Tracing an outback legend

29 Apr 2009

By The Record

Monsignor John Hawes was a convert, a master architect and devoted Priest in a little-known corner of the world. Even today, relatively few, apart from a steady trickle of avid tourists, know of the remarkably original and beautiful Church architecture he designed and built and which is scattered throughout the vast coastal and outback Diocese of Geraldton. The Record’s Anthony Barich travelled the ‘Hawes Trail’ in March to report.



Church of Our Lady of Mt Carmel and the Holy Apostles, Saints Peter and Paul, Mullewa by Anthony Barich.
































Spirit infused in Stone

By Anthony Barich

In a small town called Morawa 360km north of Perth in the middle of nowhere, there is the smallest presbytery in the world.

It is a building no more than 5m x 5m, which Monsignor John Hawes – architect, foreman, carpenter, labourer, stonemason, priest – built from local stone as his residence during the construction, which he oversaw, of the Church of the Holy Cross, barely 20 metres away.

This simple and starkly small building fits his persona. His many writings suggest that since his earliest years he felt that God was to be found in solitude and in the renunciation of earthly possessions, as he constantly harboured a desire to live the Franciscan way of poverty. Ineed, that’s how he ended up.

The presbytery in Morawa – called a “priest’s cell” now by tourist brochures – is a mark of the man’s humility. From 1915-1939 he built and designed 22 churches, chapels, presbyteries, convents, orphanages and altars around the diocese of Geraldton.

All of them reject any slavish imitation of “past designs”, instead rendering each building to suit the local climate and environment.

Hence they were seldom understood by his contemporaries, but are now greatly prized and well preserved due to their simple beauty and rough-cast homeliness.

Geraldton diocesan priest, Fr Brian Ahearn, stands near the Priest’s House that Mgr John Hawes built to stay in while overseeing construction of the adjacent Church of the Holy Cross in Morawa. Photo: Anthony Barich.

As a rural priest at a time the rest of the western world was undergoing the Great Depression, he was a true battler. He often worked on numerous projects simultaneously in towns hundreds of kilometres from each other. He was also a horse breeder, winning the Yalgoo District Jockey Club Maiden Hack Race in 1926 with a horse called “Babs”.

He celebrated Mass and performed baptisms, funerals and everything in between travelling by horseback around a rugged terrain that often gave no quarter. He often slept in the saddle while travelling the long distances.

But the plight of Catholics in these rural areas to whom he ministered was just as challenging.

Driving around these towns in the luxury of an airconditioned car, one can barely fathom the sacrifices made by the likes of Maggie O’Brien, mother of 11 children who hosted house Masses and various other events to raise money for a church for the local community in Kojarena, 20km east of Geraldton – all while her husband worked on a farm some 100km away.

Monsignor Hawes was much sought-after by a community of rural Catholics crying out for their own place of worship in a harsh outback that afforded them precious little – a sacred place where they could not only pray before God but meet as a community of faithful.

The Monsignor had been on the threshold of a successful architectural career having exhibited at the Royal Academy in England, but felt the call to be a priest.

Following a period of study in Rome leading to ordination to the Catholic priesthood, the Anglican convert met Geraldton Bishop William Kelly, who invited him back to design and build him a cathedral.

What followed was a remarkable period of 24 years of toil, often in the most inhospitable climate. Of his time in Mullewa, a town 450km north of Perth where he built his own personal magnus opus, the Church of Our Lady of Mount Carmel and the Holy Apostles St Peter and St Paul, he wrote: “I’ve come to this God-forsaken place called Mullewa, full of heat, dust and flies.”

Trained under the influence of the Arts and Crafts movement – a quiet aesthetic revolution that rejected the Victorian era’s classical and gothic models, the priest-architect was years ahead of his time, and in some cases was rejected because of it.

The first stage of St Francis Xavier Cathedral was completed in 1918 but stopped following Bishop Kelly’s death. His successor Bishop Richard Ryan didn’t like Hawes’ style, preferring the Gothic structures popular in Europe at the time.

Crestfallen, he was posted to Mullewa, where he poured himself into building Our Lady of Mt Carmel and the Holy Apostles Ss Peter and Paul, then built the adjoining presbytery to his own British tastes.

