No. 500 - Launceston - St Columba's Catholic 'School-Church'

Catholic education in Launceston dates back to 1838. However, the establishment of St Joseph’s Catholic School for indigent children by Father Tom Butler in 1848 represents the beginning of formal Catholic schooling in the town. In 1880 the arrival of Dean Daniel Beechinor in Launceston resulted in the reorganisation of education for Catholic boys. In 1882 St Francis Xavier High School and St Patrick’s intermediate school were established. Previously, the arrival of the Presentation Sisters in Launceston in 1873 had seen a broadening of Catholic education with a focus on providing schooling for girls and younger students. One of the schools’ established by the Presentation Sisters was St. Columba’s, which opened in South Launceston in 1897.

In 1897 the Launceston Examiner reported on the establishment of a ‘school-church’ at Sandhill. The school was to provide accomodation for about 100 scholars was described as a “Catholic school and church for the Sandhill”. On Wednesday 29th of September the ‘school-church’ was dedicated to St Columba. The Examiner reported on the dedication ceremony and mass:

“This addition to the Roman Catholic institutions of the city was formally opened yesterday. St. Columba's is situated in Eardley-street, and has been erected to provide schooling facilities more convenient for the children of residents of the Sandhill and South Launceston than are afforded by the Margaret street seminaries [schools]. It will accommodate about 100 scholars, and is well adapted for the purposes for which it has been erected. There are a large class-room, a parlour for the nuns, and a school-room between 30ft. and 40ft. long and proportionately wide. The architect was Mr. A. E. Luttrell, and the contractors Messrs. J. and T. Gunn. The interior was very tastefully decorated for yesterday's inaugural ceremony, evergreens and flags - being nicely arranged around the rooms. There were present the Lady Superior of the Presentation Convent, with the lady assistant and the nuns entrusted with the charge of the new school, and also the Very Rev. Dean Beechinor and Father Cunningham. The edifice was filled by the children's parents and friends. After a juvenile choir had rendered an appropriate hymn, the Dean solemnly opened the school and dedicated it to St. Columba. Father Cunningham pronounced a blessing upon it, and celebrated mass, the incidental music for which was rendered by the choir….”

While St Columba’s was established to serve as a school for young Catholics in South Launceston and Sandhill, the intention was that the building could occasionally be used as a place of worship. Although there were longstanding plans to build a Catholic church in South Launceston (on Cleveland Street), this never eventuated.

St Columba’s remained active for over 30 years until disaster struck in 1932 when the building was badly damaged in a fire. The Examiner provides details of the event:

“At 4.50 a.m. yesterday the Launceston Fire Brigade received a call to a fire at St. Columba's Roman Catholic school in Eardley-street, South Launceston. The fire started in the east end of the building, which was a weatherboard structure, and lined with pine. It travelled quickly towards the western end, but the good work of the brigade, which arrived a very short time after the alarm was given, confined the fire to two rooms in the school. However, the school will have to be reconstructed….the school was built some 34 years ago, and was an all-wooden structure, the effort must be considered most praiseworthy….The fire apparently started near the fireplace at the eastern end of the building. This was cleaned out at noon on Tuesday, but it is thought some stray coals must have been left and have fallen on to the floor, which burned readily. When Mr. Shipp arrived the flamed were breaking through the eastern end, and leaping up to the pine ceiling. The rooms which were destroyed contained a piano (which was totally lost), a sewing machine, a number of school books, and a library…. It was stated by the Very Rev. Dean Hennessy yesterday that the school will be rebuilt on the same site, …. arrangements were immediately made for the 60 children attending the school to he accommodated in two vacant rooms in the convent buildings in Margaret-street. At one time the attendance at St. Columba's was much larger than at present, because in recent years the boy scholars became pupils of the Christian Brothers on the completion of St. Patrick's College”.

The school was never rebuilt and although plans for building a Catholic church at South Launceston were still being considered in the mid 1930’s, these were eventually abandoned, thus ending the Catholic presence in South Launceston.

The last photograph of St Columba's showing the fire damage. Source:Examiner, Thursday 14 July 1932


Launceston Examiner Monday 16 January 1882, page 2 
Launceston Examiner, Thursday 30 September 1897, page 1
Launceston Examiner, Thursday 30 September 1897, page 4
The Tasmanian Democrat, Friday 1 October 1897, page 2
Examiner, Thursday 14 July 1932, page 6
The Mercury, Thursday 14 July 1932, page 5 

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


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