This panorama, taken by William Meluish in the second half of 1863, shows St Joseph's Church, built in 1862, and St Joseph's Presbytery, built about at the same time. The winding road is Rattray Street, altering course at the gully where St Joseph's Cathedral now stands.
The selected site for the Cathedral had its difficulties. Situated on the right side of Rattray Street at the point where the winding road alters course to make its way hill, there were underground streams to contend with. The one acre section purchased from the Crown in September 1868 for fifty-nine pounds was a deep gully back into the hill. Neil Bruce McGregor of North Taieri had negotiated the purchase for the Catholic Church. The land Title was transferred into the name of Bishop Moran in 1871. Father Delphin Moreau, a French priest in charge of the Dunedin Mission from 1861-1871, had unsuccessfully tried to get City Council assistance to fill the gully. Bishop Moran, however, was able to take advantage of the excavation of the Dowling Street cutting and adjacent road work by buying the spoil to fill in the gully.
A start was made on the foundations of the Cathedral in May 1878. The gully site required very deep foundations to carry the preponderous structure the Cathedral was to be. The foundation of the Cathedral comprise forty concrete piles ranging in size from 4-8 foot square and sank 30-40 feet to rest on the bluestone reef.. Near the surface these piles are connected by concrete arches to give a level surface for the Cathedral walls. Had the original plan for the Cathedral been fully implemented, there would have been a total of eighty-four piles. By the end of 1878 the technical difficulties connected with the site had been overcome. The piles, the concrete shafts and arches on which the Cathedral was to be erected, were sufficiently advanced for Bishop Moran to announce the date for the blessing and laying of the Foundation Stone. Interestingly, fifteen years later Mr F.W.Petre was faced with subsidence problems below the front towers and the front of the Cathedral building. About two thousand pounds had been spent on the site and the foundations - almost a tenth of the total cost of building the Cathedral. Fortunately, when the first collection for church funds took place in the old St Joseph's Church in Tennyson Street twelve months previously, three thousand, five hundred pounds was promised and paid in part.
On Sunday, January 26, 1879, at 3 p.m. Bishop Patrick Moran blessed and laid the Foundation Stone of the Cathedral. The Bishop was assisted by Bishop Francis Redwood of Wellington, the local clergy, and an estimated crowd not far short of ten thousand people (according to the N.Z. Tablet report). This Foundation Stone is the brown coloured block of Port Chalmers stone, not inscribed, located on the north side of the Cathedral at the base of the fourth buttress from the north-eastern tower. Under the Foundation Stone were placed copies of the N.Z. Tablet, the Otago Daily Times, and the Morning Herald newspapers, several coins, bearing the date 1878, and a scroll inscribed in Latin, of which the following is a translated extract: "This Foundation Stone of the Cathedral Church of Saint Joseph's, designed by Frank W. Petre, was laid today, 26 January 1879, by the Most Reverend P. Moran, Bishop of Dunedin, assisted by the Most Reverend Francis Redwood, Bishop of Wellington, and almost all the clergy of the Diocese of Dunedin, in the presence of a vast multitude of people of all classes, in the Pontificate of Pope Leo XIII, in the 23rd year of the Episcopate of the Most Reverend P. Moran, and the 10th year as Bishop of Dunedin, in the 42nd year of the reign of Victoria, Queen of Great Britain and Ireland, and Empress of India, Sir Hercules Robinson being Governor-General, and Sir George Grey Premier of New Zealand.
In answer to the Bishop's invitation to observe a time honoured practice and deposit their offerings towards the Cathedral fund on the newly laid Foundation Stone, members of the congregations placed on it in cash eight hundred and seventy-four pounds, and in promises one thousand, eight hundred and fifty pounds, including a promise of five pounds and five shillings from His Worship the Mayor. From the day the first payment was made on May 18, 1878, of eight pounds, sixteen shillings and eight pence to three labourers, Geddes, Hamilton and Tierney, working on the excavations for the foundations of St Joseph's, construction on the Cathedral moved slowly.
Bishop Moran preferred strongly to pay his way and not get into debt. Over the next eight years he prided himself on this. Many were the meetings in the Old St Joseph's Church to devise ways and means to keep Bishop Moran's dream being realised. Parker and McNamara regularly had their contract interrupted. The contract for one year carried over to two years, and payments to the contractors were most times overdue. Parker and McNamara were the masonry contractors employed right through from the foundations to the opening of the Cathedral. John McNamara, born and married in County Clare, came to Dunedin in the 1870's. Records show he worked again on the Cathedral in 1887, 1891 and 1892. He died in June 1892.
The use of Oamaru stone on such a scale and over a long period for such a prominent building as a Cathedral right in the heart of the City of Dunedin was a real lift for the Oamaru Stone Company (later known as Oamaru Totara Tree Stone Company). At this time the Company was busily engaged in finding markets for the North Otago stone. The constant supply of Oamaru stone from the Railway Station up the hill to the Cathedral in horse drawn wagons provided a regular source of income for James Small, one of Dunedin's many carrier contractors.
It was eight years after the foundations were begun that the building had progressed so far that it could adequately be used for church services and replace the inadequate 1862 old St Joseph's, which in its day had served the Catholic community well.