No. 543 - East Pillinger - Sacred Heart Catholic Church - "The Children of St Patrick"

The township of Pillinger no longer exists. The settlement, sometimes called Kelly Basin, was located deep in Macquarie Harbour, approximately 40 kilometres south of Queenstown. In the late 19th century settlements were developed on the east and west shore of Kelly Basin which became known as East and West Pillinger. At its height the town’s population peaked at about 1000.

The founding of Pillinger is succinctly described in a brochure published by Tasmania’s Park’s and Wildlife Service: 


“The North Mount Lyell Company was formed by James Crotty in 1897 in direct competition with the Mount Lyell Company. After formation Crotty quickly set about building his own company’s infrastructure including the mine at Linda, smelters at Crotty, port and industrial facilities at East Pillinger, a settlement at Darwin and a railway to connect them all. The population of the area grew rapidly. By 1898 hundreds of men were employed constructing the railway and company facilities. At East Pillinger these included three long wharves, a sawmill and brickworks, an ore crushing plant, railway and shipping terminus, workers huts, mess hall and company offices. A government town, complete with stores, hotels and a police station was established at West Pillinger, adjacent to the company town at East Pillinger”.


The brochure does not mention that a Catholic church was established at Kelly Basin and that an Anglican church was planned but never built. Given the church’s short existence and the remoteness of Kelly Basin, I was surprised to find several detailed published reports about the church. The first report is from June 1900 when Bishop Delany visited. Pillinger had a significant Irish Catholic community which was devout and hopeful of opportunity and a better future for their children. The Bishop’s party included Father M. O’Regan, Father Bernard Murphy( of Zeehan), and Father James Murphy, of New Norfolk. The Mount Lyell Standard and Stahan Gazette reported:

"A number of representative Catholics met the party on the pier and escorted them to the Terminus Hotel, where the Catholic children of the Basin were entertained by the  reception committee. Over 40 children sat down to a toast of fruit, lollies, cakes, lemonade, and ginger ale which made their little hearts rejoice and their faces glow with pleasure.

A little dot of 9 years of age, Elizabeth Sweeney, read the following address to his Lordship : — To the Right Rev Patrick Delany, D.D., Lord Bishop of Laranda and Coadjutor Bishop of Hobart.

Dear Lord,—It is with the-greatest pleasure that we greet you to-day. We all wish to give you a hearty welcome on this your first visit to Kelly Basin, and we trust it will not be Iong ere we shall again welcome your Lordship when you visit our town to open the new church, which is much  needed in our midst. We know it will please your Lordship to hear that a number of us are preparing for first holy communion and confirmation on that occasion. Again dear Lord, we give you a hearty welcome. We trust you will have an enjoyable trip round the Coast and arrive home safely in good health. —We are your Lordship's most obedient children of Kelly Basin.”


Following the speeches the Bishop met with the building committee and was addressed by Mr. W.J. Bray, whose words reveal a deeply devout Irish Catholic community which aspired to provide an education for their children:

“My Lord, on behalf of the children of St Patrick residing at Kelly Basin I beg to offer to your Lordship a warm and hearty ‘Cead Mille Failte’ [a hundred thousand welcomes] and to assure your Lordship of our undying fidelity to our holy faith and our unswerving loyalty and loving attachment to the See of Peter, whose representative you are to-day. My Lord, you may rely upon the Catholics of Kelly Basin to use their every effort to foster and preserve the best interests of our holy faith, and especially to keep an ever watchful eye upon the spiritual welfare of their children. The building committee have arranged to meet your Lordship this afternoon and will place before you the financial position of the Church Building Fund with the object of obtaining your permission to commence building immediately. In round numbers we have £200, and guarantees are arranged for any overdraft. A great future is in store for Kelly Basin, and a new and prosperous township will be created between us and Gormanston through the rapid and rich developments of the Jukes and Darwin mineral discoveries. We hope to rival our sister seaport Strahan in our exports and imports. Owing to the marvellous progress of prosperity which the West Coast now enjoys it needs no prophetic insight to assert that in a few years from hence we shall see a new diocese created embracing this portion of our island, and we hope to see your Lordship consecrated first Bishop of the new diocese of the West Coast.”

In his reply the Bishop expressed his desire for both a church and school and the party then proceed to inspected the site of the church where Delany remarked that “he was much edified by the devotion and zeal of the Catholics at Kelly Basin”.

The following day the Bishop’s party was invited on a trip to the ‘head of the line’:

“The weather was delightful. The train left the Basin at 11 o'clock and steamed merrily along until the Six Mile was reached, when an unexpected landslip suddenly brought the train to a standstill, and the pleasurable outing Mr Baxter intended for the visitors was nipped in the bud. His Lordship and party left by to-day’s launch for Strahan".

The Bishop returned in November 1900 to open the new church dedicated to the Sacred Heart. The occasion was reported by the Zeehan and Dundas Herald. This account not only describes the church in detail but reveals a sophisticated community on the mining frontier that was well connected to mining boom towns and settlements that had sprung up across the remote West Coast:

“No more favourable day than yesterday could have been chosen for the opening of the new Catholic Church at Kelly Basin dedicated to the Sacred Heart. Delightful weather conditions prevailed, and these, following the wintry weather of the past few weeks, proved an additional inducement, apart from the ceremony to many, amongst them some who had arrived by the train from Zeehan had to take advantage of the excursion by the U.S.S. Company's fast-steaming Pilot, which was running to the Basin.

Punctually at 9.30 the vessel steamed away with nearly 80 excursionists on board, and after a run of about two hours Kelly Basin was reached, all proceeding immediately to the new church, where High Mass was celebrated by the Rev, Father O'Regan. His Lordship, Bishop Delaney preached, an eloquent and impressive sermon. After the collection had been taken up His Lordship announced that the total reached close upon £70, and thanked the congregation for the liberal manner in which they had responded.