Bishop James Patrick O’Collins was more congenial, appointing Hawes the diocesan architect and he designed St Joseph’s Church in Perenjori while also working on plans for two other parish churches, supervising construction of Northampton’s St Mary’s in the Ara Coeli Church while travelling vast distances horse back as parish priest.

Monsignor John Cyril Hawes and his trusty fox terrier, Dominie.

He also submitted a design for St Mary’s Cathedral in Perth, but was rejected, partly because Irish priests, of whom there were many in the Archdiocese, had all been educated in redbrick seminaries in Ireland and Europe that had flying buttresses – an outside arch made of stone that supports the wall to stop it from falling over.

Mgr Hawes’ design did not have these buttresses. Reports suggest he was shattered at the rejection, as his design would have proved cheaper to build.

Despite the St Mary’s Cathedral setback, he has become one of the most revered architects in Australia and many of the buildings he designed and/or built are heritage listed. Most are still in use.

But by all reports he hated the praise heaped on him, and while he often struggled with the isolation, he also thrived in it. While living in the service of others, he sought at all times humility.

When he retired to Cat Island in the Bahamas as a Franciscan monk called Friar Jerome in 1939, he even built and occasionally slept in his own tomb to remind himself of his own mortality.

Worn out after his Australian experience, he built a stone hermitage for himself on a hilltop on Cat Island, but even there he was urged by the local bishop to build churches and colleges, until in 1956 he was removed from the island and died in a Miami hospital.

But, as per his request, he was brought back to the island to be buried in the tomb on the hillside.

Bishop James O’Collins, who made him the diocesan architect, had fond memories of him. After himself leaving to become Bishop of Ballarat, he wrote: “I always found Monsignor Hawes a most colourful character. He is an extraordinary person. It went very hard with me to allow him to stay in the Bahamas. I grew to like him very much, and I, as the bishop, could never have accomplished the many works in the way of building in the diocese of Geraldton without him.

“He was an architect, painter, sculptor, stonemason, decorator, poet, horseman and horse breeder.”





A labour of love he poured his heart and soul into

By Anthony Barich


The interior of the Church of Our Lady of Mt Carmel and the Holy Apostles Ss Peter and Paul.

More than any other church, convent or presbytery that Monsignor John Hawes built in his 24 years in the diocese of Geraldton, Our Lady of Mount Carmel and the Holy Apostles Ss Peter and Paul in Mullewa was a true labour of love.

The Monsignor had just finished building the first stage of St Francis Xavier Cathedral on the request of Bishop William Kelly; but construction was stopped after the prelate died and his successor, Bishop Richard Ryan, did not like Hawes’ different style.

He was banished to the outpost Mullewa, a busy but dusty railway junction at the centre of the agricultural and grazing industry. Busying himself riding a bay horse from town to town and visiting parishioners on scattered farms, he saw himself as a travelling Franciscan missionary.

Disillusioned with his disagreements with Bishop Ryan, he poured his heart and soul into designing in 1921 his crowning glory.  Until 1927 he toiled with sore, cracked hands with the help of locals, tormented by flies and scorching summer sun.

“I’ve come to this God-forsaken place called Mullewa, full of heat, dust and flies,” he is reported to have written. Indeed, the flies are still aggressive in this town, though the wildflowers that spring forth each year are a major attraction, as is Hawes’ church and presbytery, during the tourist season from July to October. Still, he pressed on. He said in a letter to a friend: “I am building into these stones, a poor feeble church that it is, my convictions, aspirations and ideals as to what a church should be… my heart is in these stones!”

The 80 students currently enrolled at Our Lady of Mt Carmel Primary School next door have a sight to behold every day, with every function of a parish church catered for in the church. The architecture itself is an act of evangelisation.

“I am building into these stones, a poor feeble church that it is, my convictions, aspirations and ideals as to what a church should be… my heart is in these stones!”

Around the doorway are pillars that make up the mystic number of seven – as the Monsignor wrote in the souvenir booklet for the opening of the church – according to the Book of Proverbs: “Wisdom hath built herself a house, she hath hewn her out seven pillars.”

The recesses between the spiral-fluted columns are for statues of the four greater prophets – Isaias, Jeremias, Ezechiel and Daniel. Along the frieze above the colonnade are a series of 11 carved panels portraying the Seven Sacraments – baptism, confession, confirmation, last rites, holy orders and matrimony.

