No. 293 - The Former Catholic Chapel at Cameron Street in Launceston - "That Place is Not a Chapel"

While St Joseph’s (1842) is regarded as Launceston’s first ‘proper’ Catholic church, it was preceded by a small chapel on Cameron Street that was used for Catholic Mass for a period of four years.

The first permanent Catholic priest in Tasmania was Father Philip Conolly who made quarterly visits to Launceston from Hobart, celebrating the first Mass there in 1821. Mass was held in private houses and occasionally in the Launceston courthouse and soldiers’ barracks. In 1838 Father James Cotham became the first priest appointed to serve Launceston and the north of the Colony. It was shortly after Cotham’s arrival that the weatherboard chapel in Cameron Street was constructed. It was built by Antonio Martini, a former convict and licence-holder of the nearby Sawyers Arms Hotel.

In August 1838 the Cornwall Chronicle announced the completion of the chapel:

“We are requested to state, that a temporary chapel has been erected in Cameron-street, for the accommodation of the Catholic portion of our community, at the place which divine service is now regularly performed every Sunday morning by the Rev. Mr Cotham, according to the rites and ceremonies of that church”.

In October 1838 the Cornwall Chronicle took up the cause of Launceston’s Catholics as a consequence of the Government’s refusal to provide a salary for Father Cotham:

“We understand that the Government, in the plentitude of their wisdom, have come to the conclusion that the building erected in Cameron-street by the Roman Catholics of this town, is not a chapel, and consequently intend withholding from the minister the usual salary allowed by them to all ministers of religion, according to the provisions of a late Act, “for the support of Christian Ministers”. We do not understand the precise objection taken by the Government, but, no doubt, in the present ticklish state of the ‘funds’, they are anxious to avail themselves of any pretext, however frivolous, to “keep the chest from sinking”.

“The building alluded to was built for a chapel – It is employed for no other purpose. Divine service is regularly performed in it. Surely then it is a chapel to all intents and purposes…. We consider that good and moral principles can quite as well be propagated in the most humble dwelling, as from the most splendid of churches. What has the exterior or interior of a place of worship to do with the inculcation of sound principles of morality? And yet we presume, because the building now used by the Roman Catholic is not so finished in its exterior as such plans usually are, up jump the Government and exclaim, “that place is not a chapel.”

The Cameron Street chapel is again mentioned by the Cornwall Chronicle in March 1839 when the Vicar General, Reverend Therry, arrived in Launceston to lay the foundation stone for St Joseph’s Church, the predecessor of the present Church of the Apostles:

“The Rev. John Joseph Therry, Catholic Vicar General, arrived in Launceston from Hobart Town on Friday evening. The Rev. Gentleman will preach at the Catholic chapel, in Cameron-street, tomorrow evening”.

The Chronicle was clearly impressed with Therry as it commented:

“As a preacher, Mr Therry is surpassed by few; and the well known liberality which breathes through his discourses, affords a gratifying contrast to the narrow-minded bigotry which characterises some of our colonial ministers.”

With the opening of St Joseph’s in September 1842, the Cameron Street chapel would have closed, having served as a place of worship for only 4 years. At some point it was converted into dwellings and remained on Cameron Street until the early 20th century. While it may not have looked like a place of worship, it is probably reasonable to claim that the simple weatherboard building on Cameron Street was Launceston’s first Catholic church.

The former Catholic Cameron Street chapel near the corner of Tamar Street - source Ernest Whitfeld. Mitchell Library, NSW.

The Cornwall Chronicle, Saturday 25 August 1838, page 2
The Cornwall Chronicle, Saturday 13 October 1838, page 1
The Cornwall Chronicle Saturday 16 March 1839, page 2

Southerwood, W. T Planting a faith : Launceston's Catholic story in word and picture. W.T. Southerwood, [Hobart, 1968.

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.

Photo: Whitfeld, Churches and Churchmen in Tasmania; Album of Photographs and Newspaper Illustrations. Mitchell Library, NSW, circa 1897-98. (item 48 'Weatherboard building where first Roman Catholic priest in Launceston held Mass)


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