By Tanya Moffat
The story of the oldest church in the diocese of Geraldton is one of those stories Hollywood could make a movie about.
While outlaws like Ned Kelly get all the glory of history’s rose-coloured lenses, the pioneering Catholic clergy and laypeople whose blood, sweat and tears built the foundations of that which we take for granted today are rarely mentioned.
So the centenary of the oldest Church in the diocese of Geraldton that involves these very remarkable people deserves to be celebrated.
It is the story of a pioneering priest whose flock extended from Northampton; a priest, loved and respected, whose “Christmas horse rides” were legendary.
At the Mass celebrating the Church of St Peter’s in Greenough on June 29, Bishop Justin Bianchini, who concelebrated the Mass with Frs Geoff Aldous. Gerard Totañes and Peter Downes, told the remarkable story.
Belgian-born priest Fr Adolphus Lecaille came to the area in 1865, aged 40.
A good shepherd to the flock for some 23 years, he would set off after Midnight Mass at Northampton, celebrate Mass at Geraldton then ride on to a third Mass at Greenough – all of this before he was able to break the then strict fast from midnight, that excluded even water.
This horse ride was re-enacted by a group of people in the diocesan centenary celebrations of 1998. Father Lecaille died in Perth.
“It is wonderful that his remains were brought back to the diocese in 1936 and entombed in the chapel at Utakarra Cemetery,” Bishop Bianchini said.
Then there’s the first church, completed and blessed by Fr Lecaile, which was badly damaged in the floods of 1888.
Apart from this it was also too small for the needs of the people. It was knocked down and the new one, in which the June 29 Mass was celebrated, had its foundation stone laid on September 13, 1908. The connection with the past is the fact that stones from the original church were used in the new one.
Fr Lecaille installed the bell, which called people to Mass regularly. He would also ring it after having been away on pastoral trips, to let people know that he had returned. “We have that same bell today, outside our beautiful Church of St Peter’s,” the bishop said.
The new church was officially opened by Bishop Kelly on January 31, 1909, assisted by Frs O’Malley, Ryan, Creagh and O’Hare.
The Bishop noted that the large crowd present at the opening showed their appreciation by donating 100 Pounds towards the outstanding debt of 400 Pounds on the new building. “Today history will note that assisting me are Fr Peter Downes, Geoff Aldous and Gerard Totañes. I am very grateful that we have no outstanding debt now on the church,” Bishop Bianchini said.
“As we celebrate a centenary we celebrate history and we celebrate human endeavour. Above all it is a celebration of Faith. It’s a celebration of the Faith of people, priests and Religious which expressed itself in building this beautiful church to give glory to God and bring them together and unite them as one family.
“It’s the Faith of people who lived and worked here. It’s the Faith of priests who ministered here. It’s the Faith of Dominican and Presentation Sisters who taught here and shared their lives, their Faith and Love with the people.”
“Likewise, this church of St Peter’s is very special in itself and has great symbolic value. It is much richer because of all that it has absorbed over 100 years. It has had the presence of the Blessed Eucharist in it over that time. The Mass has been celebrated countless times. People of Faith have gathered in it down through the course of all those years. People have been baptised and received the Sacraments of Initiation. Many people have been joined in marriage here. Truly for many reasons it is a holy place.”
– This is an edited version of an article which first appeared in the Geraldton Sower