The three central panels depict what Hawes calls the Holy Eucharist – as a Sacrament, as a sacrifice during the Mass and as the Real Presence in a Eucharistic procession.


























Photos (from above left clockwise): The war memorial from the First World War, unique among Australian churches, that Hawes personally made; centre, bust of Donatello’s “Laughing Boy” crafted by Hawes in 1898 while he was an architecture student in London. Right, the Mass vestments that he personally designed for his work in the Geraldton diocese. Both items are in the museum that is his old presbytery that he build adjacent to the Church of Our Lady of Mt Carmel.


Other panels show Old Testament figures – Melchisedek, the “Priest of the Most High God”, bringing forth bread and wine to the victorious Abraham; and the high priest Abraham offering a holocaust.

The High Altar inside is solid masonry in the form of an early Christian sarcophagus as are found in old Roman basilicas, as he intended. “It resembles a tomb because the Mass was offered upon the top of the tomb of some recently slain martyr. Also, the Holy table symbolises both the altar of the Cross and the Tomb of Our Lord Jesus Christ,” Hawes said in the souvenir for the church opening.

It is inspired by Romanesque churches of the Mediterranean countries: squat and solid to keep out the sun, and ‘organic, seeming to grow out of its surroundings’, as local guides say.

There is a nativity scene built into the right wall, cleverly lit with a purple glow by natural light flowing in from behind. Hawes donated the small pipe organ in the choir loft in memory of his mother Amelia who died in 1927.

In the north porch stands a war memorial for soldiers from the First World War – a rarity among churches in Australia – with a statue of Mary encased in glass and warriors carved into it.In the adjoining priest house which he completed by 1930 and built for himself as the town’s first parish priest, the red corboda tiles give it a cosy cottage-like feel, and local documents say it owes much to Hawes’ old mentor, the Victorian architect Charles Voysey, among others, of the Arts and Crafts movement. In the two bedrooms are photographs and articles owned or associated with Hawes, including his own designs for his vestments and the vestments themselves. When he left for Cat Island, he literally left everything there – his dilapidated briefcase even sits in the corner of a room.














Photos:Left, an angel near a devotional site, with the elaborate background to the tabernacle, which includes statues of the Three Kings from Christ’s birth scene, shepherds and St Francis. Right, the grave Hawes built for his altar boy who died.


Above left, depictions of sacraments and Old Testament stories and Latin inscriptions all done by Hawes above the main church entrance; the damaged Marian icon at the foot of the grave of the convent school girl who died.






















A man with a sense of humour, he could not keep his own personal conflicts out of his architecture. It is widely held that the gargoyle that stands out on the outside wall of the presbytery represents Bishop Ryan. Today, the house is a museum, and a small hatch where his beloved fox terrier Dominie could get in and out can still be seen. Hawes himself admitted in a letter that part of his character, “the English gentleman” revealed itself in the priest house’s design, with its library, pictures, desk and trinkets.

Mass Rock

Monsignor Hawes also felt a special responsibility to the local Aborigines, and as they were rarely accepted in the town, he fashioned an altar out of a shoulder of natural rock that rises above a gentle slope of a hill, overshadowed by a twisted gum tree that, if it was around back then, must have provided much-need shade in the oppressive heat.

A small, humble twisted cross made of two sticks is fixed to the top of the rock. He intended to mark the place with a permanent Spanish-mission style archway and belltower with the words “Mission Dolores” carved in stone, but it was never meant to be.

Still, the local Aborigines gathered for Mass at the sound of a bell, and their youth swept the area clean and decorated the altar.


Selby John Arnold, an altar boy, or “acolyte” as John Hawes inscribed on the boy’s vault, drowned in tragic circumstances. Hawes had promised Selby’s parents he would make the vault, made from local materials, which also has images of an altar candle and thurible inscribed on either side. Elsewhere in the cemetery, which is no longer used in the town, is a gravestone with an altar built on the back of it for a young girl from the local convent school who died. Hawes returned there every year to celebrate Mass at 6.30am on the tiny altar on All Souls Day. At the foot of the grave is a broken icon of Mary.


Stark simplicity speaks volumes to Hawes’ successor

By Anthony Barich


The Church of the Holy Cross in Morawa, designed and built by Mgr Hawes. The left end extension was built in 1966 in a similar style to accomodate the boom caused by iron ore mining in the town.

