A new book by Janice Garaty outlines the history of one of Sydney’s first Catholic Churches, St Peter’s Surry Hills.

For much of the 19th century, there wasn’t much development in Surry Hills. The hills themselves were covered in towering blackbutt and bloodwood trees, but major sandhills between Devonshire Street and the city edges created a natural boundary. 

The sandhills also created fearsome storms, and the term “brickfielder” was given to the strong southerly wind which whipped up sand and dust from the government brickworks on Brickfield Hill (on Riley Street) and spread it through the city. 

Belmore Ward was the most populated part of Surry Hills and home to a Chinese community who worked in the markets in what is now Chinatown. 

But in 1870 or so the population began to swell. Crown Street Public School was opened in 1878 and within a year enrolments were over 1600. Bourke Street school followed and its buildings were a showpiece of the classical style designed by William Kemp, Architect for Public Schools between 1880 to 1896. 

By 1871, the census revealed that Surry Hills had more workers in what was called the “superior arts” such as watchmakers, jewellers and lithographer, as well as other trades such as upholstery, clothing and French polishing. 

The Surry Hills population also comprised large numbers of shopkeepers, foundry workers, coach builders and tram or horse bus drivers. Many of these people were Irish and Catholic, but until 1880 they had to walk long distances to mass.    

Residents had the choice between four different churches, St Mary’s Cathedral (built in 1821), Sacred Heart Darlinghurst (1850), St Francis’ Haymarket (1867-1910) and Mt Carmel Waterloo (1859). 

On the 19th of September 1880, Archbishop Vaughan laid the foundation stone of the church-school of St Peter at Surry Hills in the presence of about 4000 people including several of the leading citizens of Sydney.  

The first Mass in St Peter’s was celebrated on Christmas Day 1880 but the formal opening and blessing of St Peter’s by Archbishop Vaughan had to wait until 11 September 1881, when the church had been paid for.   

St Peter’s Church would later erect a presbytery which was blessed by Cardinal Patrick Moran on the 8th of February 1891.  It was at this blessing of the presbytery that Cardinal Moran delivered the words: 

“At the time it seemed a small thing to secure a plot of land in the city, but they had seen how a small seed had sprung into a stately tree which was so to speak, putting forth fresh branches every year with ever increasing abundance.”  

Volume 1 of “St Peter’s Surry Hills. A History” is called “A Small Seed, Stately Tree” and details the period from 1880 to 1931. The book was written by Janice Garaty and is available from the St Peter’s Parish Office