Things to do in Brisbane City – St Stephen’s Chapel

If you’re looking for things to do in Brisbane City, head to the oldest church in QLD, St Stephen’s Chapel. Like a portal to another world, the chapel sits on Elizabeth Street, just feet away from the clamour of cars, commuters and big city progress. Yet inside this dimly lit chapel made of thick, neo-gothic sandstone, visitors are typically greeted with silence. At its end stands the sculpture of Mary MacKillop, carved out of a hundred-year-old camphor laurel tree.

Things to do in Brisbane City
St Stephen’s Chapel

The juxtaposition between the chapel’s silence and the city just metres away is palpable. I’ve been to the chapel about five times and on every visit I’m affected in at least some small way. There’s the architecture, the lighting, the small space and the sculpture, which was fashioned by the late artist John Elliott. At around seven feet tall, Mary MacKillop appears strong and imposing, apparently much like she was in real life.  

Things to do in Brisbane City
One of the best things to do in Brisbane City is visit John Elliott’s sculpture of Mary MacKillop, which is made from the trunk of a 100-year-old camphor laurel tree

St Stephen’s Chapel – A Short History

St Stephen’s Chapel was built in 1850 by a Mr. A. Gould, who fashioned the chapel on the plans of renowned Gothic-style architect Augustus Pugin. Mary MacKillop, who became Australia’s first saint after being recognised for the work she did with schools, orphanages and clinics, used to regularly worship at the chapel between 1869 and 1871.

The chapel was also used as a school between 1875 – 1880, and for the last 100 years it’s been used as an office, as storage and it’s also been threatened with demolition several times. The chapel was renovated and restored for liturgical use in 1998.

Things to do in Brisbane City
St Stephen’s Chapel, a sanctuary in the middle of the Brissie bustle

Things to do in Brisbane City – A Place of Refuge

I like coming here and standing in the silence, taking in the stained-glass windows, the sandstone and the sculpture. It’s a peaceful respite from my life starting at the computer as a developer by day and blogger by night. Social media, corporate offices, needs, demands. Here it feels there’s nothing but time and it’s just nice to stop. However, this time, I was taking videos and photos of the sculpture and suddenly on came the lights and out popped a man from behind the curtain.

Things to do in Brisbane City
A stained-glass window in St Stephen’s Chapel

I soon found myself talking with the chapel and adjacent cathedral Sacristan Allan James, who was checking on me of course. I had a nice but short chat with Allan about the history of the place. He also told me how the chapel is visited by many homeless people and during Covid the chapel became a place of refuge. Funny, as I feel the chapel has been a place of refuge for me too on a few occasions.

Things to do in Brisbane City

The Star Attraction Today – The Sculpture

During my conversation, we also touched on Mary MacKillop and Allan recounted – with a touch of admiration – she had defied the Catholic Church and was briefly ex-communicated. This got me thinking back to John Elliott’s sculpture of her, how incredible it is. When I first visited in 2014, the camphor laurel was pungent, while today the smell has faded and so has the wood’s colour.

Still, one of the best things to do in Brisbane City is to see John Elliot’s sculpture of Mary MacKillop. The work is remarkable and from the little I’ve read, the man behind its creation was another influential figure in history, who recently passed in 2016.

Things to do in Brisbane City
One of the best things to do in Brisbane City is to see this sculpture of Mary MacKillop

Rev Dr Tom Elich, Director of Liturgy of Brisbane, describes the choice of material by John Elliott – “a tree that would have been growing when Mary was alive”. He then calls it ‘tough’, and ‘pioneering’, much like the woman herself. Three other works by John Elliott also sit in the adjacent St Stephen’s Cathedral. I enjoy walking through there too, as it’s much larger and contains elaborate stained-glass windows, but to me, there’s just something about the chapel.  

Things to do in Brisbane City

Interestingly, a reader mentioned on my Facebook page that the cathedral contains ‘hidden symbols at the back of it that one only sees from a particular angle and only with light’. I’ve yet to encounter this but if you know anything of it, let me know in the comments.

The Cathedral Bell

If you’re looking for things to do in Brisbane City with more macabre attachments, check out the Cathedral Bell at the back of the chapel. The Bell was cast in London’s Whitechapel district in 1887, in the same place yet the year after Jack the Ripper infamously killed and maimed five prostitutes. This is the second site in Brisbane, however loose, with a link to Jack the Ripper. The other one I’ve touched on is in Toowong Cemetery.

While the bell’s association with Jack the Ripper is tenuous at best, it’s still an impressive and handsome hunk of metal. The Whitechapel Bell Foundry, which made the bell, also cast London’s famous Big Ben bell – which weighs 13.5 tonnes – and America’s Liberty Bell. Just shy of three tonnes, the Cathedral Bell is too heavy for the chapel and I’m not sure if it’s ever sat in St Stephen’s Cathedral either.

The chapel’s paltry bell tower today, which couldn’t accommodate the Cathedral Bell
Things to do in Brisbane City – see the Cathedral Bell

As you can see above, today you can find it sitting on wooden blocks under a small shelter apart from the cathedral and chapel. Although a little lonely and largely disused, she’s still a ripper to look at.

What about you? Have you been to St Stephen’s Chapel or St Stephen’s Cathedral? Alternatively, are there any historical or cultural things to do in Brisbane City that you would recommend?

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