The tiny priest’s house – if it could barely be called a house – near the Church of the Holy Cross in Morawa speaks volumes to Father Brian Ahearn about the humility of Monsignor John Hawes.

The house – more of a room, or hermitage – also speaks to Fr Ahearn of the humility required of him as a rural priest, travelling in between towns where there has not only been a drift from the faith but a drift from the country.

The presbytery, a stone’s throw from the Church of the Holy Cross, was built by Monsignor Hawes to sleep in while he built the church itself. It is a study in the humility of a man who saw himself as a travelling Franciscan, living in the spirit of St Francis, who renounced all possessions to serve the poor.

A heritage brochure describes the priest’s house thus: “It is indicative of Hawes’ contentment with small spaces and limited domestic faciities which was part of his romantic Franciscan temperament.”

“I’m always conscious of the priests who have gone before me,” says Fr Ahearn, a priest of 42 years who, while based at Dongara, travels between St Joseph’s Church in Perenjori and St Paul’s in Three Springs.

“I always have pictures of them in my mind… the tough, good work they’ve done in caring for the people years before I came along. There are some legends there.” Fr Ahearn is inspired by Hawes’ “holiness and detachment from material things”.

Indeed, before the church was built, Mass was celebrated by visiting priests from New Norcia, Tardun, Mullewa, Three Springs and Geraldton in parishioners’ homes in Morawa. The Central Hall and the old Morawa Hall were also used for Masses, baptisms and weddings.

Monsignor Hawes’ arrival at Morawa came at a time when his “good work” had really gathered pace with the arrival of a new bishop, a 38-year-old, blunt-speaking, ex-plumber, Bishop James O’Collins. When they first met at the bishop’s house, they were washing their hands when the prelate recognised Hawes as the man who designed Geraldton’s cathedral. “So you’re the architect,” the bishop said in his brusque manner. “Well, with your architecture and my plumbing, we’ll put churches all over the diocese.”

And that they did. Hawes, 55 by now, had hoped to retire to the Bahamas, but the increasing tide of work required soon swamped him.

In 1932 he drew up the plans for the Church of the Holy Cross in Morawa, a relatively busy trading centre of about 1000 people in the developing north-eastern wheatbelt.

Hawes rode his bicycle from Mullewa to the Morawa district, often stopping to chat or celebrate Mass or prayers with the lonely men who led an isolated existence on their new blocks of land. He would then ride on to Yalgoo, celebrate Mass and return home to Mullewa.

History repeats itself now as Fr Ahearn rides his bike from house to house encouraging people to come to Mass. But he retreats to humility when comparing his efforts to that of his predecessor’s.


Fr Ahearn in the Church of the Holy Cross, with the aisle extending from Hawes’ section in the back to the front, where Fr Ahearn stands.


“What I do is nothing compared to what Hawes had to go through,” he says. For the Church of the Holy Cross, Hawes used red Cordoba tiles redolent of Spanish mission architecture – a theme that runs through a number of his structures, including Nazareth House in Geraldton.

He painted the architraves of the doors and the round arch over the sanctuary with blue and white stripes – a style also seen in the San Spirito Chapel in the Geraldton cemetary and on a larger scale at St Francis Xavier Cathedral.

Many raffles, picnics, dances and other functions were held by local Catholic families to culminate in the opening of the Church of the Holy Cross.

With the advent of iron ore mining in Morawa in the 1960s it soon became clear that the small church could not support the community of faithful, and an expansion fitting an extra 250 people was opened in 1966, in a similar style to Hawes’.

Today, it has shrunk again, and while he can’t hide his disappointment at the reduced number of faithful, Fr Ahearn still rides his bike, pushing on earnestly.

“I’m disappointed there aren’t more at Mass; we do our best to reach out to those who have drifted away. I like to visit on my bike, easier than walking….”


The spirit in stone in the heart of Geraldton

By Anthony Barich 

St Francis Xavier Cathedral in the heart of Geraldton


Standing in a prominent spot in Geraldton’s CBD, St Francis Xavier Cathedral is an impressive example of early-20th century architecture by a man revered today as one of the greatest in his time, Monsignor John Hawes.

