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St Stephens Cathedral

  • 600107
  • 259-269 Elizabeth Street, Brisbane City


Also known as
St Stephen's Catholic Cathedral
State Heritage
Register status
Date entered
21 October 1992
Religion/worship: Cathedral
Religion/worship: Religious precinct
8.1 Creating social and cultural institutions: Worshipping and religious institutions
Suter, Richard George
Construction periods
1863–1874, St Stephens Cathedral First Section
1884, West Gable completed
1920–1922, Transepts and Sanctuary
1989, Eastern Chapels
Historical period
1840s–1860s Mid-19th century
1870s–1890s Late 19th century


259-269 Elizabeth Street, Brisbane City
Brisbane City Council
-27.46871008, 153.02903705


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Criterion AThe place is important in demonstrating the evolution or pattern of Queensland’s history.

St Stephens Cathedral is significant as evidence of the prominence of the Catholic community in pre-Separation Queensland.

Criterion DThe place is important in demonstrating the principal characteristics of a particular class of cultural places.

St Stephens Cathedral is significant as a typical but plain example of a Gothic Revival Cathedral, with a cruciform plan shape and a hierarchy of aisles to either side of the nave.

Criterion EThe place is important because of its aesthetic significance.

As the centrepiece of an important group of ecclesiastical buildings that are visually a prominent part of this section of the city.

Criterion GThe place has a strong or special association with a particular community or cultural group for social, cultural or spiritual reasons.

It is the symbolic focus of Catholicism in Brisbane and as the site of the Bishop's seat since 1864.

Criterion HThe place has a special association with the life or work of a particular person, group or organisation of importance in Queensland’s history.

St Stephens Cathedral is significant for its association with Bishop Quinn.


This cathedral was built in various stages between 1864 and 1922 with additions at the sanctuary end in 1989.

The land at the site was originally designated for church purposes in 1847. Six allotments of section 33 were set aside for the use of the Roman Catholic Church in September 1848 with the original deeds of grant being signed by Governor Charles Fitzroy in November 1849. Father Hanly, one of the first parish priests, purchased allotment 13 in 1851 and allotment 6 in 1854 and a further 18 perches of land was bought by Bishop Quinn in 1877 to extend the school playgrounds.

From the early days of free settlement, Brisbane's Catholic population was significant as they comprised 30% of residents in 1846. By 1861 Catholics constituted about 25% of the total Queensland population. St Stephens Cathedral was the third site for Catholic worship in Brisbane. Services were originally conducted in a rented brick building near the corner of Elizabeth and Albert Streets until 1850 when Old St Stephens Church (QHR 600108) was completed. In 1859 with the separation of Queensland, the Archdiocese of Brisbane was created with James Quinn as the first bishop. Quinn, who did not arrive from Ireland until 1861, planned a large cathedral to accommodate a growing congregation and on the Feast of St Stephen (26 December) in 1863 he laid the foundation stone for a grand cathedral designed by Benjamin Backhouse. The project was to be completed in stages and about one-third of the total area of the foundations was laid in 1864, after which work ceased for several years during the economic crisis of the later 1860s. In the late 1860s R George Suter was commissioned to design a smaller, simpler building than the one originally planned and in 1870 work recommenced on the existing foundations. By early 1874 the nave of the cathedral was sufficiently completed for the opening service to be held on 17 May, but work continued for several months after this date.

In 1884 the top of the west gable was completed and the two sandstone spires were added. In October 1887, the cathedral was furnished with four benefactors' gifts: a large French-made Carrara marble altar with a relief panel of the Last Supper, and three stained glass windows made in Munich. One window depicted the Sacred Heart, the second showed the resurrection of Lazarus and the third was a group of three medallions showing the Lamb with the Cross, St John and the Virgin and Child. The medallions were installed over the northern door.

