Dictionary of Sydney

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Sacred Heart Catholic church Darlinghurst

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Sacred Heart Catholic church, Darlinghurst

The original Sacred Heart church in Darlinghurst was consecrated and opened on 6 June 1852, the first Catholic church and parish in the eastern suburbs. The inner eastern suburbs had begun to develop rapidly from the 1840s, with the construction of the military barracks at Paddington, the gaol at Darlinghurst (opposite the church site) and the subdivision of Palmer's estate in Woolloomooloo.

Preparations for the construction of the church began in 1847, with the foundation stone laid on 3 May 1850. At the time there were only three other Catholic churches in Sydney: St Mary's, St Patrick's and St Benedict's (then under construction). In June 1850 local Catholic newspaper The Freeman 's Journal reported that they trusted the soon-to-be-completed church would not only be a fine architectural addition but would

measure the self-denying zeal of a numerous population of the faithful in the neighbourhood of the Surry Hills. [1]

When the new church was opened on the corner of Oxford Street and Darlinghurst Road in 1852, the first priest was Father Vincent O'Connell of the Benedictine order, the first Australian-born Catholic to be ordained a priest. Built of sandstone, the original church included a chancel, sacristy, a square tower complete with 'a peal of bells' and a crypt underneath, which was initially used as a school. In 1856 a new altar, carved in Paris and shipped to Sydney, was installed. This altar survived the first church and was transferred to the new Sacred Heart church in 1912.

In 1862 the church was enlarged and by 1870 had a congregation of 500 people. In 1876 the interior of the church was redesigned and altered in the style of English church architect Augustus Charles Pugin. [2]

Sacred Heart School

In 1880 the foundation stone for a new school was laid on a site immediately to the north of the church by Archbishop Vaughan, in front of a crowd of 6,000 people. The new two-storey building was to accommodate two separate schools, with girls taught on the upper level and boys on the lower level. Both sections were run by the Sisters of Charity, who also ran nearby St Vincent's Hospital.

The new school followed a tradition of Catholic education and reflected the church's insistence on a Catholic education for Catholic children. Since the 1830s in Sydney, the church had been educating Catholic children to ensure religious instruction. The separation of Catholic children into their own schools also reflected in part the ongoing suspicion between the largely Irish Catholic community and the predominantly English Protestant community during the nineteenth century. The school continued to operate on the site until 1986.

A new church

The church also served other Catholic communities in the area: services were also held in Spanish and Portuguese. [3] By 1907 the church was deemed too small for the congregation, and a decision was made to replace it. Architect James Nangle was appointed to design a new church on the old Sacred Heart site. Services for the congregation were held in a temporary church adjacent to the site during building work. The old building was demolished to street level by mid-1910 and the foundation stone for the new church was laid in October 1911. The below-street-level stone walls and foundations of the original church were retained and used as the foundations for the new building erected above. [4]

During this period, Sydney City Council were also undertaking a street-widening program along Oxford Street The church managed to negotiate a settlement of £5,788 from the council for loss of land and disruption to services. [5]

The new church, built to accommodate 700 parishioners, was consecrated and opened by Archbishop Michael Kelly in October 1911. A variety of works programs and repairs were undertaken on the church from its opening, including the installation of the first electric carillon in any Catholic church in Australia in 1949, until 1958 when a fire in the church damaged the altar and sacristy. Although damage was minor, the incident was taken as an opportunity to carry out much-needed repairs, as well as reconstructing the apse to a semi-circular form. The work also included the installation of a mosaic on the wall behind the altar, created in the Vatican mosaic studio before being shipped to Sydney.

University use

In 2004–2005 the Notre Dame University took over the site, as one of its two new campuses in Sydney. Controversy has surrounded the use of the site by the University and its impact on the church building, the parish and the neighbourhood. The church was closed during 2007–2008 for restoration by Notre Dame University for ongoing use as a parish church and by the university.


[1] The Freeman's Journal, 27 June 1850

[2] The Freeman's Journal, 24 June 1876

[3] Clive Faro and Garry Wotherspoon, Street Seen: a history of Oxford Street, Melbourne University Press, Melbourne, 2000, p 98

[4] Letter, James Nangle to Cardinal Moran 12 October 1910, Sacred Heart Darlinghurst parish historical file 1870–1929, Sydney Archdiocesan Archives

[5] Sacred Heart Resumption Packet, CN 684, City of Sydney Archives