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Belltower saga revealed

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When the belltower of St Francis Xavier’s Cathedral was built in 1996, 145 years after the building’s foundations were laid, there was much fanfare and rejoicing.

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After all, the Cathedral finally lived up to the grand vision of successive bishops and architects.

But as with much of the story surrounding the building of one of Australia’s finest examples of Gothic Revival architecture, the task of completing the tower was not without its complications.

The project was delayed by nearly 10 years due to lack of funding, a limestone quarry had to be reopened to provide stone that matched the existing walls, and the construction company went bankrupt halfway through the building process.

These challenges have been well documented but what has not been widely known over the past three decades is how the detailed stone masonry design work for the imposing 36 metre tower was undertaken and, more importantly, by whom.

With little more than a drawing by Peter Paul Pugin from 1881 to guide him, a young Italian migrant by the name of Nicola Moffa was given the mammoth job of working out the stone work scheduling for the tower.

The 26-year-old had been working as a surveyor at Roxby Downs in 1987 when his fellow countryman Giuseppe (Joe) Emanuele rang him to say he had some work for him if he could start immediately.

Nicola had no hesitation in accepting the offer from Joe, who came from near his home town in Campania.

“I didn’t wait for a second, I left on the next flight and said ‘sorry guys’ I’m not coming back,” Nicola recalled recently.

“I still didn’t know what was going to happen. Joe had the highest number of properties in the residential and commercial sector, he was doing a lot of work.

“We had a meeting and he told me he had this dream to give the tower to the Cathedral as a gift, and he asked if I could help him.”

Nicola had studied civil engineering in Italy and at his school it had been compulsory to learn the history of different architectural styles so he had some understanding of Gothic design and was skilled at drawing plans.

Joe showed him an artist’s impressions of the Cathedral with the new tower which had been done by Adelaide architect Nello Morosini. Della Putta Architects started the work by designing the infill of the lower existing windows, based on the original Pugin design but John Della Putta became very sick and it was left to Nicola to finalise the design of the tower and develop a schedule for the stonemasonry.

“I realised that in the 1880s the stones would have been laid ‘by heart’, and that there was no real drafting system available,” he said.

“So I had to create one.”

He began assigning the 3831 stones to the 51 courses (layers) of the tower, working from Joe’s office in Grenfell Street for $375 a fortnight. The drawings, 255 in total, were all done by hand over more than 2500 hours. Each stone was numbered and allocated a position, using trigonometry and calculus to work out the shape and size. When the stones were eventually laid, the workers who put them together found they interlocked “like lego”.

Nicola worked closely with master stone carver Bernfried Koesters, who later died of silicosis, and the stone was positioned in layers while it was stockpiled in the former Holden factory at Cheltenham.

With the project deferred indefinitely in 1988, Nicola decided there were more work opportunities in Italy but he continued drawing the plans voluntarily and sent them back to Adelaide with Joe when he came to visit.

“I wanted to finish it, I wanted to do it – even for free,” Nicola said.

His career took a different path as he became involved in the fledgling wind farm industry in Italy and when the Cathedral tower project resumed in 1994 no-one contacted him.

By 1995 the Emanuel Group had gone bankrupt and Carica Constructions took over the construction work which was completed in May 1996.

“I thought I might be invited (to the opening) but my name disappeared from everywhere…it was a disappointment for me,” he said.

Born in Australia, Nicola was two years old when his family returned to live in Italy and he was on a working holiday in Australia in 1987 when the Cathedral tower job came up. Around the same time, he met a young Italian girl, Elena, whose family had migrated to Adelaide from Puglia and who was keen to return to her home country.

The couple had two sons, Legri and Gianraffaele, and after nine years abroad the family decided to return to Adelaide.

When Nicola first saw the completed Cathedral tower in 1997 his initial reaction was “a big satisfaction”.

“But I also had mixed feelings – the fact that I didn’t participate in the glory of it happening, I was hurting a bit,” he said.

On February 7 2007 Nicola and Elena, who works at Mater Christi Church in Seaton, received the sacrament of marriage in the Cathedral, after being married in the Registry Office in the 80s.

After further studies including a Master’s degree in project management and positions with major energy companies and projects in SA, Nicola has gone on to own a successful engineering consultancy business PROTOP.

Proudly displayed amongst the highly technical projects on his company’s website is a photograph of the Cathedral tower.

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