He also thanked the Strahan Choir, who had come from Strahan to take part in the service for their splendid assistance. This body, under the conductorship of Mrs Heinze, with Herr Holm as organist, lent considerable impressiveness to the service by their excellent rendering of Farmer's "Twelfth Mass," and the duet, Rossini’s "Tantum Ergo," was nicely rendered by Mrs Heinse and Mr W. J. Kelly.

The church is built of wood, and of Gothic design of the early English period, and occupies a central and commanding position overlooking the township. The main elevation of the nave, entrance to which is gained by large double doors and opening outwards, has a bold gable surmounted with an ornamental cross, the filling of this gable being formed with panels and supported under the collar tie with cut brackets. The character of the interior, the walls and ceiling of which are lined with beaded board, is plain, with bold mouldings, The dado around the nave is of V pointed narrow hardwood boards, mounted at the top with bold mould, and the bottom with neat skirting. The windows throughout are Gothic leaded, fitted with fanlights, and in keeping with the style of architecture, the amber-tinted cathedral glass giving a soft, yet ample light. The cornice is bold and has neatly cut frieze divided into panels. Splendid ventilation has been provided by means of the fanlights and also by the frieze cornice from under the eaves. The painting and decorations, both outside and in, have been carried out in an artistic manner.

The building was designed and supervised by Messrs Austen and Keogh (As.R.V.IA.), architects, of Strahan and Queenstown, and stands as another proof of the ability of those gentleman. Mr F. H. Luckins of Kelly Basin, was the contractor, and he has fulfilled his part to the letter”.


There are further reports of the church and its activities over the next 3 years including fundraising to purchase an organ and social gatherings held in Waxman’s Hall. However, while Pillinger had acquired its first church, the issue of regular services was another matter. In November 1901 a correspondent for The Mount Lyell Standard and Strahan Gazette complained:

“In regard to Sunday services at Pillinger, it has been either a feast or famine, but with the appointment of Father Travers to the R.C. curacy, and the Rev. W. Hooker to that of the Anglican parish, more regularity will be observed in the future. On Sunday last large congregations attended divine services, which was held morning and evening in the State school, by the Rev. J.A. Gault [Methodist], in Waxman’s Hall by the Rev W. Hooker, and in the Sacred Heart Church by Father Travers”.

Father Traver’s appearance at Pillinger provided a catalyst for action by local Catholics. The Mount Lyell Standard and Strahan Gazette reported:

“Immediately after the morning service, a meeting of the parishioners was held in the Church of the Sacred Heart for the purpose of appointing a church committee to act for the congregation on all matters relating to the church. The following gentlemen were elected:—Messrs L. H. Mahon, F. Bray, M. Collins, Jos. Casey, W. Dolan, T Doyle and J. Kelleher. A subsequent meeting was held at 3.30 o'clock on Sunday afternoon, at which it was decided to postpone the bazaar in aid of the church debt which had been in contemplation.”

The hopes of Kelly Basin’s Catholics proved to be ill-founded. Soon after the church opened the township suffered a serious setback from which it never recovered. The founder of the North Mount Lyell Company, James Crotty, had died in London in 1898. Crotty’s death ended the vision of Kelly Basin’s pivotal place in the company’s West Coast infrastructure. In 1903 the company merged with its competitor, rendering its infrastructure redundant. Strahan was chosen over Pillinger as the preferred port. An interesting footnote regarding Crotty’s death is that his estate was left to the Roman Catholic Church, which enabled the completion of St Patrick's Cathedral in Melbourne, Victoria.

The year 1903 also marked the end of Pillinger’s Sacred Heart Church. In October 1903 an advertisement was placed in the Zeehan and Dundas Herald calling for tenders to take down the church and remove it to Queenstown and re-erect it alongside that town’s Catholic church. In less than three years after its opening, the hopes and dreams of Kelly Basin’s Catholics evaporated and the community moved off to seek a livelihood elsewhere.

A few people remained at East Pillinger harvesting timber and servicing the ships and trains that called in from time to time. The new company gradually dismantled and removed most of the buildings and railway infrastructure. The town’s last permanent residents left in 1943. Today the ruins of the town and its industrial relics and abandoned machinery are all that remain.


Kelly Basin 1900. Sacred Heart Church still under construction can be seen to the centre right of the photograph. (also see detail below) Source: Libraries Tasmania, Mills J. 


A detail showing Sacred Heart Church

Zeehan and Dundas Herald, 1 October 1903

The location of Kelly Basin in Macquarie Harbour. Source: Placenames.gov.tas.au

A postcard showing a railway carriage on the Pillinger line. Source: Libraries Tasmania NS3195-2-1153


Sources:

Mount Lyell Standard and Strahan Gazette, Thursday 29 March 1900, page 2
Mount Lyell Standard and Strahan Gazette, Friday 4 May 1900, page 4
Mount Lyell Standard and Strahan Gazette, Monday 18 June 1900, page 3
Mount Lyell Standard and Strahan Gazette , Saturday 3 November 1900.
Zeehan and Dundas Herald, Monday 5 November 1900, page 3
Mount Lyell Standard and Strahan Gazette, Monday 5 November 1900
Mount Lyell Standard and Strahan Gazette, Thursday 25 July 1901, page 2
Mount Lyell Standard and Strahan Gazette, Tuesday 26 November 1901, page 2
Mercury, Tuesday 9 September 1902, page 2
Mount Lyell Standard and Strahan Gazette, Wednesday 27 November 1902.
Zeehan and Dundas Herald, 1 October 1903, page 4.


East Pillinger historic township, Parks and Wildlife Service Tasmania, Compiled by the Tasmanian Heritage Office, 2002

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