The Church of St John Vianney, Australind

The church of St. John Vianney is no longer part of the Australind landscape but for nearly 100 years the small wooden structure served as school and mass centre for generations of local Catholics. Bunbury was settled in 1838 and Australind three years later but it was not until the 1870’s that there were sufficient Catholics in the latter area to justify any special building for religious services.

Background of Catholicism in the Wellington District

For the first few years of settlement in the Wellington district, Catholics represented a very small percentage of the total population but between 1848 and 1854 there was a considerable increase brought about by the initiatives of one man, Thomas Little. He was an Irishman, born in Galway in 1800, and arrived in Australia in 1838 as a representative of Charles Prinsep, a Calcutta businessman. His task was to buy farming land for Prinsep and then work towards establishing a trade link with India.

He bought a block of land on the east bank of the Preston River (Moorlands) and used this as a base for his farming endeavours for several years. His neighbour across the river was to be the Anglican clergyman, John Ramsden Wollaston, with whom he made a lasting friendship and from whom he would later buy land at Dardanup.

His first purchase for Prinsep was the narrow strip of land between Leschenault Estuary and the sea. This he named Belvidere after Prinsep’s Calcutta mansion.

He was already established by the time Marshall Waller Clifton and his Western Australian Company colonists arrived in 1841 to begin the unsuccessful settlement on the opposite shore of the estuary.

Little continued to purchase land for Prinsep in several areas including 640 acres of the fertile Dardanup flats (Paradise Farm). He also bought land for himself, 780 acres west of Paradise (Dardanup Park) and after leaving the employ of Prinsep concentrated on farming this from 1852.

About this time famine was devastating Ireland and Little encouraged some of his countrymen to migrate to Australia and settle at Dardanup. Largely as a result of this wave of immigrants, the Catholic population of the Wellington district grew from 31 in 1848 to 249 in 1854.

To this stage, visits by Catholic priests to the area had been spasmodic and from Perth. Bishops Brady and Serra had made occasional visits, while Fr. Timothy Donovan, the first priest to be ordained in W.A. was a more frequent contact. Baptismal records indicate that he baptised children and adults at Australind, Bunbury, the Vasse, Pinjarra and Mandurah. However in 1852, Little donated 50 acres of his Dardanup land so that a church and monastery could be built. Such was his enthusiasm and drive that the foundation stone of a church was laid by Bishop Salvado in 1854. The church was named Our Lady of the Immaculate Conception.

In 1855 Fr. Peter Aragon (O.S.B.) was appointed as resident priest, to be followed in 1856 by Fr. Venancio Garrido, also a Spanish monk. The church was completed by Fr. Garrido and blessed in 1857.

Both these priests lived at Dardanup in accommodation provided by Little and from here they moved through their district which still included Australind and stretched to Augusta.

In his returns for 1858 Fr. Garrido states that the Catholic population of Dardanup was 130 of whom 100 attended mass regularly while from Bunbury, Picton, Australind, with a similar Catholic population, only 30 usually attended.

Fr. Garrido left Dardanup and W.A. in July 1858 to be replaced by a Belgian, Fr. Adolphus Lecaille, who moved the priest’s place of residence from Dardanup to Bunbury. From here he continued to serve the south-west until 1865 when he transferred to Geraldton. He died in 1908 and was buried in Perth. However in 1936 his remains were re-interred in the mortuary of Utakarra cemetery. A stained glass window in St. Frances Xavier’s Cathedral, Geraldton, is dedicated to him.

Spanish Bishops Salvado, Serra and Griver had done their best to attract Irish priests to the colony and several of these arrived in W.A. during the 1850’s. Among these was Patrick McCabe who served in Geraldton before being appointed to Bunbury from 1866 to 1869. He played a part in the escape from Leschenault Peninsula of the Fenian prisoner, John Boyle O’Reilly, aboard the American whaler “Gazelle” in 1869.

Hugh Brady was next serving the district from Bunbury for 20 years (1869-1889) and during this period the number of Catholics at Australind increased considerably. In 1888 two Vincentian priests, Boyle and McEnroe, gave a three day mission in the parish. Fr. Boyle preached at Australind and reported that there were 43 communicants.

Catholic Families, Australind

One of the prominent Catholic families at Australind was that of James Rodgers. He and his wife were established at “Cook Park” on the Scenic Drive by 1862 and with their ten sons developed much of the land in that area. One of his sons, Paddy, was ultimately to bequest money to the Catholic Church with the proviso it be used to build a church at Australind (this money was used towards that purpose in the 1990’s).

Other Catholic farming families nearby were Ferris, Kearnan, Milligan and Brown.

William Brown, a discharged Pensioner Guard, and his wife, took over the adjacent block to Rodgers also in 1862. He farmed it for several years and when he died his widow leased it to a neighbour, Michael Ferris. Mrs. Brown died in 1879 and in her will left the property to the Catholic Church, represented by Fr. Hugh Brady. It was on part of this location that the church of St. John Vianney was built (title in the name of Hugh Brady, Chaplain, was issued in 1898 for 10 acres, parts of Lots 3 and 4 Leschenault Road. Brady died in 1901 and the title was transferred to Matthew Gibney, Archbishop of Perth in 1902).

