No. 103 - St Michael's Campbell Town - Willson's Willfulness

St Michael’s at Campbell Town opened in 1856 but it had taken 10 years for this to come to fruition. Bishop Robert Willson had been the driving force behind establishing a Catholic church in a “totally neglected” district but colonial authorities were reluctant to provide assistance.(1)

Tasmania's first Catholics were mostly convicts and many of those who arrived as free settlers before the 1880s were economic refugees from Ireland. Catholics benefited little from the Church Act (1837), which gave Tasmania its legacy of Georgian and early Victorian churches, rectories and parish halls. The legislation offered building subsidies on a £-for-£ basis, but in the first fifteen years of the Acts operation, the general poverty of the Catholic community meant they were only able to raise funds to qualify for a fifth of what they would have received had grants been made on a per capita basis. The arrival in 1844 of the first Bishop of Hobart, Robert Willson, brought effective leadership to the Church. Yet it was not until the 1860s, when a number of Catholics began to prosper through farming, small-business and in the professions, that the Church began to make a substantial contribution to the colony's built environment. (2)

Willson developed a good relationship with Governor Denision which eventually resulted in suitable land grants that enabled the building of a Catholic church in Campbell Town. The ‘People’s Advocate’ reported on the laying of the foundation stone on the 28th June 1856:

“Shortly after 12 the procession, headed by the cross bearer, entered the church ground, the impressive ceremonial as prescribed by the Roman ritual was immediately commenced by the Right Rev. the Bishop Willson [who] then delivered a most eloquent and impressive discourse, after which the procession was reformed and proceeded round the trenches which were solemnly blessed by the Bishop”.

A year later the Hobart Mercury reported on the opening of the church:

“The new Catholic Church at Campbell Town, dedicated to St Michael and the Holy Angels, was solemnly opened on Tuesday last… The church was filled to excess, and great numbers were unable to gain admittance. Visitors from Oatlands, Bothwell, Ross, Fingal, and the surrounding districts were present".

It is interesting to note the non-sectarian support for the Catholic community, financially and otherwise. Bishop Willson specifically mentioned this:

“His Lordship during the address, thanked from his heart all those Catholics and Protestants, whose charity had prompted them to subscribe so liberally towards the erection of that beautiful, though humble edifice”.

The report in the Mercury went on to describe the exterior of the church which remains virtually unchanged today:

“The church is a very handsome structure, the style of architecture adopted, being early English, and consists of nave, chancel and sacristy. The total length inside is 67 feet, width of nave 22 feet, … the nave is lighted by single lancet headed windows – the West end containing the front entrance, above which is a triplet window and trefoil; the gable surmounted by a handsome bell turret, the height of which from ground to top of cross is 47 feet….The east or chancel window is very chaste and neat in design, it consists of 3 lights with chamfered mullions and lancet heads filled with tracery. The materials used in the building are blue ironstone quarried on the ground, with Ross white free stone quoins, dressings [and] copings….The design was made and carried into effect by Mr H.G. Hunter of Hobart Town, and though humble in its pretensions its appearance is very striking and picturesque”.

At the time of the churches 50th Jubilee in 1908, substantial improvements were made to the interior of the church, most notably the windows which were described as the “finest of any country church in Tasmania”. The Daily Telegraph describes these in considerable detail which I have included in full as a guide to my photographs of the windows at the bottom of this page.

“But the principal and most striking improvement is in the beautiful stained, glass windows, every window being of exquisite design and workmanship. These were designed and put together by Mr W. Montgomery, of Melbourne, and are beautifully and harmoniously executed, and repay a careful inspection. The window in the sanctuary at the back of the church has been presented by Miss Connell, of Glen Connell, and is suitably inscribed in memory of the late Dean Connell and the Connell family. It consists of three lights with elaborate tracery above, the general subject being the Blessed Sacrament, with two adoring angels, on a very handsome background. On the tracery is a representation of the insignia of the Benedictine order, of which the late Dean was a member, the design being, the word 'Pax', surrounded with a crown of thorns, the whole surmounted by a cross. At the rear of the church the facade window consists of three lights, with a distance separating them, surmounted by a small trefoil light. This window was placed there by friends and parishioners to the memory of the late Father Henry, M.S.H., who died at Campbell Town on March 15, 1904. The central light contains an illustration of the Sacred Heart, and an appropriately worded scroll with background of grapes and vine leaves. The right hand light shows a central design of a pelican feeding its young and the left hand light has a chalice in the centre, with the Blessed Sacrament above, resting on a stole. The colourings are very tasteful and suitable. The upper trefoil light shows a representation of the sword and monogram of St. Michael. In the two sides of the church are eight smaller windows, four each side, and are as follows, commencing from tho right: (1) Centre represents the lilies of St. Joseph on a background of roses, and was presented by the family of Mr P. Clancy, Mangana. (2) This window is in memoriam of Thomas and Mary Murphy, the subject being the pillars and scourges, and lilies for a background. (3) The crucifix, intertwined with a rosary, is the principal design, background being roses and the window is in memory of the Sumner family. (4) This window is the gift of the Campbell Town parishioners, a monogram of the Virgin Mary being shown on a background of lilies. (5) Shows the monogram of Jesus (I.H.S.), on a background of roses, and was given by the Catholic school children, Campbell Town. (6) This is 'to the memory of James and Mary Lockett and illustrates the crossed keys of St. Peter, lilies being the background. (7) This is representative of the Passion, showing the cross, a spear, and sponge, with a rose background, and was presented by Miss L. O'Donoghue and friends. (8) The central design is one of the Immaculate Heart of Mary transfixed with a sword of sorrow, and was the gift of Mr Collier and children”.

St Michael’s continues to serve Catholics of Campbell Town and the surrounding districts as is a reminder of the early struggles to establish Catholic churches in Tasmania but on the other hand, the interdenominational cooperation which was very typical in country towns of this era.

A note on Bishop Robert Willson

Willson has recently been in the news with his remains being be flown to Hobart after being exhumed from a crypt at Nottingham's St Barnabas Catholic Cathedral. Bishop Willson will be laid to rest in a newly completed crypt at St Mary's Cathedral in Hobart.

Bishop Willson is recorded in the Archdiocese of Hobart's history as "a leader in advocating reforms in penal discipline and a more humane treatment of insane persons. He also campaigned against the use of the lash and partial suffocation torture of convicts during his term as Bishop.

A link to this most interesting story can be found at on the ABC at this link: ABC Robert Willson

Photograph: Duncan Grant 2018

Photograph: Duncan Grant 2018

Photograph: Duncan Grant 2018

Bishop Willson's Seal Photograph: Duncan Grant 2018

Photograph: Duncan Grant 2018

Photograph: Duncan Grant 2018

Photograph: Duncan Grant 2018

Photograph: Duncan Grant 2018

Photograph: Duncan Grant 2018

Photograph: Duncan Grant: 2018

Photograph: Duncan Grant 2018

Photograph: Duncan Grant 2018

Photograph: Duncan Grant 2018

Photograph: Duncan Grant 2018

Photograph: Duncan Grant 2018

Photograph: Duncan Grant 2018


(1) Southerwood, W. T Planting a faith in Tasmania. Southerwood, Hobart, 1970.


People's Advocate Monday 30 June 1856

Daily Telegraph Tuesday 1 September 1908

Hobart Town Mercury Monday 5 October 1857

Hobart Courier Thursday 27 November 1856

Cornwall Chronicle Wednesday 2 July1856


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