But when Father Gerard Totanes first walked inside having been ordained in Manila for the diocese of Geraldton by Bishop Justin Bianchini in 2001, he was shocked.

Archway after archway with bright orange and purple stripes greeted him. It was a stark contrast to what he was used to back in the Philippines, a strongly Catholic country. In fact, it’s in stark contrast to the exterior of the Cathedral, which, like Hawes’ other buildings, blends into its local surrounds with its earthy texture built by local stone.

The style, as the photos show, is a signature of Monsignor Hawes. They also appear in archways inside Holy Spirit Chapel, otherwise known as Utakarra Cemetery Chapel in Geraldton, and the Church of St Mary in Ara Coeli in Northampton.

Mgr Hawes drew up the plans in Rome in 1914 and brought then with him when he arrived in WA in 1915 to be parish priest for the Murchison Goldfields region. Bishop William Kelly met him while studying in Rome and invited him to design his cathedral. After celebrating countless Masses in the Cathedral, Fr Totanes, 39, assistant priest at the Cathedral since he was ordained, has come to understand what Monsignor Hawes was driving at in his peculiar design.

“Honestly, the colours were a bit shocking to me at first, it’s grown on me. It seems that the Monsignor chose the colours as he wanted to convey that atmosphere of prayer, and now that I’ve celebrated Masses so many times in the cathedral I can see that the was right, as that’s actually what I get. I get the same feeling,” Fr Totanes says.

The interior of St Francis Xaviar Cathedral, with Hawes’ signature stripes.

In the crypt: a Chapel of Our Lady of Sorrows dedicated to World War II victims, with the names of the dead on the wall. These are not shown in these pictures.



















The ‘zebra striping’ on the walls and arches, reminiscent of European churches like Siena Cathedral, were originally black and white, but Hawes later suggested light grey and deep orange, which brightens the building – though some find it so unusual as to be distracting.

Fr Totanes says the bright colours give a “warm feeling”. “It’s not like the huge cathedrals that are gloomy from the inside,” he says. “Personally, the colours of the cathedral help put me in a relaxed mood. The building itself is small so it’s intimate as well.” But he admits that of the locals and those who are passing through town, “some like it, others don’t. Some who I’ve met during the cathedral tour think the colours are a bit fancy, but the others who know a bit of architecture, they know it has the Spanish orientation, even from the inside, the lines and colours are like the Church of St Sophia that was turned into a Muslim mosque in turkey.”

The crypt under the cathedral is not only a source of fascination for tourists but a sacred, intimate space for locals. Fr Totanes has celebrated many baptisms and nuptial Masses on the small altar built by Monsignor Hawes that backs onto recessed arches with urns containing relics of martyrs and saints, including Ss George, Sebastian, and John and Paul I, the latter two believed to be popes.

He once held a Holy Hour of Eucharistic adoration down in the crypt, which, decked out with candles, had an eerie but deeply spiritual, quiet, meditative feeling that God was truly present in the room.

The construction of the cathedral was 
protracted. The first stage was opened in 1921, but was soon followed by the untimely death of Bishop Kelly, whose successor Dr Richard Ryan denounced the Monsignor’s ‘peculiarities’ and discouraged further work on the project.

Rejected and humiliated, Hawes poured himself into the Church of Our Lady of Mount Carmel and the Holy Apostles Ss Peter and Paul in Mullewa. Bishop Ryan left after three years, however, and Bishop James O’Collins restored him to diocesan architect, and the completed cathedral was opened in 1938. Hawes designed the cathedral, it is said, to signify the strength and permanence of the Catholic Church, with distinct features like the twin towers on the western front and a large dome at the other end over the sanctuary.

To the right of the communion rails is a spiral staircase leading down to the crypt, in which the altar of the central chapel sits directly under the High Altar above.

The Cathedral Chronicle of October 1936 notes that “in addition to his professional services, (Hawes) made several valuable gifts, including the candlesticks for the High Altar and the coverings for the baptismal font”.

A statue of St Peter with the Keys to the Kingdom that Hawes did sits in the back right of the cathedral.

Hawes wrote years later that all his best work was invariably the result of continual reworking, of re-stitching, pruning and elimination until he was satisfied that he had “caught the rhythm of a poem in stone”.

