Cornerstones: St. Peter’s Cathedral, Adelaide

Detail of the Magdalene window at St. Peter's | All photos by Robyn Douglass

By Robyn Douglass

Adelaide is nicknamed the “City of Churches,” and while the South Australian capital has some fine places of worship, St Peter’s Cathedral is the standout.

When the city was founded by Europeans in 1836, the governor of the colony promised the Church of England a spot in the central square. But the city fathers disputed the gift, arguing he had no right to give away public space. They took the church to court and the court found in their favor. So the bishop had to move his plans to the city’s northern gateway, buying a site on the edge of the parklands that ring Adelaide.

Nobody questioned the irony of disputed ownership of a piece of land which had simply been taken, without regard to its Indigenous owners.

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The new location was a good choice — it’s a commanding site and these days, St Peter’s looks across the park to Adelaide’s other shrine, the oval where cricket and Australian Rules football are played. Sports commentators refer to the “cathedral end” of the field; both buildings share their place in the city and people’s imaginations. When the nation’s greatest sporting hero (cricketer Sir Don Bradman) died in 2001, the memorial service was held in the cathedral and broadcast to thousands in the oval, an appropriate double act.

The foundation stone was laid in 1869 and St Peter’s remains a curiously apt symbol for this city. It’s a neo-Gothic piece of Europe, plonked in the middle of a pasture — early photos show it surrounded by grazing sheep. Its original design was by an Englishman, William Butterfield, with its dual spires and rose window a nod to French aesthetics. Anywhere but here. But we are here, and home is not brought, but found here.

Despite the use of local stone for its construction, it’s a lot like any other great 19th-century church in Australia — the product of missionary zeal and the urge to make a familiar spot in the vast wilderness that confronted early settlers.

While it recently celebrated its 150th anniversary, St Peter’s was built in five stages, and not finished until 1911. Its full length, 173 feet, is only a shade longer than the height of its spires — 168 feet. Packed for a major event, it seats around 800 people.

The cathedral has a massive ring of eight bells, cast in England, the heaviest ring of eight in the southern hemisphere — the second-heaviest in the world. They sound across the city for events of great celebration and great mourning. Its organ, recently restored, was also built in England and shipped over in 1929.

A magnificent reredos featuring scenes in the life of St Peter was made, of course, of English oak, in England.

If it had stopped there, it would be a curious piece of history, a testament to the invasion and triumph of the West. But while the stones themselves are frozen in time, its art, its music, the people who faithfully gather here every day for worship, bring this landmark into the 21st century.

Along the central pews are the coats of arms of fellow Anglican churches around the world, and the other 22 dioceses in Australia. Far-flung networks are brought home. Wood paneling and pews feature hundreds of names of lovingly remembered people who were part of this community.

South Australia has worked hard to encourage its community arts, and visual art and music make these stones live. The cathedral’s great acoustics make it a popular venue for fine music concerts. Art exhibitions are a regular drawcard — the cathedral hosts events for Adelaide’s annual Fringe arts festival and SALA (the South Australian Living Artists festival).

It was the cathedral’s choir that provided one of the inspirations for its magnificent nave windows. They were installed in the early 1990s, and the artist, Cedar Prest, remarked at the time that there was nothing instinctively “South Australian” about this building.

Her designs bought the outside back in, and feature the land before —Australia’s Indigenous inhabitants, European settlers, floods, droughts, the constellations of the southern sky. The “death and resurrection” scene depicts Australia’s savage bushfires (forest fires) and the regrowth that follows — many native plants have evolved to not germinate until they are burnt.

Prest linked the whole scheme with a red ribbon, inspired by the choir in procession. Backlit by the fierce Australian sunshine, the windows really bring the space alive.

Sculptures in the cathedral include three dynamic works by artist Voitre Marek, a refugee from Czechoslovakia who fled Europe after World War II.

In the transept, the large Magdalene Window, dedicated in 2001, celebrates the ministry of women. That’s fitting for a diocese that was one of the first to ordain women to the priesthood (1992), and a state which, in 1894, was the second place in the world to afford women the vote (after New Zealand) and the first to allow women to represent people in parliament.

In this magnificent window, designed by David Wright, Mary Magdalene is featured as a bishop, the first apostle, and the women who were witnesses to Easter morning enfolded by the risen Christ. It is not hierarchical, top-down, but spiralling out like DNA and gathering in — bearing witness to inclusive, nurturing leadership.

Opposite this window, the sports side, is the “Pope” window (given by William Pope) in 1926 — which features almost a full cricket team of church fathers. The contrast is magnificent, telling how much our church has changed.

It takes more than a few donors and supporters not to just build, but maintain this landmark and St Peter’s has a thriving congregation of around 500, and a present staff of four clergy, music directors, and administrative staff. Every day, a team of volunteers is at the open front door, ready to welcome, guide and explain the building and its symbols, although COVID lockdowns have meant there are precious few tourists at present. In the Lady Chapel, quiet space for prayer is always provided, and always appreciated.

The convenor of the tour guides, Pauline Brooks, has watched this building’s effect on hundreds of visitors. She describes it as “inspiring.”

“You take a deep breath and you take in the art, the sheer grace, the intentions of all the people who have contributed to this space. You take in the architecture, the craftsmanship … it is a lively, organic, sacred space,” she said.

South Australia was unique in Australian colonies for being founded as “a paradise of dissent” — without convicts, and offering freedom to all faiths, like the Mayflower pilgrims. South Australia is the heart of Australian Lutheranism, and Lutherans brought their winemaking skills. The Roman Catholic cathedral ended up scoring the spot nearest the city’s center — ironically — now dwarfed by office blocks. But the ecumenical cooperation remains real — literally under the shadow of St Peter’s is one of the city’s oldest wooden buildings, a Quaker meeting house. The 1840 building is still used and members don’t mind when music from the cathedral drifts into their well-observed silences.

On October 31, the 14th dean of the cathedral will be installed. He is (Aboriginal) Gurindji man, Bishop Chris McLeod. There is something deeply fitting about an Indigenous man taking on the leadership of this parish — and restoring the custodianship of this place to an Indigenous owner. It is one more symbol this church has got right.

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