No. 724 - Waratah - St Joseph's Catholic Church (1882 - c.1985)

Waratah is a former mining town located approximately 80 kilometres south of Burnie. Waratah was briefly the site of the largest tin mine in the world. The town had its beginnings in 1871 when James "Philosopher" Smith discovered tin at Mount Bischoff. The population of Waratah reached 2500 at its peak but is now under 300. The town was once was connected to the Emu Bay Railway by a branch line, which was opened in 1885 then closed in 1940. Six religious denominations were established at Waratah including St Joseph’s Catholic church.

In 1903 Launceston’s Daily Telegraph’s “Special Travelling Representative” visited Waratah and described a town which was near the peak of its prosperity:

“The township itself does not possess any striking characteristics, beyond those met with in the ordinary bush mining towns, that is so far as buildings and such like are concerned; but as regards climatic peculiarities, then it has decidedly characteristic. Wind and rain there are particular favourites of the elements, with snow and ice as, what may be termed, side shows. At the time this notice is being written it has been raining incessantly for five days, with every prospect of continuing; weather-prophets wisely shaking their heads, and stating that a change might take place — it might snow. The miners have to contend against all these inclement conditions, but withal they look a happy and contented lot; healthy they certainly are. The situation of the town is one conducive to health, and would be greatly aided in that respect were rigid sanitary conditions enforced. The Waratah River divides the town, the river being spanned by a wooden bridge. On the east side are the Anglican Church, hospital, Athenaeum Hall, public reading room, police offices, and private residences; on the west are the Bischoff works, railway station, post office, State school, two hotels, business places, and residences; the Methodist and Roman Catholic churches and Oddfellows' Hall are also on this side. The cemetery is located about two miles out of the town on the Camp-road. It is said that the site is unsuitable in two ways, being too far away and on account of the stony nature of the ground. In former years burials had to be made at Burnie, and the methods for conveying the deceased there were very crude, especially as the era of railways on the West Coast had not then arrived.…”.

St Joseph’s Catholic church was one of the first places of worship established in the township, along with the Anglicans, Wesleyan Methodists and Primitive Methodists. These were joined by the Presbyterians and Salvation Army in the early 20th century. The earliest reference to Catholic activity in the settlement dates to 1876:

“The want of religious services is greatly felt here; the sight of a clergyman is quite a novelty. Father O’Callaghan, of Table Cape [Wynyard], paid us a visit last week. This is the fourth or fifth time he has visited Mount Bischoff since the mines have been opened, and I must say I think he sets a very good example to ministers of other denominations, which, however, they do not seem inclined to follow. During the times the mines have been at work, which is nearly three years, only two Church of England ministers and one Wesleyan have found their way up among us”.

Substantial progress towards building a church was made in 1881. In July an advertisement published in the Launceston Examiner announced that a bazaar was to be held “at Waratah, Mount Bischoff, in November….in aid of the New Catholic Church about to be built there”. The bazaar was clearly successful as construction of the church began before the close of the year and by March 1882 the building was completed and officially opened.

The Launceston Examiner carried a brief and somewhat telegraphic style report of the official opening and consecration of St Joseph’s which took place on Sunday 19 March 1882:

“At the opening of the Catholic church at Mount Bischoff yesterday, Archdeacon Hogan officiated, assisted by Fathers Noone, O’Callaghan, and Kelsh. The latter preached eloquently both morning and evening. The Emu Bay choir sang selections from Mozart’s Twelth Mass. The collections amounted to £85. The church was crowded. There was a public dinner at Ryan’s hotel in the afternoon. There were thirty present. In the evening the service consisted of vespers and the Benediction. It is a neat church, 52ft by 22ft. Easton and Eustace are the builders. The cost is £500”.

The church struggled in its first few years due to the absence of a resident priest. In September 1883 the local correspondent for the Examiner and The Tasmanian wrote:

"The Roman Catholic church is situated in Vincent-street, the Rev. Father O'Callaghan being officiating priest. As he is not a local resident, but lives in Emu Bay [Burnie], and only occasionally visits Waratah, the church is not in such a flourishing condition as it might be. There is a large number of persons of this faith in the town and district, and the wonder is that a resident clergyman has not long since been appointed".

By late1884, more than two years after the opening of the church, the absence of permanent priest was still an issue, although clearly, Father O' Callaghan, was held in very high regard:

"The congregation of St. Joseph’s (R.C.) are taking steps to procure the services of a resident clergyman. It does seem strange that this sect, being one of the wealthiest in the place, should be the only one dependent on occasional visits from their clergyman, the Rev. M. O’Callaghan, who has a very extensive circuit, and who is in consequence unable to give more than a small portion of his time to his congregation at Waratah. The movement is being strongly supported I am informed, and likely to be brought to a successful issue. The Rev. M. O’Callaghan stands high in the esteem of all who have the pleasure of his acquaintance, whether connected with his own sect or not. A new and strange face may be welcomed, but the old will not be forgotten, I hope we shall have the pleasure of seeing the rev. gentleman often as usual".

Father O’Callaghan continued to visit Waratah until he was appointed to minister at Strahan in 1897. Father Matthew O’ Callaghan passed away in Melbourne in December 1899 and he is honoured with a plaque in his memory at St Mary Star of the Sea at Burnie.

St Joseph’s stood at Waratah for about a century before it was eventually demolished in the mid 1980’s. The date of the church’s closure is not known.

Additional information about this church is welcomed as all articles will be updated. I can be contacted through this page or my Facebook page "Churches of Tasmania" which is linked here: <Churches of Tasmania>

St Joseph's at Waratah - photo supplied by Anne Dunham

John H Robinson photograph of group outside the church. Courtesy Jeff Crowe collection. Date unknown.

Inside St Joseph's Church. Photo credit to Meg Summers collection

John H Robinson photograph of inside the church. Courtesy Jeff Crowe collection.

Launceston Examiner, July 1881

Launceston Examiner, March 1882

Memorial plaque at St Mary's, Burnie (my photo)


Launceston Examiner, Tuesday 23 May 1876, page 3
Launceston Examiner, Friday 30 May 1879, page 3
Launceston Examiner, Wednesday 27 July 1881, page 4
Launceston Examiner, Tuesday 21 March 1882, page 2
Launceston Examiner, Friday 10 March 1882, page 3
Launceston Examiner, Monday 13 March 1882, page 2
The Tasmanian, Saturday 25 March 1882, page 17
The Mercury, Tuesday 28 March 1882, page 1
The Tasmanian, Saturday 22 September 1883.
Tasmanian News, Wednesday 17 December 1884, page 4
Launceston Examiner, Friday 20 January 1893, page 2
Daily Telegraph, Monday 21 December 1903, page 6 
Mercury, Wednesday 13 December 1899, page 1


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