The St Francis Church was in the confines of the Bush when it was first erected. It is known as the Mother Church of Victoria, being the oldest church in Victoria. In 1848, it became a Cathedral Church ,but was overshadowed by the construction of St Patricks Church at Eastern Hill.
The church is listed with Victorian Heritage Register, the National Trust of Australia and the Australian Heritage Commission. The Church remains mostly in its original form designed by Samuel Jackson. This is an outstanding example of the stuccoed Gothic style which was prevalent before the Gothic revival proper.
The church now belongs to the international religious order of men, The Blessed Sacrament Congregation. The contributions made by the Christian Church of any denomination to the growing City of Melbourne are beyond comprehension. The Churches provided the early settlers a sense of belonging and served as a meeting place for the populace in its early years of settlement. Its contributions in building educational institutions around the country are praiseworthy, though in later years only its drawbacks gained national attention.
The History of St Francis Church
St Francis Church is the oldest Roman Catholic Church in Victoria. In 1836, there were only 14 Roman Catholics among the tiny population of Melbourne. The number increased little by little until Gold was found in Victoria. On Sundays, the early Roman Catholic Settlers met at the Cottage of Peter Bodecini, a French Carpenter, at the South Side of Collin Street West and recited the rosary and litanies.
On 28th April 1839, at a meeting of Catholics, signatures were obtained on a petition which was sent to Bishop Polding in Sydney, for arranging the services of a Priest in Melbourne. Bishop appointed Father Patrick Geoghegan, an Irish Franciscan, as resident pastor of Melbourne. Father Geoghegan arrived by “Paul Pry “and landed at Williamstown on 15th May 1839. No accommodation was arranged for him in Melbourne when he arrived, and he used to sleep in the bar of a public house on a few planks thrown over some beer barrels, as he did not want to put others into inconvenience. Later a cottage was erected for him.
The first mass in Victoria was believed to have celebrated by Rev Geoghegan in a room adjoining Bodecini’s Cottage. A store at the corner of Elizabeth and Little Collin Streets was used by the Roman Catholic Body for a time, for services and gradually the existing church of St Francis arose. On 31st March 1839, the pioneer Roman Catholics took up a collection for erecting a place of worship. The foundation stone for the Church was laid on 4th October 1841, six years after the settlement of Melbourne and 3 years after the arrival of the first priest.
On 22nd May 1842 the completed portion of the nave was used for the first time. The first high mass was sung in St Francis Church in March 1843. On 25th October 1845, the Church was completed according to the original design which did not include Sanctuary, ladye chapel and the front porch, and was blessed by Father Geoghegan.
On 4th October 1848, Melbourne’s first Bishop James Goold who had been consecrated in Old St Marys in Sydney two months earlier was welcomed at St Francis and on 8th October 1848,solemnly enthroned. St Francis thus became a Cathedral. It held that position for the next 20 years.
In 1849, the original Shingle roof of the church was replaced by one of slates and two years later the fine cedar ceiling was placed in position. As a result of a collection made in 1851, a pearl of bells was imported from Dublin, but it was believed that the building would not stand the vibrations of the bells. The Bishop’s intention was to build a bell tower, but the plan was later abandoned. Later the bells were transferred to St Patrick’s Cathedral.
Due to the overcrowding that happened as a direct result of the influx of Catholics when Gold was discovered, Side galleries were erected in transepts in 1854. A lady chapel was opened in May 1858.
After the Eucharistic Conference in Sydney in September 1928, Arch Bishop of Melbourne Rev D Mannix invited the Fathers of the blessed sacrament to come to St Francis to erect an altar throne of exposition. Five fathers and two lay brothers led by 44-year- old French-Canadian Fr Henri Lachance arrived at St Francis on All Saints Day in 1929.
At the insistence of Archbishop Mannix, ownership was gradually transferred to the Eucharistic congregation. Major restoration work was undertaken in the late 1990’s and the church was re-roofed in 2013.
Address: 326 Lonsdale St, Melbourne VIC 3000
The church doors are open daily – Monday-Sunday from 7 am – 7 pm
“The Advocate “published for the Catholic Archdiocese of Melbourne from 1919 to 1990.
Other contributary references from the Argus 1932.