The machinery of the Cathedral – Chris Backhouse

It is important that St Mary’s Cathedral operates efficiently because it’s a place of worship and the birthplace of the Catholic Church in Australia.

Apart from the traditional busy religious celebrations of Holy Week at Easter and Christmas, St Mary’s Cathedral conducts more than 10 Masses each week in addition to a range of other related services and celebrations.

Making sure that everything goes to plan is the role of the Cathedral Sacristan. He is the officer charged with the care of the sacristy, church, and its contents. His duties in regard to the Sacristy relate to the Blessed Eucharist, baptismal font, the holy oils, sacred relics, decoration of the church for different seasons and feasts, preparation of what is necessary for the various ceremonies, pregustation of the Pontifical Mass, preservation of order in the church, and distribution of Masses.

Fulfilling this logistics role at St Mary’s Cathedral is Chris Backhouse, a long serving member of the Cathedral congregation and with family links to the Cathedral going back to 1842.

According to Chris: “I am also responsible for the upkeep of all artefacts which are housed within the Cathedral; the altar ware, the fabrics that are used for celebrations of Mass and things relating to the liturgical happenings within the Cathedral.

“This includes decorating of the sanctuary and upkeep of those precious items, the daily setting up of Masses which take place within the Cathedral and making sure the Sacristy has sufficient supplies of all items used in the liturgies including candles, wine, bread and incense.”

He says the Cathedral is different from parish churches due to the sheer volume of services and celebrations and the patrimony of the Cathedral. Many items held in the Cathedral Treasury date back to a much earlier time.

“Archbishops accrue a lot of items that go into the treasury and this includes their personal vestments. For instance, the items belonging to Cardinal Pell used in the context of the liturgy stay at the Cathedral. This includes the Archbishop’s mitre, crozier and rings.”

The mitre or headdress was elongated or embellished according to the times over the centuries. One tradition holds that the mitre’s usage dates to the time of the Apostles; other traditions place its first usage about the eighth or ninth centuries. The crozier (staff), or officially the pastoral staff (baculus pastoralis), symbolises the role of Bishop as the Good Shepherd. Bishops also wear a ring, which like a wedding band, symbolises that the Bishop is ‘wedded’ to his diocese.

Chris, formerly an English teacher both here and overseas, has now served as the Cathedral Sacristan for 15 years but he has a long personal and family link with the Cathedral. Not only does he live within the parish but also for many years, he assisted at the Cathedral and conducted Cathedral tours on a Sunday before being invited to assist with the Sacristy on weekends and then eventually taking over the position.