Big Churches in Little Europe: St Peter's, Adelaide

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St Peter’s Cathedral, Adelaide

I will admit, with no argument, that St Peter's Cathedral in Adelaide is neither a very big church nor is it anywhere near Europe.

So moving on, this is an iconic building in the city, occupies a site just to the north of the Adelaide Oval (famous for its international cricket matches). A consequence of its location next to the park is that it is easily seen from a lot of places as Adelaide's park-lands are huge and the church is on a bit of a hill.

When Adelaide was built it was built on two hills a mile apart with parks and the cricket oval and a small watercourse between them. South Adelaide, as it was then known, became the main city with the sops and rich people's houses. North Adelaide (as it is still known) was where the less exciting and poor people would live. The whole colony of South Australia would be ruled under the British flag, there would be no state religion and oppression would end.

Within a few years the Church of England made a land grab in the centre of South Adelaide to build a cathedral and within a few months and a court case, the non-established church was looking at possible sites in North Adelaide. The dissenting burghers of the city were overjoyed.

With all of that colonial history in mind, a walk around St Peter's shows that an interesting proportion of the church fabric was donated by the wealthy dissenting burghers. The building is a testament of the lure of established religion even when it is not established.

In some ways the building is very plain - the outside stone work is more interesting than the grey cement render used inside - but the wood work is second to none that I have seen. There is a consistent use of oak (both Australian native "oaks" and the European variety) which unifies the extensive panelling on the perimeter walls, the choir stalls, the insanely huge carved back piece and the hanging crucifix in the centre. The various bits were carved, donated and installed at various times over the building's 150 year history and some things are very modern while other things are reassuringly fake 19th Century old. They do sit well together.

If you would like just to sit in the quiet, the place to go is the chapel at the very back. Its soaring roof and huge stained glass windows make it a beautifully proportioned space. The statue of Mary Mother of Jesus on the wall is a top class piece of modern enamelled sculpture as well, and she adds a mixture of vigilance and serenity to the atmosphere.

Church services are run on the smell of an oily rag. The bigger churches in places like Australia have lovely buildings but their only operating cash is what goes into the plate on a Sunday. There are crowds of people up front walking with candles, fetching and carrying obscure items, singing and things yet all but one or two are volunteers. Everybody believes in excellence but nobody would be seen to be trying too hard and upsetting the team. Quite Australian in thought and action.

The organ has a terrific tone but don't sit in row J as that is the row where the sound from the back returns in its echo to muddy the sound from the front.

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