No. 753 - Sorell - St Thomas' Catholic Church - "Sunshining Throughout"

Sorell is one of Tasmania's oldest towns with the region first settled in 1808. Sorell was formally established as a township in 1821 and was named after William Sorell, who served as Lieutenant-Governor from 1816 to 1824.

By the 1840s Sorell had an Anglican and a Presbyterian church while the Catholic community relied on visiting priests from nearby Richmond for regular Mass. The first request to the government for an allotment on which to build a Catholic church was made by Bishop Willson in 1850.

Progress towards building a church was delayed until 1863. A foundation stone was ceremonially laid in 1864 and the church was completed in the same year. The building’s construction was overseen by Father William Dunne of Richmond. The stone was quarried free of charge from land belonging to Mrs Lord of Richmond. Andrew Counsel donated land for the church and also made a contribution of £200 towards the cost of construction. The building is one of the earliest churches designed Henry Hunter. St Thomas’ was opened by Bishop Willson in January 1865.

The story of the founding of St Thomas’ Catholic church is beautifully told in two very lengthy reports published in local newspapers. Both are colourful and entertaining accounts which reveal a vibrant community and adventurous community. Both reports have been reproduced here almost in their entity and are well word reading.

The first report concerns the laying of foundation stone and was published by the Cornwall Chronicle:

“The corner stone of the…new Church was, in accordance with previous advertisements, solemnly laid by the Right Rev. the Catholic Bishop of Hobart Town, on Wednesday, the 20th inst. The day was fine and sunshining throughout, though early in the morning there appeared, to the great disappointment of many, every indication that the day would be wet. About 11 o'clock the Bishop and the Clergymen, whom accompanied him, arrived from Richmond, where they remained the previous night at the residence of the Rev. W. J. Dunne, and at once proceeded to the site upon which the Church is being built, where a little tent was appropriately erected for the purpose of resting themselves in, and disrobing themselves of their clerical garments. At the same time the township was all astir, and from every avenue leading thereto could be seen the inhabitants of the surrounding districts wending their way towards it with all possible speed. Every available vehicle, from the one generally used for agricultural purposes, to the chaise and dog cart, seemed to have been put into requisition on the occasion. Very many ladies were gracefully mounted on horseback and preceded, in their speed, the gentlemen who accompanied them".

“At about 12 o'clock tho ceremony commenced, the Bishop and Clergy walking in procession from the tent proceeded to the place designed for the altar where a wooden cross had been set up the previous day, and sprinkled it with water which was previously blest,…. His Lordship afterwards addressed a few observations to his audience explanatory of the great importance of the work be was about to commence, and also of the use of the latin language in the ceremonies of the Catholic Church…..He then blessed the first stone in the usual form, sprinkled it with the blest water, and, taking the trowel in his hand, marked it with the sign of the cross, saying, "In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost." The litany of the saints was next chanted, after which the stone was solemnly laid. Within the stone was placed a bottle, containing the current coin of the present reign,….”.

“A large booth was tastefully erected in the vicinity of the Police Office, and over which the Union Jack floated in the breeze, became at this time the centre of attraction. Thitherwards every one directed his steps. A luncheon was prepared therein for all persons who would partake of it, without distinction or exception; and, for the abundance and excellent quality of every thing provided and every thing was gratuitously provided by the people of Sorell and Pittwater - and for the taste displayed in arranging the various dishes on the long-extended board, which literally groaned beneath them; …..Across the end of the booth a table was laid, at which the Bishop occupied the chair;…. The Board sparkled with champagne and wine of the best quality and ale, tea, coffee, &c, were supplied abundantly as beverage…..The school boys who kept holiday and played at football, were not forgotten in the end. Full many a pie and many a pudding were annihilated in their presence in the course of the evening….”.

