In many ways the history of the beautiful church, St. Mary of the Angels, is the history of Geelong.
From humble, uncertain beginnings, the town of Geelong grew with the gold rush years, survived two world wars and the ensuing years, rich and lean, to become Victoria's second largest city.
Over the years St. Mary of the Angels, too has grown and today is certainly one of the finest churches in Victoria, an icon for Geelong and the State. Such is the majesty and historical significance of St. Mary's, that is is officially recognised by the National Trust of Victoria and the Historical Buildings Council.
It all began on 27 November 1842, when a small wooden chapel was erected on Geelong's Yarra Street, thanks to donations from the congregation. This modest hut was one of Geelong's first churches. The town of Geelong had only been officially proclaimed four years earlier, the area being pioneered by squatters. The town of Geelong was in its infancy and, much like the rest of the state, still a rugged place to live.
At the time the parish of Geelong stretched as far as Portland Bay and the first priests often had to travel on horseback from Geelong to Colac, Bunninyong and Portland - not unlike shepherds or drovers tending their flock.
In the next few years an influx of Irish immigrants swelled the district's Catholic population to around 1,000. This meant that the wooden chapel was simply too small, so the generous congregation set about raising the money for a new church. In 1846 the foundations for a stone church were laid on the present site.
The foundation stone was laid by Fr. P.B. Geoghegan and the church was completed the following year. Thanks to the gold rush, Geelong continued to prosper and the population swelled. In 1852 the number of Catholics in Geelong had grown to almost 4000, so it was decided that the congregation needed an even larger church. This new church was not going to be just a place of worship, but a building that would do justice to the name of St. Mary and one which would serve as a striking icon for Geelong.
The plans drawn up by Messrs Dowden and Ross called for a magnificent cathedral-like building, 200 feet long, 130 feet wide and costing 40,000 pounds. It was to feature a giant bluestone spire, flying buttresses and an exquisite rose window. The bluestone construction would be complemented with the finest Barrabool sandstone quarried from the local hills.
So in 1854, amid widespread celebrations, the foundation stone of the new St. Mary of the Angels Church was laid. However in 1856, work on the new church ceased, turning the grand vision of Dowden and Ross into nothing more than an eyesore for the community.
After seventeen years, the arrival of Archdeacon Slattery to Geelong in 1871 was the catalyst for work to commence on the new church and in 1872 the new St Mary of the Angels was dedicated. Despite the fact that the spires were not yet installed, it was an impressive structure that dominated the local landscape. It seated over 1000 people and was lauded in the local press for its artistry.