No. 302 - St Matthew's at Pontville - 'The Roar of Flames'

In 1927, St Matthew’s at Pontville was completely gutted by fire. It burnt down in suspicious circumstances on the evening of its 60th jubilee. About a decade earlier an adjoining Catholic school had similarly been destroyed in a fire. St Matthew’s was restored and reopened in 1930.

The foundation stone of the original church was laid in October 1866. The Hobart Mercury reported on the event:

“From an early hour… the residents of all the surrounding districts continued to arrive in the township by all modes of conveyance, some in the dashing carriage, some in neat dog-carts and gigs, some ladies gracefully mounted on horseback, while others availed themselves of vehicles of a humble style, or made use of the common mode of travelling, which indulgent nature has kindly given to all.

The Very Rev. W. J. Dunne, Vicar-General, arrived at an early hour to superintend the preparations necessary for the immediate performance of the ceremony, and for laying out, with due taste, the elegant lunch which was being provided on the occasion. About 11 o'clock the Most Rev. Dr. Murphy, with clergymen from Hobart Town, arrived, and at 12 o'clock, the hour at which the ceremony was advertised to commence, a considerable number of people from Hobart Town, Richmond, the Old Beach, Broad Marsh, Bridgewater, and Bagdad, occupied the site upon which the new church is to be erected.

There were two booths provided, one for accommodating tho Bishop and clergymen whilst vesting, and the other, of large dimensions, for the guests at lunch. Flags of all nations and colours floated proudly in the breeze, and shed an air of liveliness and gaiety over the whole scene. The children of both sexes were marshalled in large numbers, and walked in procession before the Bishop and accompanying clergy on their way from the township to the church….

At the hour appointed, the Bishop, vested in pontifical robes, proceeded, with the clergy walking two by two before him, to the chancel, where a temporary cross was erected, and a small table placed, on which a vase containing water previously blessed was laid, and immediately commenced the ceremony of blessing the first stone, in the Latin language, in accordance with the Roman ritual. First he sprinkled with holy water the place where the cross was fixed, the clergy in the meantime chanting the antiphon, … The psalm being finished, and the Bishop having recited a prayer, blessed the stone, sprinkled it with the blessed water, and signed it through all its parts with the sign of the cross, …The litany of the saints was then chanted, the Bishop and clergy kneeling, and immediately afterwards the Bishop laid the stone in its proper place, …”


The Mercury’s report also contains a description of the church:

“The church is situated in a most commanding position, overlooking the township. The plan comprises a nave 60 feet by 22 feet, having an apsidal termination at the east end. Sacristy 14 foot by 12 foot, and porch 9 foot by 7 foot. The west end of the nave has a triplet lancet window with cusped heads, and the gable is surmounted by a handsome belfry. The side windows of the nave are simple lancets with cusped heads, in each bay between buttresses. The oblique sides of the apse are filled with two light windows, the heads being filled with geometrical tracery; the extreme end is blank, and affords space over the altar for a fine painting or altar piece. The roofs are to be all open to the ridge, lined with pine, the whole stained and varnished. The chancel will be divided from the nave by a handsome cedar communion rail of suitable design. The cost will be about £800, and Henry Hunter, Esq., Hobart Town, is the architect”.

The church was completed and opened in September 1867. Father George Hunter, the architect’s nephew, was the main celebrant of the Mass on opening day. Attending the ceremony was Thomas Stanfield who had donated the land for the church and 105 year old Abraham Fuller, an “uncompromising Catholic”.

The first parish priest was Father Edward Marum who served at St Matthew’s until his death in 1881. Father Marum was a popular priest who was “awe-inspiring at the altar, paternal in the confessional, instructive in the pulpit, yet more so in the catechism class and in the classroom. The love for Father Marum is evident in the following account of his funeral:

“The time announced for the commencement of the solemn services was 10 o'clock, but from early morn numbers of persons from various parts of Tasmania were arriving in the township. As visitors and residents flocked towards the church, it was apparent from their downcast countenances that their grief was heartfelt. Prior to the commencement of the services the church was thronged, upwards of 300 being present. So crowded was the building that their was insufficient space available for the approaching ceremonies. After some delay, the clergy proceeded from the vestry towards the sanctuary, in front of which the coffin had the previous evening been placed on a catafalque, supplied with lighted candles, and decked with floral crosses and wreaths,…

In the exordium the preacher's remarks, which were of an extremely pathetic and eloquent nature, produced a deep impression upon those present, Bishop, priests, and congregation being visibly affected. … In extremely forcible terms Father Beechinor alluded to the loss of the deceased as a bereavement that would be seriously felt, not only by the members, young and old, of his sorrowing parishioners, … It is almost impossible to describe the grief of those present; stalwart men even and grown up females copiously shedding tears, as well as boys and girls, at times interrupted the progress of the sermon being heard.

