SOME 500 people are expected to converge on Riversdale next week to celebrate the 150th anniversary of the Canberra/Goulburn Catholic archdiocese.
Descendants of the city’s earliest Catholics will be among those attending the event, set in the picturesque grounds of the National Trust listed property.
Archdiocesan administrator Monsignor John Woods, retired Archbishop Francis Carroll, retired Bishop Pat Power and Mary Queen of Apostles parish priest Fr Dermid McDermott will concelebrate a Mass on the site marking the beginnings of Goulburn’s Catholic community.
It was here on August 3, 1833 that Father John Therry celebrated the first Mass. The ‘travelling priest’s’ diary, later transcribed by Bishop Eris O’Brien, recorded the event at ‘Mr Hely’s.’ That was Matt Healey who was licensee of a slab-built inn on the site before Riversdale was constructed in the early 1840s.
From humble beginnings, the religious community grew.
By 1862, under advice from Sydney Archbishop Polding, the Diocese of Goulburn was established.
Fr McDermott said there were many early challenges.
“Getting it organised (was a major one),” he said.
“There was a lack of manpower and the first bishop appointed, Patrick Geoghegan, died before he got here.”
The pastor of Berrima, William Lanigan was appointed the second Archbishop and started his long term in June, 1967.
He presided over Sts Peter and Paul’s Cathedral’s construction.
Bishops John Gallagher and John Barry followed. As Irishmen, the men carried enormous influence and were responsible for a massive building program including schools, hospitals and orphanages, Fr McDermott said.
The first Australian-born bishop appointed to the diocese was Terence McGuire.
Goulburn’s Catholic community remained strong over the years, evidenced by large Mass attendance and huge Easter gatherings at the former Marys Mount Monastery for Stations of the Cross.
But in 1948 the Diocese of Goulburn was transferred to Canberra, a fact some people “never got over,” Fr McDermott said.
It became the Archdiocese of Canberra/Goulburn and the mother church was known from then on as Sts Peter and Paul’s Old Cathedral.
“It was as though Goulburn was left with all these buildings and they said ‘ta, ta,” Fr McDermott told the Post.
The Catholic school strike in July, 1962 was another tester. At the time, Fr McDermott’s father, Ernie, was Goulburn mayor but also a Labor man. The Labor government didn’t want to extend state aid to Catholic schools and Alderman McDermott was caught in the middle of an angry community.
Local priests were also torn between church and state but quietly (and not so quietly) aligned with a band of prominent Catholic men prepared to take up the fight.
“In some ways the strike was counterproductive but it brought the issue to a head,” Fr McDermott said.
The congregations these days are smaller and dotted with grey heads. The archdiocese is struggling for clergy and funds are harder to come by.
The parish faces an annual $60,000 insurance bill on its buildings, including those like the former St Brigid’s School in dire need of repair.
“Our little country churches are only really insured for demolition,” Fr McDermott said.
But big things are in store for the parish. Local architect Garry Dutaillis is designing a 10-metre high copper clad spire for Sts Peter and Paul’s Cathedral. Some 40 tonnes of sandstone will be used to strengthen the tower underneath, making it structurally sound for the next 100 years and equipping it for the spire’s weight.
The April completion will come on the back of Goulburn’s 150th birthday celebrations and coincide with St Saviour’s Cathedral’s new spire.
The work is part of a $5 million conservation project which currently includes repointing sandstone joins.
A little piece of the Cathedral’s history will go to Riversdale next week in the form of a plinth. A plaque marking the site of the first Mass and the 150th anniversary ceremony will be placed on the sandstone column as part of the celebrations.
Fr McDermott said clergy would be dressed in antique vestments, “minus the lace.”
Some of those attending may also be wearing period costume.
The Cathedral choir will be performing.
A large marquee will be set up in the grounds and people are invited to a barbecue after the Mass catered by a local Rotary Club.
The day promises to be a momentous one with all local politicians invited. The leader of the Catholic Church in Australia, Cardinal George Pell was also invited but was not expected to attend.
“It will be a very significant day in the history of the diocese,” Fr McDermott said.