The School

The original concept was not for a church but a school. Government schools had been operating in the area both at Parkfield near the head of the estuary and near Upton House. However as the number of children in the Irish families increased a decision was made by the people concerned to build their own school. This was opened as a Roman Catholic Provisional School in 1875 with an immediate effect on the enrolment of the adjacent schools. Both Parkfield and Australind closed at the end of 1878 through lack of numbers.

The first teacher at the Provisional School was Mary Jane Maguire, a granddaughter of an early Dardanup settler, and she had responsibility for 18 children. In 1879 the school was given full status and Miss Eileen Murphy was appointed as teacher. The enrolment at this stage was 31 consisting of 19 boys and 12 girls. In 1886 there were 25 children attending and the enrolment for the years 1895 and 1901 is recorded as 18.

In 1892 the teacher was a Miss Ferris and the comment from a visiting Inspector of Schools was “one of the best bush schools visited this year”.

Religious Instruction was given by visiting priests among whom were Fr. Delany and Dean Martelli (and in later years by nuns from St. Joseph’s Convent, Bunbury). In 1895 the building and 5 acres of ground were valued by Bishop Gibney as 100 pounds.

It appears that the school may have been closed for short periods, possibly due to falling enrolment or the lack of a suitable teacher. Certainly a letter from Inspector of Schools, Cyril Jackson, gives this impression. Dated 26/04/97 it states “We have recently occupied a chapel belonging to the RCs”.

Again in 1902 the Education Dept. was having difficulty in finding accommodation for the school children in the area and a letter (23/08/02) was sent to Dean Martelli asking if the chapel could be used. The Dean’s response on 27/08/02 was that he was prepared to let it for 1 pound a month.

Three years later a government school was built on the Scenic Drive south of the present location of the caravan park and as a result the Catholic building was no longer to be used as a school.

The Church

It continued to be used as a chapel with the priests coming from Bunbury until 1916 and then from Dardanup when it became the parish centre for the next 18 years. During this period Australind had monthly mass. Fortnightly services were resumed in 1934 when Australind was returned to Bunbury parish.

In 1941 Archbishop Prendiville formally blessed and consecrated Australind’s school/chapel giving it the title of the Church of St. John Vianney.

By the 1970’s the Catholic population near the church was such that it was no longer practical to use the building for masses. It fell into disrepair, became abused by vandals and was finally demolished. The furnishings were removed to the church of St. Thomas in Carey Park.

During this time the Eaton/Australind area started to grow and Bishop Peter Quinn saw the need for a parish to be established in the area. He sent Sister Claude McNamara out to “find the Catholics” and her little yellow car became a familiar sight as she literally went from house to house seeking out “the Catholics”.

This was the beginning of the building of the parish community that we see today. Sister Claude organised Renewal of Faith programmes, home masses and a prayer group. She also organised picnics, casserole meals and other social functions which helped to build the community.

It was then decided to have weekend Mass so a priest from Bunbury was organised to come out each weekend to celebrate Mass. A venue needed to be found and after trying the Eaton Hall which was unsuitable, the CWL Hall which was too small, it was decided to use the Eaton Primary school library.

At that time most of the people lived in the Eaton area however as Australind expanded the Australind primary school was built so mass was alternated weekly between Eaton and Australind. Father Bernie O’Dwyer became the parish’s regular Priest.

In the 1980’s the population increased greatly and in 1984 the parish was officially established. Father Pat Rooney was inducted as the first Parish Priest on 9 June 1985.

It was decided to build the school and the Priest’s house first in Australind. The present site was purchased with substantial bequests from pioneering families such as Paddy Rodgers, Johnny Dunne and the Travers family, funds from the sale of the land where the original church stood and also a private donation.

Planning for a new church began in 1989. It was an exciting time for the Parish. A planning committee was formed and much time and effort went into designing the church that we see today. The committee travelled to Perth and other areas to view new churches and gain ideas.

Construction began in 1991. The building is a steel structure, externally clad in limestone with an entry and sanctuary floor. Jarrah seating and altar furniture round off the Australian bush flavour.

Parishioners started to use their talents preparing items for the church. Pam Ayers crocheted a vine patterned edge for an alter cloth, Irene Ivory embroidered the beautiful picture which is hung in the entrance, Ria Bignell worked on the painting of Our Lady and one of the Brothers of St. Gerard, who were in Bunbury at that time, painted the processional cross and the picture of the church’s patron, St. John Vianney. The C.W.L. ladies catered for Rotary Club dinners, weddings, etc. raising enough money to fit out the kitchen.

The Dedication and Opening of the new church, “Christ the Living Vine” took place on Sunday 10 May 1992 and was a big occasion. Ian Mills had established the choir by then and on that day it included children from the school.

The Mass was concelebrated by Bishop Peter Quinn and all the Priests of the diocese. People travelled from Perth and outlying areas to attend with special guest Sister Claude. A pathway leading from the church to the school has been named in her honour.

Parish Priests following after Fr Pat have been Fr Kevin Johnston, Fr Adrian Van Klooster, Fr Evan Penberthy, Fr Ian Johnson, Fr Jess Sargado Navarra, Fr Nicandro Lim, Fr Ian Johnson (on loan for 15 months!) and currently Fr Robert Romano.