No. 1485 - Cygnet - 'Church of St James the Apostle' (1867)

Cygnet is a small coastal town situated about 70 kilometres south of Hobart. It is named after the adjacent bay of Port Cygnet which was 'discovered' by D'Entrecasteaux and named ‘Port des Cygne’ (meaning the port of swans). The settlement was known as Port Cygnet until 1895 when it was changed to Lovett. In 1915 the town’s name was changed once again to Cygnet.

Four Catholic churches have operated at Cygnet:

1. A rudimentary building used as a church (c.1855-1867)
2. The first church of St James, a paling timber building (1867)
3. A rebuilt and extended church which was called the Church of the Sacred Heart of Jesus (1905-1940)
4. The current Church of St James which opened in 1940.

The focus of this article is on the first two churches. The third and fourth churches will each be the subject of future articles on the blog.

The origins of Cygnet’s first two Catholic churches is recounted by historian Basil Rait:

“In the ecclesiastical history of the Huon, Cygnet occupies a unique place, in that it may claim to have been the foundation centre of the Roman Catholic Church in the district, for the first Mass in the Huon was conducted at Cygnet by the Rev. John Murphy on April 1st, 1855…The record of service of the first and pioneer pastor, Father Murphy, is probably without comparison in southern Tasmania, for that first priest, gave no less than 43 years of his life to the service of the Roman Catholic Church in the Huon….".

"The Rev. John Murphy was a native of Kerry, in Ireland, and after his ordination at All Hallows' College, in 1851, he came out, to Tasmania. For a brief period he was stationed at Launceston, and was then appointed by the first Bishop of Hobart, Dr. R. W. Wilson, as one of the Chaplains to the convict station on Norfolk Island. He remained there for some years, and returned to Hobart in March, 1855".

"His work in the cause of the faith had been such that the Bishop felt that he could entrust to him the great task of establishing the Roman Catholic Church in the Huon. On March 30, 1855, Father Murphy, landed at Cygnet, then a small but flourishing township. One of the first persons to receive him on his arrival was Mr J. D, Balfe, who later became one of the 'members of Parliament for the Huon.The latter made him welcome, and he stayed, with him in his home for some days. On April 1st, Father Murphy said Mass in the partially completed public school, and on April 3rd, left for Franklin, where he decided to settle. For the next eight years he visited Cygnet regularly, and on every alternate Sunday conducted Mass in a house, rented for £10 a year from a Mrs Wall".

"Mr Matthew Fitzpatrick, one of the noted pioneers of the district, then came forward and purchased the house and land, which he gave to the church, so that the first church building should be erected where the first services had been held. It was in the early sixties of the last century that the first church was built on the land, and it stood, near the left hand corner of the entrance to the grounds….”.

According to Catholic Church historian, Fr. Terry Southerwood, the first “mini church” was a “flimsy structure” which was demolished after the construction of a more substantial weatherboard church in 1867. The second church, which was also a weatherboard building, was designed by Henry Hunter.

There are a few brief accounts of the official opening of the Church of St James the Apostle which took place on Tuesday 19 February 1867. The following report was published in the Hobart Mercury:

“This church was yesterday solemnly consecrated by the Most Reverend Dr. Murphy, Roman Catholic Bishop of Hobart Town. The imposing services, characteristic of the Catholic Church, were witnessed by a congregation numbering somewhat more than five hundred persons. The Very Reverend Dr. Hayes, Dean of Sandhurst, Victoria, delivered a most eloquent sermon. Several priests took part in the ceremony. Subscriptions amounting to £681 Is. 6d. were received. A sumptuous luncheon was subsequently given to the visitors in a spacious building adjacent to the church. The steamer Monarch, which reached the port at 1 o'clock with about one hundred and twenty passengers, left for town at 2, arriving a few minutes after 9 o'clock. Everyone on board could not be otherwise than gratified at having had the advantage of a propitious day to increase the pleasure of their social excursion”.

Henry Hunter’s church stood unaltered until 1903 when construction of a new building, ‘The Church of the Sacred Heart of Jesus’, was begun. The history of this building, Cygnet’s third Catholic Church, will be covered in an future article on ‘Churches of Tasmania’.

The second Catholic Church, designed by Henry Hunter (1867) Photo credit: David Coad A history of Tasmania. Volume 2, Port Cygnet 1860 -1900. (source/photographer not determined)

Mercury, Tuesday 12 February 1867

Tasmanian Morning Herald, Monday 22 January 1866


Tasmanian Morning Herald, Monday 22 January 1866, page 3
Mercury, Tuesday 12 February 1867, page 1
Mercury, Wednesday 20 February 1867, page 2
Cornwall Chronicle, Wednesday 20 February 1867, page 3
Launceston Examiner, Thursday 21 February 1867, page 5
Huon and Derwent Times, Thursday 3 October 1940, page 5

Coad, David, A history of Tasmania. Volume 2, Port Cygnet 1860 -1900 / [David Coad] D. Coad Kingston, Tas. 2010

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


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