St. Patricks Church - A Fascinating History
St Patrick's Church in Grahamstown, has played many roles in its time. From saving the souls of people, to saving and protecting the people themselves. A large garrison was retained in Grahamstown during the frontier peace between 1839 and 1844. The garrison included soldiers of the Irish regiments, and together the soldiers gave their free time willingly to build the church, then known as the Tudor Gothic St Patrick’s. St Partick’s Church was also referred to as “The Castle”, as it was built almost as a fortress and a church, complete with cruciform firing slits and castellated walls. It was these attributes that provided shelter to many civilians during the 1846 “War of Axe”.
In the 1820’s and 1830’s, there were Catholics scattered all around the Eastern Cape, some being soldiers on duty on the frontiers and some being 1820 Settlers. But there was no priest to minister to the Catholics until 1838. Bishop Griffiths and Father Burke visited the Grahamstown area, and on Sunday 15 July 1838, Bishop Griffiths held Mass in the house of a widow, Mahoney, significantly close to where the church was to be built. Father Burke reluctantly remained behind when the Bishop left on 10 August 1838 and established a mission center. The distances to be traveled to visit members of his Catholic congregation was a daunting task as he often had to ride up to 150 miles to reach his flock. A recently ordained Father Thomas Murphy had come to assist the struggling Father Burke, but it was too late. Father Burke died in his sleep, shortly after the arrival of Father Murphy, who assumed Father Burkes duties after his death. To some, this coincidence was all too convenient, and some suspected that Father Murphy had actually murdered Father Burke. Fortunately, Murphy did not allow these rumors to deter him from his task, and he was often seen astride his black horse, visiting the hospital, visiting men on the frontier (even during the wars of 1846 and 1851), and in the humble cottages of the Irish immigrants.
It was through his close relationship with the 27th Inniskillings, that officers and soldiers volunteered their funds and labour to building the church. The office of the Royal Engineers drew the plans for the church, and it is believed that Major Selwyn was a great influence, as the church remarkably resembles the gothic “castle” that Selwyn had constructed for himself in Grahamstown. Bishop Griffiths secured a grant of land, and on 30 July 1839, the foundation stone to the church was laid. The church was completed by June 1844, and although the construction took approximately five years, the church was debt free on completion. A large and proud congregation of soldiers, civil and military officials, citizens of Grahamstown and the Lieutenant Governor, were all present at the consecration led by Bishop Griffiths on 21 July 1844.
St Patrick’s Church was raised to Pro-Cathedral in 1847, with Bishop Aidan Devereaux taking the seat of Vicar Apostolic to the Eastern Cape. He was succeeded by Bishops Morgan and Ricards. Ricards and his friend Dr Atherstone identified the first diamond to be discovered in the Cape in 1867. The Observatory Museum now reserves a pane of glass with his initials inscribed upon it. Bishop Morgan baptized his first African congregation member on 14 February 1867, which is a significant event, as the Catholic Church has always had its doors open to all Catholics, of all races, even during the apartheid struggle. Bishop Ricards was also responsible for selecting the High Altar on a trip to Paris in 1886 and the selection of the gift of James Harvey, of Grahamstown, in honorable memory of his son.