My house shall be called a house of prayer - Mass for the 175 Anniversary of Dedication of St Joseph’s Church

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Home > Archbishop > Homilies > My house shall be called a house of prayer - Mass for the 175 Anniversary of Dedication of St Joseph’s Church


“My house will be called a house of prayer for all peoples”. Thus the prophet Isaiah speaks of a building dedicated to the worship of God.

Church buildings are unique buildings in our civic landscape. Their architecture seeks to capture an other-worldliness. Churches are not built fundamentally for practical use, but they are intended as testimonies to the existence of the Divine. They are statements first and use practical second. They stand as an invitation to engage with matters of the spiritual. A church building is first and foremost a house of prayer. It seeks to elevate the heart and the soul of a person from its usual preoccupations with the daily physical realities to matters of the spirit. There is the intention that a church building will speak of transcendental realities. It creates an environment where a person is taken beyond themselves to the realm of the spirit. It creates a unique opportunity for the individuals who visit to engage with Almighty God.

In entering a church building, the look, the smell, the sounds all act in their own way upon the senses. In a church building a person naturally moves to silence and to stillness. Churches have a quiet dignity. They are not loud or garish. There is a restrained beauty. Stained glass windows filter the light which enters; sacred images invoke the incarnate Son of God, the saints and angels; the tabernacle with its accompanying light that burns day and night declares that God is present; the altar which is always central evokes both sacrifice and nourishment. Together they arouse in our very being the sense of another world.

Churches are not merely assembly halls. They are not just locations for rituals. A church is the house of God: a house of prayer. Indeed, as the prophet said, “for all people”. When they are filled with people they rise to their stated purpose – to give praise and worship to God. Even the non-believer has his place here and is aware that in taking his place he exists in this sacred moment; this sacred place; a place reverenced by believers. Thus, natural respect is shown and it is not unusual for a person who may have little faith to find themselves drawn to contemplation of other worldly or spiritual realities.

Christians have been about the business of building churches throughout history. Ad maiorem Dei gloriam inque hominum salutem or "for the greater glory of God and the salvation of humanity" is the Jesuit expression. This is what churches are about. Churches are monuments to the faith and devotion of people. They are built through generosity and sacrifice and with a desire to give honour and glory to God. It is God who is proclaimed in seeking to use the best of artistic and architectural genius.

Our Catholic Churches seek to express the characteristics of the Catholic faith, often capturing its expression at a particular time and culture. They are in stone and bricks and mortar, in glass and fabric an expression of faith in the God who lives in unapproachable light, yet is also present among us. God is not just distant but is readily accessible. Indeed, a person entering a church can find themselves drawn into the presence of the living God; their soul is touched and activated. God can be found here.

Churches link us with moments in history and with the account of the living faith of a particular time. This Church, St Joseph’s, links us with the very foundations of the establishing of the pastoral presence of the Catholic Church in Australia.

There were two priests, who arrived together in Sydney in May 1820 with the necessary approvals of both Church and State. Several priests who had come beforehand lacked permission of one or other of these authorities. Thus, Fr Jeremiah O’Flynn had been unceremoniously loaded back onto a ship and returned to England because he lacked the necessary authorisation to work in the colony of New South Wales.  These two priests would both serve in Tasmania. The senior of the two was Fr Phillip Conolly, and the other was Fr John Joseph Therry. Both were the foundational priests of the ministry of the Catholic Church in this land. Both were men with singular priestly devotion, both were men of human frailty. Such is the reality of the Church. 

In 1821 Fr Conolly left Sydney and travelled to Van Diemen's Land to serve the Catholic population here which was composed largely of convicts, leaving Fr Therry the sole priest on the mainland. Fr Conolly set himself the task of serving the moral and religious life of the Catholics here. He travelled unceasingly, living with his scattered people wherever they were to be found, sometimes using three or four horses in a day. He was the first priest to serve the Catholic community in Tasmania and is honoured as such. He is buried beneath the side altar dedicated to our Lady in St Mary’s Cathedral.

Fr Therry was sent by Archbishop John Bede Polding, first Catholic Archbishop of Sydney, to Van Diemen's Land in April 1838 as vicar-general. Fr Therry was also a very active priest. And he was a builder. He had already undertaken the first building of St Mary’s in Sydney, near Hyde Park. That project ran in financial difficulties. In Hobart he commenced the building of St Joseph’s in 1841. As in Sydney he overreached himself and carried serious debts on the project.

The church, this church, designed by James Thomson, a former convict and, interestingly, a Freemason, was built by convict labour in 1841. It was blessed and opened by Fr Therry early on Christmas morning that year. It is the oldest Catholic church in Hobart.

In this church the first bishop of Hobart, Robert William Wilson, was installed on 12 May, 1844. This church served as a pro-cathedral until St Mary’s was built. As the first bishop on the island he needed to confirm no less than 500 people in this church in his first year of residence. This church has a special place in the Catholic story in Tasmania.

For one hundred and seventy five years this building has been, in the words from our first reading, a house of prayer for all peoples. With its doors opening onto Macquarie Street many a person has entered in and knelt or sat quietly absorbed in reflection and prayer. Many have opened their hearts, presented their fears and burdens, sought comfort or reassurance. Many a soul has sought the living God.

People have come through its doors for the sacred liturgy. Especially, of course, to attend Mass. They have listened as the Word of God has been proclaimed from the sacred Scriptures and been expounded in sermons and homilies. People have come to seek mercy in the Sacrament of Penance. There have been countless baptisms, marriage and funerals here over the last 175 years.

It has been served by Fr John Joseph Therry, by our first bishop, Robert William Wilson, by some very holy and much loved pastors, like Fr John Cullen who served in this church from 1934 to 1956. And since 1956 (60 years ago now) it has been entrusted to the Passionist Fathers who continue to faithfully offer spiritual ministry.

This church building is largely as Fr John Joseph Therry first envisioned it. There is an authentic continuity of Catholic faith that has been celebrated and nourished in this church.

In the words of our entrance hymn today: “Built of hopes and dreams and visions, rock of faith and vault of grace; here the love of Christ shall end divisions. … all are welcome in this place.”

“My house will be called a house of prayer for all peoples”.

Archbishop Julian Porteous
Saturday, 9 July 2016