No. 275 - Former St Joseph's Catholic Church at Launceston - "The Huge Monster of Bigotry and Superstition"

In 1838 Father James Cotham was appointed as the first Catholic priest to be based in Launceston. The first regular Masses were held in a temporary weatherboard chapel in Cameron Street. Before Father Cotham’s appointment land had been made available for the establishment of a Catholic church on ‘Cataract Hill’. In September 1831 the Launceston Advertiser noted that:

“…The members of this [Catholic] persuasion have received an order for an allotment in this town, on which to erect a chapel. Thus ere long, there will be no excuse, for persons, of any sect, not attending divine service on the Sunday, and we hope soon to see the order and decorum attendant upon the strict observance of the Christian Sabbath, more conspicuous than hitherto”.

The ‘allotment’ on ‘Cataract Hill’ was regarded as being too steep for the construction of a church by the Vicar General, Father Therry. In 1838 he was able to swap this site for land on Margaret Street which had previously been earmarked for use as a military barracks.

Soon after his arrival Father Cotham set out to raise funds to build a church on the newly acquired Margaret Street site. This was to become St Joseph’s; Launceston’s first permanent Catholic church.

The foundation stone for St Joseph’s was laid by Father Therry in March 1839 with the assistance of the Commanding Officer of the Launceston District, Major Thomas Ryan. The Governor, Sir John Frankin, declined to attend the ceremony claiming a prior commitment, but it is more likely he was anxious not to be seen to give public support to the Catholics for fear of criticism from the press and pulpit. The Vicar General, Father Therry, refused to regard this as a snub and was gracious in his response. The Cornwall Chronicle’s report on the ceremony attacked the sectarian opposition and bigotry that had been directed towards the Catholics. The newspaper’s commentary on St Joseph’s foundation stone-laying ceremony is representative of a turning point in attitudes towards the Catholic Church in the Tasmanian press:

The Reverend John Joseph Therry, Catholic Vicar General, in the presence of a numerous assemblage of the inhabitants, adopted the usual ceremony in laying the foundation stone of the New Catholic Chapel, on the Cataract Hill…. We have much pleasure in laying before the public the address made by the Reverend Gentlemen upon the occasion…. It breaths the spirit of pure benevolence and liberal religious feeling. “The union of all good Christians into one fold and under one shepherd” is indeed a devoutly to be wished for consummation. And what will those persons think, who are in the habit of reviling the Catholic Church for its bigotry and illiberality, when they see a minister of that church boldly stating to his flock that he is prepared to sacrifice property, liberty and life, to accomplish so desirable an end. We hope that some of our ministers will receive benefit from a perusal of the subjoined address of the Rev. Mr. Therry. We question whether the Rev. Dr. Browne, would proclaim his willingness to forgo even the smallest portion of his properties, even though by so doing every soul upon the face of the creation, should be raised to everlasting bliss! Mr. Therry is right in his allusion to the press. The huge monster of bigotry and superstition, which for many years, has been prowling unmolested about these colonies, uplifting its venomous head, to breath disgrace upon the age in which we live, has indeed received a mortal wound from the arrows, which a “free press” and the advancing humanity and intelligence of the age have prepared for its destruction. Let us hope with Mr. Therry that the expiring monster may inhale with its dying breath, the last remaining fragments of religious animosities. Let us hope that the fire of discord, which issues from its hideous jaws, may soon be extinguished by the increasing streams of liberality and charity, and that the extermination of this monster from the face of the earth, may enable the sheep of this world to live in unity, happiness and peace, under the divine protection of the “one shepherd”.

The Colonial Times was equally blunt in its assessment of the Governor’s absence from the ceremony:

“His Excellency’s presence on this occasion would render him liable to the annoyance to which the other illustrious personage (Governor Macquarie) was exposed, for having so far countenanced the Catholic Religion. He was denounced from the pulpit as having become the promoter and patron of Idolatry in the worst possible form.

We say nothing, nor do we desire to do so, respecting the Governor’s refusal to attend the simple ceremony, he was solicited to patronise: If his prior engagements prevented him, well and good: If not, we can only regret the weakness displayed. It is, in good truth, high time that all matters of religious intolerance and fanaticism should be laid aside, and that we should, every one of us, instead of practising any pharisaical squeamishness, use our best exertions to love and benefit our neighbour….”

