The ‘mother church of Victoria’, St Francis’ Church, was built between 1841 and 1845 on the block of land originally reserved for the Catholic Church in Melbourne.
Soon after Melbourne’s pioneer priest, the Franciscan Fr Patrick Geoghegan, arrived in 1839, a temporary chapel made of second-hand floorboards was erected on the site of the future St Francis’ Church. When sufficient funds were raised to finance a permanent building, Geoghegan commissioned the architect Samuel Jackson to design the present church, which he dedicated to St Francis’ of Assisi.
The foundation stone of St Francis’ Church was laid on 4 October 1841. The first mass was celebrated in the completed nave of the church on 22 May 1842. And the church was blessed and opened on 23 October 1845.
St Francis’ became Melbourne’s first Catholic cathedral with the arrival of Bishop James Alipius Goold in 1848. Its cathedral status ended when the nave of the partially built St Patrick’s Cathedral was opened for worship in the late 1860s.
St Mary of the Cross MacKillop (1842–1909) made her first communion at St Francis’ in 1850, the same year that bushranger Ned Kelly’s parents were married in the church.
The beautiful ‘Ladye Chapel’ on the western side of St Francis’ Church was constructed in the mid 1850s and blessed on 31 May 1858. A Renaissance style sanctuary, which extended the church, was built in the late 1870s.
Over the years, a wide range of Catholic societies and institutions have occupied buildings around St Francis’ Church. These include several Catholic primary schools, two Catholic newspapers, the Catholic Missions Office, the Catholic Welfare Organisation, the Young Christian Workers and the Catholic Women’s Social Guild,
A school building on the north-western corner of the block (formerly a hall) became the starting point for the Irish Christian brothers’ vast Australian apostolate in 1869. Between 1850 and 1855, the first Catholic seminary in Victoria was located in a building in the centre of the Little Lonsdale Street frontage. The Society of St Vincent De Paul’s first Australian conference met in this building in 1854.
St Francis’ Church became a eucharistic shrine in 1929, when the Archdiocese of Melbourne entrusted its care to the Blessed Sacrament Congregation.
In 1955–56, a new front porch was added to the building and ten new confessionals were built as buttresses along the outer wall of the nave. More recently, the interior has been modernised in line with the Second Vatican Council’s liturgical reforms.
Since 1929, the culture of eucharistic devotion that the Congregation transplanted to Melbourne has transformed St Francis’ Church and paved the way for the Congregation’s expansion to other parts of Australia and also to Asia.