The opening of the church is described in an article titled “Pleasure Trip to Sorell” published in the Hobart Mercury. The trip from Hobart to Sorell by steamer is recounted in great detail and the church’s official opening is somewhat of an anticlimax:

“A pleasure trip to Sorell is somewhat of a novelty in the annual round of popular amusements of Hobart. Indeed it must be confessed, although the admission is one by no means creditable to the citizens of the metropolis of the island, that there are many of them to whom the existence of the fine tract of agricultural country and the pretty township which constitutes its business and social centre, and which taken in conjunction form the district of Sorell, are known only by the traditions of adventurous spirits, who at one time or another have visited the spot by overland conveyances, or that more social means of locomotion, the Monarch steamer. On Wednesday, however, the unusual opportunity of making a marine trip to this rural neighbourhood, was supplied by some influential members of the Roman Catholic faith, who desired to provide their co-religionists with special facilities for witnessing the formal inauguration of a recently completed church belonging to their creed. These individuals induced the owner of the Monarch by a guarantee of receipts, to a certain amount, to lay his vessel on for the occasion, and the result of the undertaking, in a financial point of view, was, we were glad to find, of such a character as to surpass the anticipations of the most sanguine advocates of the project. The number of tickets issued was limited, as we announced on Monday would be the case, to 200, and that number was rapidly taken up. Accordingly, at the appointed hour of starting, namely, 7 a.m. on Wednesday, the steamer was sufficiently filled to gratify the social instincts of gregarious pleasure-seekers, without being crowded to such an extent as could prove disagreeable to persons of more solitary tastes. A satisfactory start was effected very shortly after the appointed time, and to the inspiriting music of the band engaged for the occasion the Monarch set off on her errand of pleasure. The trip down the river it would be needless to describe, inasmuch as it was necessarily devoid of incidents beyond those which characterise the similar trips to which our citizens are so well accustomed. The varied beauty of the scenery might, indeed, tempt us to diverge somewhat from the beaten track of a dry record of the proceedings of the day, but that as a matter of choice we prefer leaving those who have never summoned up energy enough to visit Sorell by water in ignorance of the enjoyment which they permit to lie unavailed of within their reach. We shall, therefore, merely record our belief that, within the brief range of some fifty miles, there is nowhere to be found a more delightful series of changing landscapes than was to be seen from the deck of the Monarch on Wednesday. We shall now without further preface proceed to chronicle briefly the incidents of the day”.

“The first occurrence of moment took place shortly after noon, when the Monarch, in endeavouring to attain the nearest practicable proximity to the township of Sorell, ran, aground on the mud bank nearly abreast of the little settlement and nearly two miles off the shore. Previously to this time she had taken in tow a couple of whaleboats, which, in the expectation of procuring employment, had put off from places lower down the river. At the point where the steamer anchored a couple of other boats put off from the shore and met the steamer, until there were half-a-dozen in all available for the use of intending visitors to the land. At this time, we should also state by way of explanation, the tide was ebbing fast, and had fallen more than one half of its entire decline”.

“After striking on the first occasion the Monarch was backed off, and was steered by soundings on a fresh course, but she bad not proceeded above a couple of hundred yards when she again took the ground and became quite a fixture. The boats then came alongside and a scene ensued to which in the words of a well known resident of Murray-street, the landing of the allies in the Crimea was as nothing. Of the first two boats which put off, one contained the band, the representatives of the press, and a few private individuals, and the other an alderman of the city of cricketing reputation, a few ladies and a large number of visitors generally, and between these rival crafts a very spirited race for the shore was immediately commenced. The boats pursued different courses and for some time the occupants of each were confident that the advantage lay on their side. The consequent sentiment of triumph was very loudly expressed on both sides, the worthy Alderman's companions indulging in occasional rounds of British cheers, and their rivals causing the band to play " Rule Britannia," "See the Conquering Hero comes,” "The girl I left behind me," and other airs of an exulting and taunting description. It soon, however, became apparent that the rejoicings on both sides were premature. When within some 300 yards of the shore, the Alderman's boat, which had a slight lead, grounded, and the band passed them, blowing a terrific burst of triumph. But before many minutes had elapsed, the bandsmen in their turn, ran aground and the aldermanic party having in the meantime, by great efforts, got once more afloat, came up with shouts of victory resolved to win. Just as they had arrived abreast of their motionless rivals, however, they again stuck fast, and this time permanently. The eyes of all on board were immediately turned towards the beach where it had been intimated that a number of carts would be in waiting to convey the visitors on shore, and to the general satisfaction, there were several of the vehicles in question in sight. One of these, without loss of time, put off to the alderman's boat, and having taken in a goodly number of passengers, started for the shore amidst the. cheers of the party of which they had formed portion. The cart had not, however, proceeded more than half a dozen yards when the horse fell down in the water, an incident which was received with due exultation by the musicians and their companions. To convey any idea of the events which followed, would require the pencil of a Hogarth or a Leech; one well-known citizen who mounted, on the shoulders of a boatman, appeared to the envy of many anxious lookers on certain of having the honour to be first on land, proved too heavy for his bearer, and was set down above his knees in water about midway between the boats and the shore, and this was but one of many occurrences equally ludicrous to the lookers on. Finally, by means chiefly of the carts half a dozen boat loads of excursionists were safely landed, but by the time this was accomplished the boats were fast aground and at least 60 or 70 passengers were in consequence left on board the steamer until the return of their more fortunate companions in the evening”.