The depression of the 1890s discouraged further additions but with the post-Federation recovery, plans to add the transepts were revived. A 1911 Hall & Dods design shows an ambitious proposal for completion works which included a large tower at the intersection of the nave and transepts. However, the death of Archbishop Robert Dunne in 1917 made way for a successor, James Duhig, whose long-range plans for a cathedral did not include St Stephens. James Duhig decided to work towards the construction on another site of a new cathedral, to be known as the Holy Name Cathedral. The grand plans for completion of St Stephens were abandoned and instead a simple Hennessy, Hennessy & Hall design was adopted for the addition of transepts and a sanctuary to St Stephens. Duhig laid the foundation stone for these additions in October 1920 and the work was completed in 1922.

Meanwhile the plans for the Holy Name Cathedral proceeded and in an impressive ceremony on 16 September 1928 two massive foundation stones were laid by visiting church dignitaries. Legal and financial difficulties postponed work on the Holy Name Cathedral which was never built - St Stephens was to remain the site for the bishop's seat.

Serious erosion of the two sandstone spires prompted their removal in 1977 and in the 1980s Archbishop Rush initiated plans for the restoration and extension of the cathedral. Architect Robin Gibson designed modifications to the building. Internal modifications respond to changing liturgical practices.The sandstone spires were replaced with ones of glass-reinforced concrete and three new chapels were added to the eastern frontage. During this development, the foundation stones from the Holy Name Cathedral site were relocated to the grounds of St Stephens and the Last Supper relief panel from the 1887 altar was set into a wall. The modified cathedral was dedicated on 3 December 1989.


The Gothic Revival church is of a standard English type with its cruciform plan shape and in the manner it derives its articulation from the hierarchy of aisles, nave and steep roof. It is spare in some of its features possibly as a result of limited finances, and design changes during construction brought about for the same reason. The lightweight plaster ceilings do not need the support of buttresses at the clerestory level, leaving the sides of the nave relatively blank. The building's major feature is the pair of octagonal stair towers topped by spires to either side of the western facade. This facade has a diminutive entry doorway above which is a large perpendicular Gothic stained glass window depicting Christ's Ascension, St Stephen and other saints. The relatively severe ends of each transept only have three tall lancet window openings. The clerestory has tripartite pointed windows one in each bay, while the bays below these at aisle level have single Gothic arched openings flanked by small buttresses.

The building is built of porphyry (Brisbane Tuff) and freestone. The relative absence of mouldings and extensive use of corbelling can be attributed to changing design intentions. The recent work on the building has replaced the original spires (that had already been removed) with GRC replicas. On the Charlotte Street side the most notable addition was the semi-circular Blessed Sacrament Chapel, in modular concrete and glass flanked on one side by the Reconciliation Chapel and on the other the baptismal area. This addition is clad in stone veneer in a modern manner with only a vestigial references to the original Gothic revival style. The additions have resulted in a considerable increase in lighting levels in the sanctuary end of the Cathedral. Art work including sculpture and stained glass in these spaces is by contemporary artists including Warren Langley and Peter Schipperheyn. The differences between old and new are also highlighted by the change in floor surfaces. Below the extensions is a two level reinforced concrete carpark.

Internally the nave elevation is two-storeyed with squat unadorned columns supporting heavily moulded pointed arches. Pilasters rise from corbels above the columns to support transverse ribs under the pointed plaster barrel vault. The aisles have plaster vaults supported on longitudinal, transverse and diagonal ribs which spring from corbels similar to those in the nave.

At the time of the 1989 alterations much of the external stone retaining wall and cast iron fencing that once ran along the Elizabeth Street footpath was removed and replaced by the present stair spanning the width of the front of the building. A similar tinted concrete wall was built on the Charlotte Street frontage, but some original and cast iron walling adjoins on the St Stephens School frontage. The grounds surrounding the Cathedral are predominantly an open grassy area to the south crossed by concrete paths and planted with palm trees.

Image gallery


Location of St Stephens Cathedral within Queensland
Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International (CC BY 4.0)
Last reviewed
1 July 2022
Last updated
20 February 2022