History of St Benedict's
Sitting peacefully in the midst of all the modernisation of Sydney’s inner city suburbs of Broadway and Chippendale, on the corner of Abercrombie and Broadway, you will find the beautifully regal gothic revival-styled St Benedict’s Catholic Church. Many people wander past the quiet and unassuming Catholic Church on a daily basis but few would know its rich history winding back to 1838.
The location of St Benedict’s Church was secured in late 1838 by John Bede Polding, a Benedictine monk who would become Australia’s first Archbishop, on the corner of what was then Botany Bay Road and Parramatta Street. The Parish originally ministered to the steadily growing population of Catholic convicts, emancipists and free settlers that lived in small terrace houses and worked in nearby factories and on the wharves.
In 1840, Bishop Polding travelled to England and, inspired by the architecture of Augustus Pugin, envisaged a similar design for St Benedict’s. Dr Polding laid the foundation stone of the present day church on 21 July 1845 in the presence of 3000 people. William Morris erected the church to Pugin’s design and it was completed in 1852.
In 1950 six bronze bells were delivered from George Mear’s and Co Foundry in Whitechapel, East London. Now known as the Whitechapel Bell Foundry Limited, it is Britain’s oldest existing manufacturing company and is best known for casting Big Ben and the original US Liberty Bell. St Benedict’s was the first Catholic Parish Church in Australia to have change-ringing bells and today it remains the only six-bell peal in the City of Sydney. Four of the original six bells remain in the tower.
During the middle decades of the 19th century, the Parish expanded with a surge of migrants fleeing famine-ravaged Ireland. The St Benedict’s Parish was one of Sydney’s poorest, with the predominantly Irish residents working in the many surrounding factories, slaughterhouses and ramshackle shops. The gold rush in the early 1850s saw many of the male parishioners leave to try their hand at the diggings and it is a true testament to the love of God that the parishioners saw fit to remit amounts of money from their findings on the gold fields to their church back home in Sydney.
This meant that despite its poor surrounds, St Benedict’s was the first Catholic Church in Australia to meet the Church Law requirement of being debt-free, and in doing so became the first Catholic Church in Australia eligible for consecration. The consecration was performed by Archbishop Polding on 24 February 1862 and was a momentous event in the then Colony of New South Wales.
Catholic schooling commenced on the St Benedict’s site in 1838 with lay teachers, including former convicts and assisted immigrants. After the withdrawal of government financial support, the school was staffed by Marist Brothers and Sisters of the Good Samaritan. In 1900 St Benedict’s had an enrolment of 976 – the largest Catholic school enrolment in the Colony. The school continued to respond to a changing society and in 1937 a Technical School was established for boys and a Business College for girls. In 1951 there were seven Sisters and seven Brothers teaching some 550 students.
The school continued until 1982, when dwindling enrolments and the need for extensive repairs to the historic building led to a decision to relocate the remaining St Benedict’s primary school students to other schools in the area. The University took possession of the St Benedict’s site in 2005, and our first Sydney students commenced their studies here in 2006.
Sitting at the heart of the University’s Broadway Campus, St Benedict’s is currently used weekly by hundreds of Notre Dame students and is a testament to the University’s mission of providing education within a context of Catholic faith and values.
This information on the history of St Benedict’s Church has been sourced from the historical research undertaken by Lyn Mills and presented in the book Australia’s Oldest Consecrated Catholic Church – St Benedict’s, Broadway, written, compiled and edited by Lyn Mills (2012). Special thanks also to Brother Kelvin Canavan fms, and his research presented in his book St Benedict’s School, Broadway – a history of a Catholic school 1383-2012 (2014).
The University of Notre Dame is delighted to work with St Benedict’s Parish on the joint campaign to raise the funds for the restoration of St Benedict’s.