Major Ryan, Commanding Officer of the Launceston District, who attended the ceremony in lieu of the Governor, replied to Therry’s ‘benevolent’ and ‘liberal’ address in kind:

“The Major in a brief but animated manner replied at once,…. It was but a very short time previous to the present moment, that he had been called upon by the Rev, Mr. Therry, to assist in the principal part of the ceremony of laying the foundation stone of a Catholic Chapel upon the beautiful site…. [Major Ryan observed that] the Catholics in this Colony being a recognized body of the State, he felt that it was the duty of those in authority to afford protection to the same. He had been called upon this day to take a leading part in the ceremony, and he had attended there with several soldiers of his Regiment (the 50th), in which Corps he had passed a long life in the service of his Sovereign and Country, and during the period he had lived in this distinguished regiment, whose renown is second to none in the world, and in whose ranks, composed chiefly of Catholic soldiers, there he had never known religious animosities prevail - feelings that are unknown in the British army - if known, that would not be permitted. The Catholic British soldier has given abundant proofs, both at home and abroad, of his courage, and his devotion to the Crown, under which he serves. He is seen amongst the foremost in the hour of peril, in the dangers of the field, or the hour of battle, in sickness or distress, there he is to be found, equal to his fellow soldier (the Protestant) in acts of daring, in allegiance to his Sovereign, in benevolence, and in humanity. No distinction nor sect, continued the Major, should ever influence the brave or truly good man, by looking upon his fellow Christian as inferior to him in the eye of God. The alacrity and cheerfulness shewn by the Catholic community in contributing their subscriptions towards the erection of this church, which is an object of such importance, and which, no doubt, now the foundation is laid, will rapidly progress, is highly creditable to them….”

Major Ryan’s reply was widely praised in the local press; as was Father Therry’s address, and it would appear that the events surrounding the laying of the foundation stone of St Joseph’s, foreshadowed the beginning of a decline in religious sectarianism; at least in the north of the colony.

Advertisements for tenders to build the church were placed in September 1839, several months after the foundation stone laying ceremony. The church was completed in mid 1842 and the opened by the end of that year*.

St Joseph's was located behind the Church of the Apostles. It had a capacity to hold 500 people with space for an additional 100 in the gallery. It was a brick building with a tower topped by four pinnacles. (see illustration below)

In 1844 Father Thomas Butler became the priest for Northern Tasmania and Father Cotham moved to Hobart to serve the convicts. In May 1844, Tasmania acquired its first Catholic Bishop, Robert Willson. The Bishop visited St Joseph’s in the following year for the sacrament of confirmation. The report of this occasion is interesting, not only for the detail of the ceremony but in that it reveals Willson’s stand against intolerance and sectarianism, which was warmly welcomed in the local press:

“There were 54 candidates for confirmation, namely, 33 females, and 21 males, about 12 of these were adults, but others were young persons under the age of 16. The females were dressed in white, which, with their ample hoods of the same, gave them a most interesting appearance…

The Bishop then delivered to the parties confirmed a short and eloquent address, inculcating… the duty of living in peace and charity with our neighbours. “Never”, said he, “since I had the use of reason, could I understand why human beings should bite and devour each other, because they did not agree in the opinion of religious subjects; I believe that (as a Catholic) I am in the right; … but is that a reason why I should be at enmity with my fellow beings, or wish to injure them, because they do not think as I do? By no means; we are bound to study our Saviour’s example on this subject, and to remember His golden maxim, that ‘Whatsoever we would that men should do to us, we should do to them’, And my dearly beloved children in Christ (he added, with considerable emotion), I pray to God to deprive me of the gift of speech, and of the use of my hand rather than I should by my tongue, or pen, strive to injure another on account of any religious differences.

The Robes and other Paraphernalia used on the occasion were really magnificent. The Mitre, and Rochet appeared to us, to be chaste and superb specimens of workmanship. The Pastoral Staff, and the Pectoral Cross also attracted notice, they are made of superior copper, overlaid with gold, and ornamented in a tasteful manner with precious stones. We believe they are the product of an eminent artist of the name of Pugin, who has lately distinguished himself for his successful efforts in restoring the ancient church architecture of England. The splendid Satin Cope, worn by the Bishop was that presented to his Lordship by an affectionate congregation at Nottingham in England, on his leaving them to take charge of the Church in this Colony”.

A further interesting association with St Joseph’s was the establishment of the St Joseph’s Total Abstinence Society in November 1842, shortly after the opening of the church. A report on the first meeting of the society makes interesting reading:

“The first meeting of this society was held in the Catholic Church in this town, on last Tuesday evening; the chair being taken at half-past seven o’clock, by the Rev. J. Cotham, who addressed the meeting at considerable length, describing the course of the drunkard from his first commencement as a moderate drinker until the finish of his career; and strongly advised all who had not already signed the pledge to come forward and do so.

Mr Isaac Sherwin said, that the cause might be termed a truly Catholic one, in which all denominations ought to join, and he was happy to see that the present society was headed by their clergyman, and he hoped the example would be more generally followed by clergymen of other sects than was the case at present. He remarked that the English had their St. George’s day, the Scotch their St. Andrew’s and the Irish their St. Patrick’s days, which were originally dedicated to sacred purposes, but now, as was generally known, were too often spent in scenes of dissipation.