A procession was then formed in the church, headed by the cross-bearer, Father Feehan, between two acolytes in front of the coffin, borne on the shoulders of eight men; following were boys and girls, and then members of the Sisterhood of Mary in white veils… The coffin having been placed in a vault on the Epistle side of the sanctuary, the final prayers were read by the Bishop, who retired with the clergy. For some three hours after the services considerable numbers visited the church to take a farewell look at the coffin, the vault having been kept unclosed”.


After Father Marum’s death, the Brighton area fell under Richmond until Father Cornelius Corcoran was appointed in 1899 and served the Catholic community until his death in 1916. It was during Father Corcoran’s pastorship that the Pontville Catholic school was burnt down in 1912. Father Corcoran’s devotion to education is borne out by that fact that he left his “life-insurance money, practically all he possessed, for the purpose of providing for the children of the Brighton parish”.

On the eve of St Matthew’s 60th Jubilee, the church was destroyed by fire. Two days before the fire, the Prime Minister, Joseph Lyons, opened the parish fair held to raise funds for memorials placed in the church. The Hobart Mercury described the tragic loss of the church and its memorials:

"The first indication that anything was wrong was gained about 6 o'clock yesterday morning, when a resident of Pontville, Mr, J. Barrow, who, when rising preparatory to going to his work, noticed the building in flames. Senior Constable Devitt was informed, and, with Mr. Barrow, made all haste to the church, which was situate about a quarter of a mile from the township. Several residents were aroused as the two men passed by their homes, and others were awakened by the roar of the flames within the building.

The constable rushed to the main entrance door, and endeavoured to force his way into the burning building. The door was not securely fastened, and as it crashed in, he was confronted by a wall of flame which made any attempt to enter the church impossible. Knowing that valuable contents were at stake, those on the scene were encouraged to do their utmost to check the outbreak. By this time their numbers began to increase, and further attempts were made to gain entrance by means of the doors at the eastern end. Each time, however, the flames proved impenetrable, and were leaping in every direction. A lack of water made it impossible to fight the fire, and as the heat was becoming intense, those present were forced to retreat and leave the church and its contents at the mercy of the flames. Magnificent stained glass windows were broken by the heat, and soon the fire began to show through the topmost parts of the building in every direction. Then, with tragic suddenness, and to the dismay of the helpless group of onlookers, the roof crashed bodily, sending flames leaping over the topmost steeple, which had remained standing. By 7.30 a.m. only the walls of what was a beautiful church remained. Although from the outside appearance the walls, which were erected 60 years ago, appear to be quite firm, it is extremely doubtful whether this is so.

The calamity is all the more regrettable in consequence of the destruction of four valuable stained glass windows, two of which were erected a few years ago by Mr. Nicholas Collis, sen., in memory of his two sons, Frank and Albert, who gave their lives in the Great War. The window in memory of the late Rev. Father C. Corcoran, who was in charge of the Brighton parish for 16 years, was erected by the church people…  In addition to the stained memorial windows and the newly-erected Stations of the Cross, a beautiful Crucifix, situated at the back of the altar, and presented by the Rev. Father A. J. Cullen, of Cygnet, together with four valuable statues on either side of the altar and an organ valued at £70, were also destroyed”.


In August 1928, rebuilding of the church began and it was restored and reopened by November 1930. In the 1950’s St Matthew’s had a new lease of life with the arrival of Poles, Italians and other new settlers who were housed at Brighton Camp while awaiting permanent accommodation elsewhere in Tasmania. Their presence is still noticeable in the names on headstones in St Matthew’s extensive cemetery. The church is now in its 151st year. The beautifully restored building shows not hint of its age or the tragic fire that consumed it.

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

The Mercury, Tuesday 6 September 1927

The Cemetery 









Sources:

The Mercury, Friday 19 October 1866, page 2
Tasmanian Morning Herald, Mon. 22 October 1866, page 3
The Mercury, Thursday 12 September 1867, page 2
The Mercury, Thursday 7 January 1869, page 3
The Mercury, Friday 1 July 1881  Page 3
The Mercury, Saturday 20 July 1912, page 3
Daily Post, Wednesday 29 March 1916, page 3
The Mercury, Saturday 27 August 1927, page 15
The Advocate, Tuesday 6 September 1927, page 5
The Mercury, Tuesday 6 September 1927, page 5
The Mercury, Monday 17 November 1930, page 2

Southerwood, W. T Planting a faith in Tasmania : the country parishes. [W. T. Southerwood], [Hobart], 1977.


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