St Peter’s Anglican Cathedral stands proud above the river Torrens, looking down on central Adelaide – an apt landmark for the City of Churches. Airlie Black, convenor of the Cathedral’s Needlework Guild and daughter of Thomas Thornton Reed, the sixth Bishop of Adelaide, took me on a tour of the Cathedral to learn more about their treasured collection of needlework. According to the church records the Guild of St Peter was formed in 1885. Among other things their task was to take care of the altar linen and to make the choir robes. From 1879 to 1900 the Guild of St Paul, a group of expert needlewomen (most of them belonging to both groups) worked on the needlework items of the Cathedral. They made frontals, stoles, altar linen, cassocks, surplices, kneelers and more. Some of their handiwork is still in use today.
The Cathedral has an impressive collection of banners dating from 1895 to 1993. Some of the older ones, now too fragile for use, have been restored and stabilized and are on permanent display. The Santa Ecclesia Banner dating from 1902 was one of those on display this month. Although its richness and opulent silk embroidery is still obvious, it is in a state of disrepair and is currently awaiting restoration.
The Cathedral’s vestments are a sight to behold. Airlie opened drawer after drawer and door after door, revealing the most gorgeous sets of vestments – some old and some new; some with a great story and some who are still earning their story. One of my favourite sets is the Reed cope, mitre and hood. It was embroidered by the Sisters of Bethany in England in 1957 and presented to Bishop Reed by the students of the Anglican Schools in Adelaide. The cope is richly embroidered with a design depicting Australian plant, bird and animal life.
Another one of my favourites is the Noils Silk High Mass set with Aboriginal-style ornamental bands. It was designed by John and Ross Moriarty and made by Audrey Ball in 1987. According to Airlie it is a favourite with the congregation too.
Throughout the cathedral I saw many canvas-worked kneelers and cushions. Most of them have a terra cotta colour background to not compete with the equally beautiful floor mosaics. The set that appealed to me the most were the ones in the Lady Chapel, an intimate and serene space behind the high altar. These were designed by Kaye Lynas and made by the Cathedral Guild during 1986. They feature a lily – the symbol of Mary, mother of Jesus. This design is carved into the altar and is carried on through the linen and needlepoint in the chapel.
The most striking embroidered items in the Cathedral must be the altar frontals. On the day I visited the altar was covered with an ivory brocade silk frontal with a central ornately embroidered cross motif. It was topped with an equally ornate velvet super frontal. These items date from the Victorian era and had in recent years been restored by the Needlework Guild under the guidance of Mary Jose, an expert textile conservationist.
On the left-hand side of the main axis of the Cathedral, around the Christus Rex, below the William Pope window, is a fine display of twenty guidons, colours, ensign and banners. These have been laid up here by South Australian regiments and battalions for safe keeping in perpetuity. They are consecrated objects which were in times past looked upon by the members of their regiment as symbols of safe refuge. They represent a large slice of South Australia’s history as some date from pre-Federation days, some from World War I and some from World War II. They represent honour and sacrifice, and are grouped to show that loyalty to country is senior to loyalty to regiment, but central to that is the symbol of Ultimate Sacrifice.
It is the perfect place to end my tour of the Cathedral. I feel honoured to share in this rich history and tradition, and it makes me happy to know that history, religion and beauty can be brought together with fabric and thread.
With gratitude to Airlie Black who took the time to show me around and share her vast knowledge with me. Some of the information in this article was taken from St Peter’s Anglican Cathedral Adelaide Handbook 2008 and the Guidons, colours, ensign & banners pamphlet available from the Cathedral shop.