No. 71 - St Augustine's Catholic Church Longford - Fr McKernan's Stubborn Bell

The story of the establishment of a Catholic church at Longford is the story of a struggle of a poor and marginalised community to practise their faith. W.T. Southerwood paints a vivid picture of the situation in Norfolk Plains in the first half of the 19th century:

" ...[When] Fr Philip Conolly visited Longford...The Irish Catholic immigrants of the district had not seen a priest since they left their homeland. The younger generation had never met one. ...Fr Conolly tried to obtain Government support for a place of worship for his Longford flock. He told Lieutenant-Governor Sorell that the people at Longford, ...had no money, but could make payments in wheat and meat".(1)

Southerwood goes on to describe the efforts of Bishop Willson and Fr Butler:

"Bishop Robert William Willson tried to convince the colonial authorities of the need to support a Catholic priest at Longford. Many [Catholics] held 'ticket of leave' or were convicts assigned to masters. Totally neglected spiritually, they did not get a resident pastor until 1863. [A] leading family in the pioneering days was that of James Keane. His home became a Mass centre for Fr Butler, who served the scattered Catholics from Launceston..." (2)

The government repeatedly refused to grant land for a Catholic church, however, by the 1850's the Bishop at last made headway and received a 3 acre grant. However it was the efforts of Fr Butler which finally brought a church into existence. Speaking at the sesquicentenary of the church in 2017, Archbishop Julian Porteous observed that: 

"If you are curious about the patron of this parish, it is worth noting the full name of the first parish priest: Fr John Augustine Butler. This Irishman left his mark on this parish..."  (3)

The foundation stone for the first Catholic Church in Longford was finally laid on the 6 June 1866. According to the Cornwall Chronicle:

“There was a large concourse of persons - nearly five hundred present, many of them visitors from Launceston and the surrounding townships. The ceremony was opened by the blessing of water… The stone was lowered into its place and was declared duly laid according to the language of the Roman Ritual” (4)

Despite this promising start, it was to be another year and a half before the building was completed. In 1867, The Tasmanian Catholic Standard reported that progress in building the new church had come to a halt. A lack of funds had meant that the roof could not be completed. However it was not long before Father John Butler got the building work recommenced. The Cornwall Chronicle reported in August 1867:

“We have been much delighted with the efforts made by the zealous pastor Father Butler, and the Catholics of this district, towards the erection of a church, …Their efforts have been so far satisfactorily recompensed in a building as beautifully situated for convenience to the people as it is remarkable for its architectural neatness and durability. For many months it has continued in an unfinished state, the builder's part well done, but yet unroofed. For the worst of all possible reasons in such a depressed state of the colony, has the pastor been compelled to suspend the progress of the work for want of funds. We must remember that the Catholic population in the district is not so numerous as in others. There is no want of a generous feeling so characteristic of our people in all parts, but the pressure is too much upon generally limited circumstances to meet the constant demands of a rather expensive building. This is a work which deserves our sympathy, and we hope that the appeal now made to the public through the medium of a bazaar will be cheerfully responded to, and that the sum realised will enable the Pastor to liquidate all debts incurred during the course of its erection. We have a guarantee that materials of a costly and finely wrought style will make their way to the fair venders' stalls from the names of the ladies connected with the undertaking. It is also well to say that the roofing has been commenced, … [and] being satisfactorily roofed, it will be brought to a speedy completion. The public will not withhold their sympathy in patronising the bazaar or in transmitting their donations however small, to the Rev. Pastor of the district”. (5)

The bazaar and associated fundraising was clearly a success for the next report we have is of the church’s opening in November 1867:

“This ceremony commenced by the recital of a prayer outside the door; after which the procession moved round the Church reciting the 50th Psalm while the walls were being sprinkled with water blessed for the purpose… The litany of Saints was intoned, begging their intercession with the Almighty that He would bless that Church and all who should enter it. …The choir of the Church of the Apostles, under the guidance of their talented and able organist, Mr McIvor, rendered the musical pieces with artistic taste and thrilling effect during the Mass. The selection was the same as that on the occasion of the opening of the Church of the Apostles in this town”. (6)

The Chronicle went on to describe the church that, although now roofed, was still incomplete:

“It is yet in an unfinished state, wanting porch and sacristy. Also the walls are unplastered and the roof unvarnished. …. It must be gratifying to the people of Longford to see such a gathering, and for such a purpose. Launceston was well represented. The surrounding districts testifying their love of religion, and their spirit of generosity in contributing towards the liquidation of a heavy debt incurred during the erection of the edifice”. (7)

The church was subsequently completed, mainly due to the efforts of Father John McKernan, who served as priest at St Augustine for 31 years. He is honoured with the only memorial gravestone within the churchyard. His death was reported widely in newspapers across Tasmania, indicative of his popularity and influence in the Catholic Church. The following is an edited summary of his obituary that appeared in the Launceston Daily Telegraph in 1904:

Father McKernan was born in Lurgan County Armagh, Ireland, on April 20, 1837. He was ordained on February 1, 1863, and in the following month he set out from Liverpool in the sailing ship ‘British Trident’, destined for Victoria. Father McKernan arrived in Launceston in the steamer Royal Shepherd on June 14, 1863 before making his way to Hobart where he was appointed assistant priest at St. Joseph's Church where he remained six months. He then moved to the Swansea and Spring Bay missions for three years during which time he erected the Star of the Sea Church at Swansea, and St Ann's at Spring Bay. He then served as rector at Richmond for 5 years, where he succeeded the late vicar-general. In 1873 he took charge of the Longford parish church, which he retained until death. He improved the church during this time, adding a belfry in 1897 as well as acquiring an organ, building a choir loft and installing lighting and generally beautified the building. During this time a presbytery was build and land acquired for a Catholic cemetery. Father McKernan was extremely popular in the district, not only with his parishioners, but with all denominations. (8)

The church celebrated its sesquicentenary in November 2017. 

"The interior of the church was freshly painted for the anniversary but efforts to get the bell ringing for the first time in 20 years were unsuccessful. Workers in a cherry picker tried for a day to restore the bell, even resorting to a blow torch to get some grease into the mechanism. However, the bell would not budge".(9)

It would seem that Fr McKernan's bell is just as stubborn or unyielding as the early Catholic priests of Norfolk Plains who persevered and eventually succeeded in establishing a church for the people of Longford.

Photograph: Duncan Grant 2018

Photograph: Duncan Grant 2018

Photograph: Duncan Grant 2018

Photograph: Duncan Grant 2018

The belfry which stands alongside the church. Photograph: Duncan Grant 2018

Father McKernan's memorial stone - Photograph: Duncan Grant 2018

Photograph: Duncan Grant 2018

Postcard of St Augustine - date unknown.  Source LINC Tasmania LINC  LPIC147-4-280

Father John Joseph McKernan (1837-1904)


(1) Fr. W.T. Southerwood; Launceston's Catholic Story (1838- 2001)
(2) Fr. W.T. Southerwood; Launceston's Catholic Story (1838-2001)
(4) Cornwall Chronicle Saturday 9 June 1866
(5) The Cornwall Chronicle Saturday 24 August 1867
(6) The Cornwall Chronicle Saturday 23 November 1867
(7) The Cornwall Chronicle Saturday 23 November 1867
(8) Daily Telegraph Wednesday 23 March 1904

Other sources

Examiner Monday 26 November 1883
Daily Telegraph Monday 1 August 1921
Tasmanian Morning Herald Monday 11 June 1866
Examiner Thursday 23 March 1905


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