Frank William Petre, the architect for St Joseph's Cathedral, was born in Wellington in 1847. He was descended from an old and notable English family. His father, the honourable Henry William Petre, first came to New Zealand in 1840 as Director of the New Zealand Company. He returned to England, married, and with his wife, came back to New Zealand in 1842 to take up farming in the Hutt Valley. In 1855 they returned to England for their family's education. After Studying in England and France, Frank Petre, at the age of 15, returned to England and completed his studies at Usham College, Durham.
Qualifying in engineering and architecture, Frank Petre engaged in private practice in London. In 1872 he returned to New Zealand under engagement to Brogden and Sons, railway contractors, as one of their engineering staff. He supervised the construction of the Dunedin-Balclutha railway line, and when was completed he set up his own practice as Engineering and Architect in Liverpool Street, Dunedin, in 1875, although involved in many engineering projects in which his accomplishments were significant, Frank Petre devoted himself to architecture, and in particular Church architecture.
Frank Petre married Margaret Cargill, the eldest daughter of Mr E. B. Cargill. They had a family of six boys and six girls. Frank Petre was the second of the New Zealand Institute of Architects from 1907-08, having been a foundation member and elected a Fellow in 1905. For some years he was Consular Agent for Italy. A man of wide experience and one who made a valuable contribution in New Zealand as an architect. Frank Petre died at "Writtle", St Clair, Dunedin, on December 10 1918, after 42 years of architectural practice, and is buried at the Anderson Bay Cemetery, Dunedin.
In choosing Gothic architecture for St Joseph's Cathedral, Mr Petre said he saw in this type of architecture "the great richness and delicacy of detail, and the closer application of geometrical rules to architecture - more especially in the window tracery which exhibits greater variety of design, together with an easier and more perfect flow into the various parts of the whole structure". Perhaps he wished to complement the many fine buildings in fine Victorian style which gave Dunedin that air of architectural distinction which has remained to the present day. As well as designing churches, schools, civic and commercial buildings. Frank Petre was the architect for a number of private residences.
The Cathedral as designed by F. W. Petre was more magnificent than the incompleted building we know today, which is in fact little bit more than a part of the nave with a truncated transept. The present sanctuary is at the junction of the intended transept of one hundred feet and the nave, which was continue westward, thus creating the traditional cruciform plan. Above this junction a massive tower with spire was to soar to the height of two hundred feet above floor level. The original plan provided accommodation for about two thousand people. Today St Joseph's Cathedral provides less than half the accommodation intended by the architect.
Although the entrance facade and the nave are the only completed elements of the original design, these in themselves establish the Cathedral as a scholarly example of Gothic architecture reminiscent of the many Gothic Cathedrals in France, and in particular the Gothic Cathedrals of Amiens and Rhiems. St Joseph's Cathedral is both imposing and of very great beauty. It shows the excellence of Mr F. W. Petre's design.