From the Donkin, one has spectacular views of not only the harbour but all the way from Summerstrand to the shore at Deal Party. Amongst one of the exquisite views of Port Elizabeth, is that of an old gem, St Augustine’s Cathedral.
St Augustine’s Cathedral is centrally located being built on a steep cliff face on the side of one of the streets leading up the Hill to Central. Looking upwards from Market Square one’s eye catches a glimpse of an impressive church spire. Focusing harder, any visitor will immediately realise that this must be a church.
When the first Catholic priest, Fr George Corcoran, set foot in Port Elizabeth in 1840 after being shipwrecked in Cape St Francis and having to travel the last 100km to town on horseback, there were only 42 Catholics in the town. Land was purchased on Castle Hill to accommodate the construction of the proposed church.
Fr George Corcoran, though not the first priest in Port Elizabeth, was the first resident priest. He arrived on the 8th March 1840 and celebrated Mass on 17th March in the home of Mr James Scallan, above his tailor’s shop in Main Street (now Govan Mbeki Ave), where Woolworths now stands. At the time there were 42 Catholics in Port Elizabeth and Uitenhage.
In the ensuing years, the Catholic community in Port Elizabeth flourished necessitating the construction of a Roman Catholic Church. Fr Corcoran obtained a plot for a church in 1844 and by 1847 a new two-storey building was erected on Prospect Hill / Castle Hill the site on which the MacSherry hall stands today. In 1852 Fr Corcoran died of yellow fever in South America where he was collecting funds for the Port Elizabeth Church and School.
In 1847 Dr Devereux, then in Cape Town was appointed as the First Bishop of the newly formed Vicariate of the Eastern Cape. On the death of Fr. Corcoran, he transferred Fr. Thomas Murphy from Grahamstown to Port Elizabeth. When Bishop Moran was appointed Bishop he made Fr Murphy Vicar General. Fr. Murphy was responsible for building our beautiful church on the extended plot on Prospect Hill / Castle Hill. He first extended the existing building which became known as St. Augustine’s Hall. This served as school, church and hall, and was later part of the Marist Brothers’ School.
Apparently the design of the church was based upon the style of a church in Selbridge near Dublin, Ireland with the plans being formulated by a Mr McCarthy but executed by the local architect and first Town Engineer of Port Elizabeth, Robert Archibald. In December 1861 the Foundation Stone was laid with construction being started on the church under the watchful eye of Father Thomas Murphy. Five years later on the 25th April 1866, with the steeple almost completed, St.Augustine’s was opened and solemnly consecrated by Bishop Patrick Moran. By the end of the year, the steeple was completed.It is worth noting that this magnificent structure and beautiful interior was built as a parish church, not a cathedral.
The organ, in memory of Father Murphy, and stain glass windows from F. Barnett of Leith, are part of the original design, arrived in September 1875. The construction was not without its problems. One such incident was when the walls, almost at roof level, were blown down during a particularly violent storm. The building was re-built through the generosity of the local community, both catholic and non-Catholic. Amazingly, the funds required were donated on the day of the disaster. The foundations were strengthened and supporting pillars were added and laid in concrete.
In the newspaper account of the opening, St. Augustine’s was described as being “built in good taste and correct architectural lines”. It was further described as “a plain Gothic building with a handsome tower and spire and one of the largest and best bells in South Africa.”
At the time of the official opening reference was made to beautiful marble altar, the lofty Gothic roof and softened light through the magnificent stained glass windows. At that time the steps up to the tabernacle were of white polished Italian marble and the pillars of the high altar were of Irish green marble, and the slabs of Irish pinkish marble.
After the official consecration and opening there were still aspects to finish off, among them the organ and choir gallery and the vestry. On the day of consecration, the church building was free from debt, having cost between nine and ten thousand pounds! The remaining extensions were set to cost a further three to four thousand pounds.
Father Murphy was also responsible for the establishment of the Holy Rosary Convent in 1867. He is buried beneath the high altar in the cathedral. In the 1890s, St Augustine’s Cathedral had a narrow escape. In 1897 Miss Frances Livingstone Johnston, a mentally deranged pyromaniac, attempted to set it alight, but fortunately she failed. She succeeded in burning one down other churches, Holy Trinity in Havelock Street, and attempted to set fire to St Mary’s but was catch red handed in the act. She and was arrested, convicted and sent to Robben Island, where she also set light to the Government offices while the officials were attending an evening party.
In his book Harbours of Memory, Lawrence G. Green provides us with the following vignette on Father Murphy:
“Irish Town was tough but an Irish priest named Father Murphy restored law and order. He rode a black horse and carried only a cane, When the black horse died, he acquired a white horse and an admirer called his hotel The White Horse in honour of the priest’s steed. Thanks to Father Murphy’s influence, the Roman Catholic prisoners in the little wooden jail were allowed out on Sundays to attend Mass. For three decades, Father Murphy visited the Irish emigrants who settled in Port Elizabeth. He died nearly a century ago, but the man and his famous horses have never been forgotten.”
On 15th February 1931, St Augustine’s was reopened after the completion of restoration work by Jones and McWilliams. The Church had been redecorated in Italian style in 1894/5 by Bishop Peter Strobino. At this point, it was stated for the first time that that the original architect had been Sir Gilbert Scott.
The bronze statue of Christ the King which can be seen above the door was donated by the Frost family in 1931.
Originally St. Augustine’s was built as a parish church in the 1860s. It became the bishop’s church and cathedral some 54 years later and was only consecrated as a cathedral in 1939. It should also be noted that the interior of the church has been substantially altered several times over its life.
Port Elizabeth: A Social Chronicle to the end of 1945 by Margaret Harradine (1996, E H Walton Packaging Pty Ltd, Port Elizabeth)