Mgr John Hawes enriches all of the Mid-West

By Anthony Barich

What Michelangelo is to architecture and heritage in 16th century Italy and Francis Greenway is to the colonial architecture and heritage in 19th century eastern Australia, Monsignor John Cyril Hawes will also be to 20th century architecture and heritage in Western Australia, if a group of dedicated community members succeed in their plans.

The Monsignor Hawes Heritage Project is gathering steam as a dedicated group of outback Catholics unite to promote the legendary priest-architect’s work by tapping into the spiritual traditions that animated him.

Interest in gathering local stakeholders to push for the conservation and promotion of Hawes’ buildings has snowballed over the past six years.

As the Project’s website says, Hawes is an “unsung hero whose song needs to be proclaimed from the domes and spires of his many churches in the Midwest and Gascoyne”.

“Priest, architect, artist, artisan, craftsman, horseman, wood-turner, cabinet maker, builder and hermit, this renaissance man of the twentieth century has left his heritage indelibly imprinted in the Midwest and Gascoyne of Australia and in England and the Bahamas.”

Despite several books and a television documentary about Monsignor Hawes, his “poems in stone” – his heritage and buildings – have not received the recognition they deserve in our local communities as well as nationally and internationally, the Project’s workers believe.

A workshop held at the Combined Universities Centre for Rural Health in Geraldton sought to put Hawes firmly on the regional, national and international stage, focused on how the Midwest and Gascoyne communities might “rediscover and promote the Monsignor Hawes heritage and in the process enrich our local communities”. “Apart from seeking to conserve and promote the spiritual, material, social and cultural heritage of Monsignor Hawes, it is also hoped that the Monsignor Hawes Project will benefit the economies of the communities of our region.”

The Project has undergone a transformation since a 2006 Strategic Plan was completed and a part-time Project Officer, Gemma Rafferty, was appointed.

The board consists of Geraldton Regional Art Gallery manager Mark Lennard and colleague Catherine Belcher, Geraldton parishioner Laurie Graham, Geraldton Bishop Justin Bianchini, Mullewa parishioner Barb Thomas, the Shire of Morawa’s Debbie McIlraith, Fr Michael Morrissey, the Shire of Carnarvon’s Tony Dowling and Claire Savage of the Heritage Council of WA.

Laurie Graham, a Geraldton man who’s attended St Francis Xavier Cathedral since he was a boy, says the project needs a broad community appeal to gain the maximum support, so that the buildings can be properly maintained.

“The buildings will have to be used be by the local community,” he says. “The best thing you’d hope to come out of the committee’s work is a recognition of the value of the buildings by the communities and that the long term maintenance and preservation of the buildings are assured,” Laurie said. Ideally, each local church or building would be incorporated into the local town’s tourism precinct, which in some cases, like Mullewa, it already is. To Laurie, the uniqueness of the buildings is in itself a striking aspect, and a reason to pursue their preservation. “They’re not clones of each other, they’ve all just been made out of the local materials that were at hand. It’s just a shame the church (of St Lawrence) at Bluff Point disappeared, though there’s still bits of it there.”

The Mullewa Hawes Heritage Trail, for example, pays homage to the man himself – a 600m route linking the Town Hall and the Church of Our Lady of Mt Carmel, following a rusty red brushed-concrete path.

It includes details of his childhood, family, schooling and architecture; his dual roles as Anglican priest and architect back in England, his involvement in the Bahamas both before and after his Australian experience, and details revealing his own personal perspectives on life, Catholicism and the notion of being a missionary.

For information or assistance offered for the Hawes project, contact

Town bakers have seen Perenjori’s rise and fall, while St Joseph’s lives on

By Anthony Barich


John Graham outside St Joseph’s Church in Perenjori.

When John and Margaret Graham ran the Perenjori bakery for over 32 years, they knew every family in the pews of St Joseph’s Church.

Back then, the parish – and the community – was thriving. Most families had at least four kids, and the celebration of sacraments like baptisms and weddings were always packed to capacity.

Even for regular Masses, “if you didn’t get there early you’d be battling for a seat,” Margaret says. John and Margaret could rattle off the names of all the families in the pews.

While the community once thrived, the town, and therefore the parish community, is a shadow of its former self. Surrounded by a rich grain and sheep area, Perenjori, 350km north of Perth, has suffered what many rural towns have – farmers buy out other farmers, leading to fewer farmers in the area. Or people retire to the city or simply pass away.

