The Coming Thunder Down Under

In advance of World Youth Day later in 2008, a look at two Sydney, Australia, high points that ought to be on the itinerary of every young pilgrim: St. Mary’s Cathedral and Mary MacKillop Place. By Tim Drake.

Australia is a relative infant when it comes to the Catholic faith. Its first Catholic residents didn’t arrive until the late 1700s.

So, when several hundred thousand young Catholics travel to the island continent to participate in World Youth Day later this year — July 15-20, 2008, to be precise — they’ll be playing a part in the country’s unfolding Catholic story.

This September just past, I boarded a plane in Los Angeles near midnight for my first assignment Down Under: an orientation for journalists who’ll be covering the big event. Fourteen hours and one international dateline later, I finally laid eyes on the Sydney skyline. After getting settled at my hotel, my first order of business was finding a nearby church. It was, after all, Sunday morning.

I made my way several blocks west, toward St. Mary’s Cathedral, hoping my arrival might jibe with the Mass schedule. A large electronic counter sitting outside the cathedral’s western door announced the number of days left to World Youth Day. The cathedral will be one of two locations that nearly every pilgrim will see while in Sydney; the other is Mary MacKillop Place.

The angels were smiling upon me. For, as I stepped inside just minutes before 10:30 a.m., I was greeted by the scent of incense and the sound of an angelic choir. Mass was just beginning.

I later learned that Sydney’s original cathedral was destroyed by fire in 1865. St. Mary’s took shape in fits and starts, opening and re-opening over many years. The final foundation stone was laid in 1913 and, on Sept. 2, 1928, the completed cathedral was finally opened for good.

Built in the Gothic-Revival style from three different types of stone, the cathedral is reminiscent of many found in Europe. Its stained-glass windows were produced in Birmingham, England, and given a darker-than-usual tint to hold back the bright Australian sun.

The bottoms of the side stained-glass windows depict the Church’s history in Australia. One window, for example, shows a lookout watching out for police during Mass.

Treated by a tour guide to a wonderful view from the balcony, I took in the large round window above the cathedral’s main entrance. This depicts St. Peter surrounded by various popes. I also got a look at the more than 400 ordinary faces that sculptors carved into the walls depicting saints. Local Australians served as models.

The church went without spires until 2000, when they were added prior to the Sydney Olympics. During my visit, one of the cathedral’s two towers was covered and undergoing restoration. The porous Sydney sandstone absorbs moisture and is prone to deterioration from sea salt.

Other improvements are planned to ensure that, when pilgrims arrive in July, they will find the cathedral as its founders intended it 125 years ago. The front steps will be used as the location for the first station of the cross — the Last Supper — during Friday’s depiction of the Way of the Cross during World Youth Day.

Given the country’s young age, it’s not surprising that Australia has not yet seen a son or daughter become canonized. That doesn’t stop locals from claiming Blessed Mary MacKillop as the “people’s saint” of their country.

The eldest of eight children, MacKillop was born on Jan. 14, 1842, in Melbourne. In 1866, she met Father Julian Tenison Woods. He invited her to teach in a new free Catholic school in Penola, a small town in southeast South Australia. Soon other young women joined her, and the Sisters of St. Joseph formed as the first religious order founded by an Australian. The nuns were dedicated to providing free education to all who needed it, including aboriginal children.

The rise of the vigorous new order drew the criticism of some within the Church. Acting on false information, Bishop Laurence Bonaventure Sheil of Adelaide declared Mary excommunicated and the order disbanded. Friends from various religious faiths, and Jesuit priests, came to her defense. Only months after her excommunication, the action was ruled invalid. The order regrouped and began its work again.

Following this experience, MacKillop sought and received Vatican approval of her order’s constitution; this allowed the group to determine its own direction.

World Youth Day pilgrims will begin their Saturday afternoon pilgrimage at Mary MacKillop Place, crossing over the Sydney Harbor Bridge on their way to Randwick Racecourse for the Saturday evening vigil and Sunday morning’s final papal Mass.

The site includes a conference center and auditorium, overnight accommodations, a shrine and a museum. The museum tells of MacKillop’s life. Unfortunately, some parts of the exhibit are more sensational than educational. The excommunication episode is especially disappointing. A child visiting that part of the museum would be frightened by the haunting music and the animatronic portrayal of the bishop. It’s done in a way that I found disrespectful toward the bishop’s office.

Aug. 8 — MacKillop’s feast — is a special day of pilgrimage and prayer at the shrine annually.

In the Mary MacKillop Memorial Chapel, visitors will find a particularly peaceful place for prayer: Mary’s tomb. I took advantage of this opportunity while seated in the chair used by Pope John Paul II at her beatification in 1995. A small plaque on the chair’s armrest tells of its previous saintly visitor.

Some are speculating that Pope Benedict will canonize Mary MacKillop during World Youth Day. Either way, the occasion will offer the country’s Catholics a chance to share their favorite daughter with the world.

Tim Drake is the

Register’s senior writer.


St. Mary’s Cathedral

St. Mary’s Road

Sydney NSW 2000


Planning Your Visit

The cathedral — the official seat of Sydney’s archbishop, Cardinal George Pell — is open daily from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. For schedules of Masses, devotions and other goings-on, visit or call (02) 9220 0400. For more on Mary MacKillop Place, visit