Priest, architect, legend: Monsignor Hawes lives on

09 Apr 2009

By The Record

Monsignor Hawes – a little known pioneer and a genuis who lived in our own backyard.                          


Above, Fr Gerard Totanes, assistant priest at St Francis Xavier Cathedral, is one of many people The Record spoke to during a road trip to WA’s north last month to investigate the legacy of priest-architect Monsignor John Hawes. Below, an intricate carved-out design of a Eucharistic procession in stone above the doorway of the Church of Our Lady of Mount Carmel and the Holy Apostles Ss Peter and Paul in Mullewa. Photos: Anthony Barich


By Anthony Barich

The churches built by Monsignor John Hawes that scatter the northern outback of the diocese of Geraldton are among the most treasured works of architecture in Australia.
As a rural priest at a time the rest of the western world was undergoing the Great Depression, Monsignor Hawes, an Anglican convert, was a true battler.
Something of a lone ranger, he saw himself as a travelling Franciscan missionary, travelling from town to town, farm to farm celebrating the sacraments and designing and building churches. He often fell asleep in the saddle while travelling long distances.
Priest, architect, painter, sculptor, stonemason, carpenter, decorator, poet, foreman, labourer, horseman and horse breeder, Monsignor was all things to the Catholic communities and the local Aborigines in the region.
Yet he sought at all times the humility of St Francis, eventually retiring to the Cat Island in the Bahamas, living as a hermit called Friar Jerome. He found God in solitude and the renunciation of earthly possessions, and loathed the praise that was heaped on him.
But it was well deserved. He often worked on numerous projects – in 24 years between 1915-1939, he built up to 22 churches, convents, monasteries and priests’ houses simultaneously in towns hundreds of kilometers from each other.
But he used a style unlike anything that had gone before, especially rejecting the gothic styles that were common in European cathedrals.
Using local materials, he designed and constructed, with the help of locals, buildings that were suited to the local climate and fit into their local surrounds. For this he was at times misunderstood. His design for St Mary’s Cathedral in Perth was rejected, and for a while work was ceased on St Francis Xavier’s Cathedral in Geraldton until a bishop came along who appreciated his work.
He was much sought after by an outback Catholic community crying out for a place that drips with sanctity, where people can worship in a reverential atmosphere of peace.
Anthony Barich went in search of the buildings that remain often beautifully in tact due to their rugged structure, often in the middle of nowhere, but stand as testimony not only to the Monsignor himself but to the local Catholics who marshaled support to get these monuments of faith built.

Check The Record in coming weeks for an extensive expose of Monsignor Hawes’ buildings and insights into the remarkable, always-inspiring lives of lay Catholics and clergy who lived in rural Australia in the early part of the 20th century.