Light and sounds of the city faded as I entered a small, empty chapel, filled with the scent of wood and cloves. A faint light flickered towards the smell. I followed it behind a wooden partition and confronted what looked like a creature from The Lord of the Rings. She was all stubs, curves and panels of laurel, her rough-hewn features appeared lifelike beneath the candles and sunlight that coloured the neo-gothic sandstone.
I was standing in Queensland’s oldest church, St Stephen’s Chapel, admiring the sculpture of Mary MacKillop, Australia’s first saint who prayed in this room between 1869 and 1871. Fashioned by John Elliott from the trunk of a 100-year-old camphor laurel tree, the sculpture is a marvellous piece of work. It smells very pleasant too and standing there alone I began to think it might even move.
The chapel itself, which was completed in 1850 by Gothic revival architect Augustus Pugin, is a peaceful respite from the clamour of Brisbane’s CBD, as it’s situated dead in the centre of town. It also felt faintly sinister, alone in the gloom aside the wooden lady, and I was tempted to ring the bell at the back for some comfort. But of course that would be an outrage.
I walked over to the adjacent, much larger cathedral, built between 1863 and 1922 and wandered beneath its lofty, hallowed halls. I admired the peace, watching people pray in their own quiet space just metres from Brisbane city madness. The juxtaposition was interesting and made it all the more important in a way. This was a sanctuary where people could escape the flashing, the beeping, the rigour of corporate life without comprising their time.
I enjoyed seeing the light refract from the shapes and tints of stained glass, some of which come from Germany and are splendidly long. I don’t consider myself religious, but watching people lose their self-consciousness and dissolve into their own space was equally appealing, almost utopian. The place is well worth a wander for the architecture, the light, the art and the unique space it offers in the heart of Australia’s third largest city.
Tours of the chapel and cathedral are held weekdays at 10:30am, or on Sunday by appointment. You can also just wander on your own, like I did. Contact St Stephen’s Cathedral for more details.