No. 1053 - St Helens - St Helena & St Stanislaw Catholic Church (1871-1922)

St Helens is the largest town on Tasmania’s east coast. It was a whaling station in the early 19th century and when tin was discovered in the hinterland in the 1870s, St Helens developed as a port for the mines. The focus of this article is on St Helens’ original Catholic church which was replaced by the present church 100 years ago.

Records of the establishment of the first church are very patchy and the precise date of its construction is not known. It was most likely built in 1871 for it is recorded that the foundation stone of the second church, laid in 1921, took place “50 years after the first church was built”.

Catholic worship at St Helens dates back to the 1860s. Walch’s Almanac (1870) refers to Fr. M.J. Beechinor from Campbelltown attending the parishioners at St Georges Bay, which was an earlier name for the settlement.

The first direct reference to the church dates to July 1876. A description of St Helens published in the Hobart Mercury mentions that a Roman Catholic Chapel was located close to Captain William’s general store. A further reference to the ‘chapel’ is made in a public notice in November 1877 which announced that a sermon would be “preached at the Catholic Chapel” by the Very Reverend William J. Dunne, with the purpose of fundraising for the ‘Indian Famine Relief Fund’. A further report notes that £13 was raised at the event. In the same year Father F. J. Sheehy was appointed as the first priest to oversee the North East Catholic mission.

There are many references to the ‘chapel’ during the era of Father Mary (1878-1895). Father Louis Frederic Martial Mary was a French priest, who before entering the priesthood, had served in the French army in its campaign against Victor Emanuel of Sardinia and the Garibaldians in the Third War of Italian Independence. Father Mary was an immensely popular priest who had the ‘common touch’. Mary was responsible for ministering across the remote and rugged north east of Tasmania. In July 1883 a correspondent for the Hobart Mercury wrote of Father Mary’s mission:

“The Rev. Father Mary and I met frequently - sometimes in the wild bush passes of this country, sometimes at camps or hotels. My life is hard enough, but his, bar one thing, is harder. I have a family dependent on a precarious calling; he has not. Rain, hail, or snow, he is on the travel, his district reaching from the Devil’s Creek, near Falmouth, through to Cape Portland. He administers to the spiritual wants of a people spread over Falmouth, George’s Bay, Gould’s Country, Moorina, Brothers Home, Branxholm, upper Ringarooma, and within a few miles of Scottsdale on this line, and at Gladstone, Ringarooma port, Cape Portland, Boobyalla, etc., at various tangents. As regular as the month comes he is at his post, and the sturdy fellows who come to his ministrations, through hail, rain, and bog, eight and ten miles even, and then trudge back to their miserable camps, are surely a living reproach to many of our fine-bred town people, who, except in rare cases, are scared from walking over half-a-mile of clean side-walk to church or chapel by a passing cloud”.

St Helens’ Catholic ‘chapel’ was a very rudimentary structure located on Quail Street. Over the years numerous fundraising events were held to replace the building. For example, in 1908 Hobart’s Daily Post reported:

“A bazaar in aid of the fund for the new Catholic Church here was opened at Thompson’s Hall by Mr H. Grant, who dwelt on the necessity of a new structure, and congratulated the congregation on possessing so active and self-sacrificing priest as was Father Travers. By hook or by crook, the Catholics of St Helen’s must erect a permanent church…”.

In 1911 Reverend Father Kimbell attended a mission at St Helens. After the sermon Kimbell raised the issue of the “the very great need of a new church”. The Mercury reported Kimbell as saying:

“The present miserable structure was positively irreverent, and quite unfit for Divine worship. He understood that the smallness of their numbers and their limited resources made it seemingly impossible for the Catholics of St. Helens, however god their will, to build a church”.

In 1912 another bazaar was held in aid of the new church fund:

“Father Travers congratulated all concerned on the splendid manner in which they work altogether, … he hoped soon to see the present dilapidated structure replaced with one that would be worthy of its holy purpose. Some time ago a Launceston Catholic family who desired that their names should not be revealed, gave the princely donation of £100 for the purpose. He hoped the same faith and generosity would move other Catholics who were blessed with this world's goods, to follow such a splendid example and help them in St. Helen's to erect a suitable church to the glory of God. Left to their own poor resources, though most generous according to their means, the Catholics of St. Helen's could not hope to build a church”.

In 1921, exactly fifty years after the chapel’s opening, a foundation stone for a new brick church was laid on Sunday 26 May. The story of this building, which celebrates its centenary this year, will feature in a further article in ‘Churches of Tasmania’.

St Helena and St Stanislaw Catholic Church (undated) - Archdiocese of Hobart


an early published reference to the chapel (1877) The Mercury


Sources:

Tasmanian almanac (Walch) 1870
The Mercury, Monday 31 July 1876, page 2
The Mercury, Friday 9 November 1877, page 1
The Mercury, Thursday 15 November 1877, page 1
The Mercury, Wednesday 8 January 1879, page 3
The Tasmanian, Saturday 5 January 1895, page 9
Daily Post, Monday 8 June 1908, page 2
Examiner, Wednesday 2 August 1911, page 6
Examiner, Monday 9 December 1912, page 6
Daily Telegraph, Thursday 30 June 1921, page 6

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



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