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.
In 1931 work began on the completion of the church as it appeared in the original plans. Six years later, in the midst of the depression, the work was completed. So finally after eighty years, in June 1937, St. Mary of the Angels could be appreciated in all its majesty by the people of the Geelong region, regardless of religious persuasion.
"From whatever direction one approaches Geelong, the most outstanding landmark is the Church of St. Mary of the Angels with its slender spires pointing towards the heavens."
St Mary of the Angels Timeline
1841 September 8 The first priest, Father Michael Ryan arrived in Geelong September 10 The first mass celebrated in a cottage in South Geelong October Foundation stone of a chapel laid. Ryan recalled to Sydney
1842 March Father Michael Stephens arrived in Geelong April 13 Stephens celebrated first marriage.
November First mass in the temporary chapel
1843 A permanent church with the name St Mary of the Angels proposed
1844 October Visit by Archbishop Polding who conducted the first confirmation ceremony and consecrated the Catholic portion of the cemetery
1846 August 19 Foundation stone laid for a permanent church designed by Melbourne architect, Samuel Jackson
1847 October 6 New church opened and blessed by Father P.B. Geoghegan.
1853 October 13 Tenders called for extensions to church. October 30 Bishop Goold laid the foundation stone for extensions. Goold ordered work to stop.
1854 February Prize offered for design of new church, won by Dowden & Ross June 15 Goold laid foundation stone for new church.
1857 All work stopped on new church
1870 January 3 Archdeacon Matthew Downing commissioned T.A. Kelly to prepare plans for completion of the church
1872 February 4 Church officially opened by Bishop Goold.
1931 June 28 Archbishop Mannix blessed memorial stone to mark the commencement of work to complete the church as originally planned.
1937 June 16 Beginning of ceremonies to mark the completion of St Mary of the Angels
1969 Repairs and renovations costing $95,000 commenced.
1995 Further repairs costing $300,000 carried out.
1996 April 21 Restoration Appeal launched
A large sculptured crest graces the front of the Basilica - above the front doorway and immediately below the circular Rose Window. The crest is that of the Holy See and is a little over a metre square in size. It has been magnificently cast in bronze and is a striking visible symbol of St Marys' status as a minor Basilica.
On Tuesday 2 August 2005, the crest sculpture was blessed by Fr Kevin Dillon and dedicated to the memory of the late Sheila Maguire, who represents the unselfish and kind nature of the "ordinary parishioner".
It was Sheila's generous bequest to St Mary's that made possible the beautiful crest which is now an enduring symbol to the parish.
Please take some time to admire this beautiful addition to St Mary of the Angels Basilica.