the reins of his diocese in November.

The chapel looks magnificent  and whilst I wasn’t able to be present for the re-dedication of St John’s as  a chapel by Bishop Bill on Sunday, I imagine that the celebration lived up to the joy of the initial dedication of it as Bishop Murray’s cathedral.

The late Sr Beverley Zimmerman, in her scholarly PhD thesis and book entitled  The Making of a Diocese, which focuses on Murray’s time as Bishop, refers to the original St John the Baptist Church with the following words:

It was a Church of which the Catholics (and even the non-Catholics) of Maitland could be proud. It symbolized the state of religious practice and the growing self-confidence and self-consciousness of Catholics.

Her reference to the Non-Catholics represents the fact that “Prominent Protestants also contributed generously to the building of St John’s at Maitland”.

Donations for the refurbishing of St John’s have once again been received from Non Catholics in solidarity with Catholic community members in the same sense of generosity and commitment to the Maitland community that existed in the earliest days of the Church in Maitland, despite the often turbulent religious times that existed at the time.

St John’s Chapel will now go on to celebrate many special occasions in the years ahead. I congratulate Bishop Bill on his foresight in restoring St John’s to its former glory. It is certainly worth a visit to see the quality of the restoration.

Ray Collins Image
Ray Collins

Ray Collins is the Director of Schools within the Catholic Diocese of Maitland-Newcastle. He is an authority on education issues.

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