The Early Days

The story of the beginning and growth of St. Augustine’s is a real journey of faith, hope and charity and not easily condensed into a short account! St. Augustine’s was originally built as a parish church in the 1860’s, being completed in 1866. It became the bishop’s church and cathedral some 54 years later and was consecrated as a cathedral in 1939. The vision, faith and hope of the early catholic community was phenomenal. Through their generous contributions, and indeed the contributions of the women and men of faith down the years right to the present day, this beautiful church today stands as a prominent landmark in Port Elizabeth.

Fr George Corcoran, though not the first priest in Port Elizabeth, was the fist 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 (Govan Mbeki Ave), where Woolworths now stands. At the time there were 42 Catholics in Port Elizabeth and Uitenhage. 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. The foundation stone for the church was laid on 3rd December 1861 and amazingly was consecrated on the 25th April 1866, a short 5 years later. What a feat, to build a church of this magnitude in 5 years! It is worth noting that this magnificent structure and beautiful interior was built as a parish church, not a cathedral.

“a plain Gothic building with a handsome tower and spire and one of the largest and best bells in South Africa.”

The organ and stain glass windows are part of the original design. 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.


St Augustine’s invites you to contact us with any questions!

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