No. 523 - Burnie - St Saviour's Catholic Church (1855-1890)

Burnie is a port city on the north-west coast of Tasmania. When it was first settled in by the Van Diemen’s Land Company in 1827 it was named Emu Bay. In the 1840’s the company's settlement was renamed Burnie after William Burnie, a director of the Van Diemen's Land Company.

St Mary’s Star of the Sea is the second Catholic church built at Burnie. An earlier church, St Saviour’s, was built in 1855 in the centre of the town on the corner of Cattley Street and Wilson Street.

In the year the church was built, Emu Bay was described by the local correspondent for the Launceston Examiner:

“The settlement at Emu Bay is seldom noticed in the local papers and from its increasing prosperity it may be as well to give a short account of it.… It contains about four hundred inhabitants, exclusive of the surrounding districts of Wivenhoe and Table Cape, which have a large population.... There…[are] three Inns, one kept by Mr. Garner, is a first-rate hotel - a post-office, several stores and shops, and tradesmen of every description are in the township of Burnie. There is also an Episcopalian Church- a very neat building - and the Roman Catholics are about erecting a chapel and residence for their clergyman….”.

The earliest Catholic ministry at Emu Bay was that of Father Thomas Butler. He sailed round the coast from Launceston in 1847 to officiate at one marriage and eleven baptisms. As early as 1850, Bishop Willson attempted to obtain a grant of land from the Van Dieman’s Land Company. The Company rebuffed his approach but later relented and granted an acre on land on Cattley Street. A small timber church with a tower was built on the site.

A single blurred photo of the church exists*. It was described as a “quant double-gabled wood structure” and was the first church in the district to introduce an organ for public worship. The most substantial description of the church is found in a report published in The Tasmanian in 1878:

“The Roman Catholic Church of St. Saviour, like its brother, St. George’s on the hill, tells by means of its exterior the tale of age, but inside, thanks to the efforts of the respected pastor, the Rev. M. O’Callaghan, will bear favourable comparison with any church on the coast. The interior has been lined….and papered and painted throughout”.

When St Saviour’s opened in 1855 services were irregular as Father Michael Burke, the parish priest of Circular Head, resided at Stanley. He would make periodical visits to Emu Bay riding on horseback, crossing unbridged waterways and rivers. In 1924 Richard Hilder wrote:

“Father Burke was a lover of horses, and rode a fine dapple grey mare, a beautiful and intelligent animal, and on horseback he was a great visitor to the scattered country settlers (many of whom did not belong to his church). His knowledge of agriculture was good, and he was widely read upon farming topics. Hence he and his fine quadruped were generally welcome. His cheery countenance and jovial speech were captivating to young and old. He always, during his tours to Emu Bay, paid a visit to the State or Board school. Here he was for the time being the gracious instructor to the few classes. Father Burke loved to give geography lessons from a map of the world, and would get some scholar to trace with his penknife the sailing routes from Europe to other countries”.

In 1883 Burnie became a parish in its own right and Father Matthew O’ Callaghan was appointed as the first resident priest. Father Callaghan sold part of the valuable Cattley Street site to fund the construction of a presbytery and a new church. With the proceeds of the sale he bought a two acre site on Mount Road on which St Mary’s Star of the Sea church was built in 1890. The remainder of the Cattley Street site was sold by tender and the old wooden church was removed.

The story of the establishment of St Mary’s Star of the Sea will be told in a follow-up article.

A detail of an early (undated) photo of Emu Bay showing St Saviour's* Source: Libraries Tasmania - LPIC -1-386147

The full photograph from which the detail (above) was taken. Source: Libraries Tasmania - LPIC -1-386147


Launceston Examiner, Saturday 13 October 1855, page 5
The Tasmanian, Saturday 22 June 1878, page 12
Launceston Examiner, Wednesday 25 December 1889, page 2
Advocate, Tuesday 2 September 1924, page 2
Circular Head Chronicle, Wednesday 4 February 1931, page 1
Advocate, Wednesday 10 April 1935, page 10

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


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