By GP Good, July 1989
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 late, but it was not until the 1870s that there were sufficient Catholics in the latter area to justify any special building for religious services.
The Church of St John Vianney was located on Leschenault Road, (now called Cathedral Avenue), Australind.
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 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 own 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 Donavon, the first priest to be ordained in WA 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 OSB [Order of St Benedict] 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 stated that the Catholic population of Dardanup was 130, of whom 100 attended Mass regularly, while from Bunbury, Picton and Australind, with a similar Catholic population, only 30 usually attended.
Fr Garrido left Dardanup and WA in July 1858, to be replaced by a Belgian, Fr Adolphus Lecaille, who moved the priests’ 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 1918, 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 Francis 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 WA during the 1850s. Among these was Patrick McCabe, who served in Geraldton before being appointed to Bunbury from 1866 – 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 Vincention 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 at Australind
One of the prominent Catholic families at Australind was that of James Rodgers. He and his wife were established at ‘Cook’s 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 provision it be used to build a church at Australind.
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.
Further research has clarified the fact that the Roman Catholic School operated as an ‘Assisted School’ and that the Australind (Government) School used the building from time to time, until 1905 when the Australind (Government) School was built. [Ed., 2016]
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 ‘Assisted 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 school was Mary Jane Maguire, a grand-daughter of an early Dardanup settler. The enrolment in 1875 was 31, consisting of 19 boys and 12 girls. The school continued as an ‘Assisted School’ until the end of 1882 when it was closed due to a change in policy of the Catholic Church regarding staffing small schools. In 1883 the Australind (Government) School re-opened.
Religious Instruction was given by visiting priests, among whom were Fr Delaney 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 at £100.
The building was used from time to time as a Government school until 1905 when a school was built on Cathedral Avenue, south of the present location of the caravan park.
It continued to be used as a chapel, with 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 1970s 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.
Reminiscences of Max Rodgers
Max Rodgers, now of Brunswick, was an altar ‘boy’ at the church for 24 years. He, his cousin Peter Rodgers, and David Wright were trained as altar servers by Frank O’Dwyer, who was master at the Australind school in the 1930s, and Max continued to serve Mass into the 1960s, well past his boyhood, because ‘no-one else knew the Latin’.
He recollects the building as being weatherboard, with corrugated iron roof, both painted red. Mrs Irene Good, who, as Irene Rooney, had taught at Parkfield in the 1920s, recalls that she occasionally sailed from Bunbury to Milligan’s, not far from the church, and the little red building served as a landmark. The one door facing south was white as were the window frames and the two crosses, one on the north gable and one on the porch. Against the northern wall was a lean-to room with skillion roof. This room, which served as the sacristy was about 8 feet wide. Through the weatherboard cladding around this room could be seen the original slab walls.
These slab walls were not mentioned in a letter written to the Education Department by Inspector Cyril Jackson, on 24 April 1897. He says ‘the chapel is a weatherboard building 22 feet by 14 feet with shingle roof, three windows on one side and a tiny one in the gable’.
This description does not match the photographs taken in more recent years, which shows two windows on the side, no window in the gable (at least not the southern one), and a corrugated iron roof.
As slab walls and shingle roofs were common construction materials in the 19th Century, it would appear that alterations were made at various times during the building’s life.
Max recalls that the church was on stumps, barely 8 inches above ground, and a lean-to verandah provided shelter along the east wall. A toilet, with shingle roof was some distance away, and a large paperbark tree provided shade for the horses of priest and parishioners. At one stage there was a picket fence between the limestone road and the building, while a three-rail post and rail fence was on north and south boundaries. A slip rail in the southern fence could be lowered to allow cattle from the adjacent farm to graze in the church block. At one time it was suggested that a cemetery be located in the eastern portion.
Before Mass, the congregation stood about, talking, but when Fr O’Grady arrived from Dardanup, ‘filling his sulky’, as Max describes it, for he was a big man, there would be a flurry as men moved to grab the horse, tie it up, and help the priest out of the sulky.
Inside, the floor of the body of the church was of polished jarrah, with a red carpet down the aisle, and the walls and ceiling were of pressed iron. The windows, two of which faced the estuary, opened outwards, hopper style. Behind the altar, which was on a raised section, there was a door which led to the sacristy. This room received light through a small window in the north wall. The floor here was of pit-sawn jarrah and in the east wall was a brick fire place in which a fire was lit in cold weather in order to warm the priest.
In some years, after heavy rain and at high tide, the building flooded to a depth of six inches, and the long wooden kneelers would float around next to the pews. In these conditions seaweed and rushes would pile up against the outside walls. Following the flooding the carpet would be hung onto the fence to dry and the floors would be swabbed out.
Custom dictated that a family always occupy the same pew, year after year, fathers usually on the inside near the wall, then the children, with the mother next to the aisle. Any unwitting newcomer who caused a departure from this tradition would be made to feel the disapproval of the dispossessed.
On most occasions Mass was treated with due solemnity but every now and then youthful exuberance would emerge. One Sunday as an elderly (and prominent) member of the congregation dozed through the sermon some children tied his laces together. He did not become aware of this until he stepped into the aisle to take up the collection, where he toppled, causing considerable amusement, and questions to be asked later.
Reminiscences of Luca Soulos
In the 1930s the building occasionally saw a different kind of use, as Luca Soulos, a member of a well-known Greek family from Bunbury remembers. He, his father and brothers would row their flat bottomed boat to the head of the estuary, hauling nets throughout the night. When the weather was wild they would often beach their boat near the church, and seek shelter inside, sometimes sleeping overnight, with a hurricane lamp lighting the interior. (As Greeks, they felt it was quite orthodox to use the church in this way.)
Reminiscences of Foster Pearce
Another who served as an altar boy was Foster Pearce, presently in a Bunbury Nursing Home. Foster was born with the help of a mid-wife, in a thatched-roof house at Australind in 1906. He was baptised by Dean Smyth, and lived on a farm close to the church for many years.
He was taught Latin for the Mass by Michael Ferris, a nearby farmer, and served Mass for 10 -15 years up to 1934. Mass days, he says were opportunities for socialising. Because of the fasting from midnight rule, people would bring food to eat, picnic style, after Mass, and would break their fast with a community breakfast.
Foster did not recall the church ever being flooded (up to 1934), but he did remember Fr O’Grady’s horse, Wee Bobby, ‘which had competed as a trotter, and had, in fact won for Fr O’Grady a trotting race in Bridgetown’.
As Mass centre, school, social meeting place, and occasional overnight shelter, the Church of St John Vianney filled the needs of generations of pioneers. Educationally, spiritually and socially it served its purpose, and helped prepare for the present day Parish of Leschenault.
A plaque is situated close to the entrance of 180 Cathedral Av, Australind, with the following inscription:
Roman Catholic Church of St John Vianney, Scenic Drive, Australind.
This plaque marks the site of the first Roman Catholic school and chapel.
Built in 1875, the building was originally used as a school and then later as the chapel of St John Vianney.
As a school, chapel and social centre, this building served the educational, spiritual and social needs of generations of Catholic pioneers of Australind and prepared the way for the present day Parish of Leschenault.
The building fell into disrepair and was demolished in the 1970s.
Erected by the Australind Historical Society, August 4th, 1996.
Plaque on Scenic Drive
 This money will be used towards that purpose in the 1990s.
 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.
 Ancestry.com. Western Australia, Public Service Lists, 1871-1905 [database on-line]. Provo, UT, USA: Ancestry.com Operations, Inc., 2015.