“Arrived on shore the footsteps of the bulk of the visitors were turned at once in the direction of St. Thomas' Church, the opening of which for Divine service formed the great event of the day. By the time the city contingent reached the building the ceremony of the mass had been brought nearly to a conclusion. The Right Rev. Dr. Willson R.C. Bishop of Hobart Town took part in the service which was conducted by the Rev. J. Hogan of Westbury, assisted by the Rev. C. Woods, J. Hunter, and P. O'Meara of Hobart Town, the Rev. J. Sheehy of New Norfolk, the Rev. Mr. Keoghan of Oatlands, the Rev E. Marum of Jerusalem, the Rev. J. Murphy of Franklin, the Rev. Mr. Holohan of Port Cygnet and the Rev. Mr. Kiernan of Swansea”.

“At the conclusion of the service a collection was made which resulted in a sum of £37 11s. 7d. being obtained towards the church funds.... Amongst the congregation we noticed the hon. J. Whyte, Colonial Secretary, T. J. Gregson Esq., M.H.A., W. R. Allison, Esq., M.H. A., and J. Davies, Esq., M.H.A. The music performed during the service was selected from masses by Tilbee and Van Bree. Mr. E. Roper presided at the harmonium”.

“The church is a neat structure of the Gothic order, in its simplest and most unpretending style. It consists of a nave 38 ft. in length, by 19ft. in width, a chancel, 14 ft. by 11 ft.,a sacristy 12 ft. by 10 ft. and porch 9 ft. by 7 ft, and is capable of accommodating 120 persons. The material of which the walls are composed is free-stone which is very neatly worked. The architect of the building is Mr. H. Hunter. The contractors, Messrs. Molloy and Rigby, and the contract price £700. The stone was, by permission, quarried gratuitously from land belonging to Mrs. Lord, of Richmond and the land upon which the church is built is a gift from Mr. Andrew Counsel, who also gave a contribution of 200 pounds towards the funds”.

“At the close of the mass, the bishop, clergy, and some of the visitors from town proceeded by invitation to the residence of Mr. R. Fitzsimons, Council Clerk of the Municipality, where they were most hospitably entertained by the owner. The bulk of the visitors then proceeded to a bazaar in aid of the funds of the Church, which was being held in the police office. The office was prettily decorated, and completely filled with almost every description of useful and ornamental articles. During the entire afternoon the building was crowded to excess by eager purchasers, and the goods appeared to command a ready sale. The town visitors returned on board the steamer shortly before 5 o'clock, hut the steamer was still aground, and did not float for upwards of an hour afterwards. When she did float she made capital progress home, and arrived at the wharf at 12 o'clock precisely. The run down was made, in 41/2 hours, and the homeward trip in 41/4 hours”.

St Thomas’ appears virtually unchanged from the description of the church written over 150 years ago. It is is situated in a quiet backstreet and somewhat overshadowed by its towering Scots neighbour across the road. Regular services are still held at the church and given that Sorell is Tasmania’s fastest growing town, its future should be secure.

* All photographs in this article are my own. Any use of these photographs must be acknowledged.

Notice of the laying of the foundation stone - The Mercury


Mercury, Tuesday 19 April 1864, page 1
Mercury , Saturday 23 April 1864, page 3
Cornwall Chronicle, Saturday 7 May 1864, page 3
Mercury, Friday 13 January 1865, page 2


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