Sergeant Carolan came forward and stated that when he came to the colony, in 1825, he was sober and respected by every one, that he had kept a public-house in Launceston and in the country, and was also possessed of sheep and cattle, but through company he had been induced to drink in moderation, until he became a confirmed drunkard and lost all; and that if he had continued the same as he was in 1825, he might have been driving through the streets of this town in his carriage and four, whereas now “he could not drive an ass!”.

A private of the 51st regiment here came forward to join the society. Mr Cotham stated that he thought it best for the present members should join for twelve months, as if they kept the pledge for that time, they would have no difficulty in renewing it; he then read the pledge, which he said differed from the Tasmanian, inasmuch as those who signed only must abstain, while they were not prohibited from offering certain drinks to others.

Mr.Sherwin again rose to corroborate the statement made by Mr. Carolan, and that he remembered many instances in this town where people who had been once well off and respectable, were ruined by being but first moderate drinkers: one instance he would refer to, when he first came to Launceston, he knew a man, whose name he would not mention, who was what was called well off and had a thriving trade, but who became a drunkard, and is since dead, leaving his family destitute, and one of them a boy is at present keeping Mr. S.’s cattle.

Mr. J.W. Bell commended the catholic pledge, as persons in his situation were compelled to touch and called upon to sell intoxicating drinks, but who, nevertheless, might refrain from their use. The meeting was well attended and conducted with great propriety throughout. With one solitary exception, and the speaker was not a catholic, there was not a scintillation of that violence which has hitherto often characterised teetotal meetings”.

The St Joseph’s society still exists; now in the form of “ St Joe’s”, Australia’s oldest band.

A final point of interest about St Joseph’s is its connection with the fifteen young Irelanders transported to Van Diemen's Land between 1849 and 1850. John Mitchel was the most famous of these, regarded as 'Ireland's most popular hero' after the great Irish nationalist leader, Daniel O'Connell. Michael Dunphy relates the story of Mitchel and other exiles in the booklet on the Sesquicentenary of the Church of the Apostles:

“Good use was made of the tower in St Joseph’s Church in 1853 when John Mitchel, one of the Irish Young Islanders, was escaping from his confinement in Tasmania. He was successfully hidden in the tower as he made his way to Hobart for an escape by sea to America. For the road trip by coach to Hobart Mitchel was disguised in priest’s robes supplied by Fr Butler. Another Irish exile assisted by Fr Butler was Terence McManus. A look-alike parishioner, John Galvin, was disguised as McManus and the police took away Galvin only realising at a later stage that they had the wrong person. Other Young Irelanders helped by Fr Butler were John Martin who was hidden in the presbytery and Patrick O’ Donohue who were arrested while being Fr Butler’s house guest. The presbytery and tower at St Joseph’s were certainly a refuge for the Irish exiles who received the support of Father Butler, who was of Irish descent”.

In the twenty years of its existence, St Joseph’s played a significant part in the history of Launceston and of the Catholic Church in the colony. Like many of the early churches, it was literally built on weak foundations which caused subsidence and the likelihood of collapse. Although buttressing the building was an option, it was expensive and an uncertain solution. Instead, a decision was made to build a new church which would more adequately meet the needs of Launceston’s growing Catholic population. In 1864, the corner stone for a new church, the Church of the Apostles was laid and the demolition of St Joseph’s followed soon after.

St Josephs Details from a painting by Frederick Strange (QVMAG collection):

Advertisement - The Cornwall Chronicle Saturday 12 October 1839

List of Catholics authorised to solicit subscriptions for the building of St Josephs - The Cornwall Chronicle, Saturday 25 May 1839.

A partial list of subscribers - published in The Cornwall Chronicle Wednesday 4 December 1844

The Launceston Advertiser Thursday 1 September 1842


Source: wiki commons


Launceston Advertiser, Monday 5 September 1831
Colonial Times, Tuesday 9 April 1839, page 4
The Cornwall Chronicle, Saturday 25 August 1838, page 2
The Cornwall Chronicle, Saturday 23 March 1839 Page 2
Colonial Times, Tuesday 9 April 1839, page 8
The Cornwall Chronicle, Saturday 25 May 1839, page 4
The Cornwall Chronicle, Saturday 12 October 1839, page 2
Launceston Advertiser, Thursday 15 April, 1841, page 3
Launceston Advertiser, Thurs 1 September 1842, page 1
Launceston Examiner, Saturday 26 November 1842, page 3
Cornwall Chronicle, Saturday 30 November 1844, page 3
Cornwall Chronicle, Saturday 18 October 1845
Cornwall Chronicle 15 December 1866
The Mercury, Saturday 18 March 1939, page 13

Dunphy, Michael D and Freeman, Mark, 1959-, (writer of foreword.) I have loved O Lord the beauty of thy house : sesquicentenary of the Church of the Apostles, Launceston, 1866-2016. [Launceston, Tasmania] [Church of the Apostles], 2016.

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


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