But Margaret and John aren’t going anywhere. “We’re called the ‘oldies’ of the town,” she jokes, but they’re both still very active.

After successfully lobbying the WA Lotteries Commission to fix areas of the church, he’s working on another submission for more funds to paint it.

The couple have been in Perenjori since 1963, and they cherish the church.

“When tourists come in, they comment on how well-kept it is,” she said.

The locals still have liturgies weekly, with Good Samaritan Sister Anna Warlow, the sister of opera singer Anthony Warlow, teaching them how to run it.

The local priest comes through twice a month to celebrate Mass.

Monsignor John Hawes designed it in 1936 while he was also working on designing a church for the Geraldton suburb of Bluff Point and a modern-looking church for the agricultural centre of Three Springs, just under 100km away.

The Three Springs church that Hawes designed was not built, but St Joseph’s Perenjori is a much simpler design than his other elaborate projects.

For St Joseph’s he adapted Fr Benedict Williamson’s book How to build a Church to his design for the gigantic stone canopy supported on two huge columns above the altar, behind which is a remarkable representation of Christ and His 12 Apostles – all carved out of local materials.

Like Our Lady of Mount Carmel and the Holy Apostles Ss Peter and Paul in Mullewa, his artistry at the front is an act of evangelisation.

Margaret says that despite the simple design of the church compared to others, “it’s a peaceful place”.

“We get people who come across from Three Springs saying they can pray better here as it’s so peaceful. Tourists and visitors love it, whenever anyone comes through the town they admire it,” she said.

To Margaret, the most striking thing about the church is that “it’s a Monsignor Hawes church,” as the fact itself speaks volumes.

Located north of the railway that splits the town, the church is tall, thin and white, surrounded by bush, with a small Dominican convent next door, still used for parish functions but now run by the Country Womens Association.


Unlikely church still beloved by local faithful

By Anthony Barich

St Patrick’s Church in Geraldton is perhaps the unlikeliest of all the buildings Monsignor John Hawes designed in his 24 years in Australia.

While every Hawes building is unique, this small, timber-framed corrugated iron former church is set apart, as it’s not made from local stone as many others are.

Helen Long, the secretary of Geraldton Bishop Justin Bianchini, says that the locals love the old building, that still stands adjacent to the newer one built in the 1960s.

She admits that “most people get a shock as they really do think, ‘I thought it was a little outhouse, some shed that’s been shacked up for the school’.”

“Then when they find out it was actually a Hawes building they’re shocked again,” she says.

“I know the people of Wonthella are very attached to it; they love it. For me, I find it’s a bit strange. It’s very, very simple,” Helen says.

“Maybe it was built at a time when he was keeping things very simple, I don’t know why he did it.”

Now the headquarters of the Irish Community in Geraldton, it has a gable corrugated iron roof with a lean-to roof to the south that covers a corrugated iron clad extension.


St Patrick’s church hall, now the local Irish community’s headquarters.

The inside of St Patrick’s church hall, decked out with green as the headquarters of the Irish community.

















A timber Celtic cross sits at the apex at the west end of the gable as a mark of the Irish community that has taken it over in recent years to look after it, as it was falling into disrepair.

It was opened in the Geraldton suburb of Wonthella in September 1939 as a Catholic Church, and five months later Presentation Sister Therese O’Brien began primary school classes for local children. 

By 1943 there were 20 pupils enrolled at the school, which increased after the war. 

In the 1964 this was replaced by a new building to accommodate 100 pupils and 60 parishioners, but closed in 1968. 

Fr Johnny Carpenter, curate of the nearby St Lawrence the Martyr Church at Bluff Point, now celebrates Mass in this newer building every Sunday morning for the elderly parishioners who live nearby.

Church bulldozed, community thrives

By Anthony Barich


The original Church of St Lawrence the Martyr during construction.

The Church of St Lawrence the Martyr in Bluff Point on the outskirts of Geraldton looks nothing like the original version that Monsignor John Hawes built in 1937, but the community is as vibrant as ever.

Of the original church that Hawes built while he was simultaneously working on two other churches at Perenjori and Three Springs, only the transepts and central octagonal tower remain of the once cross-shaped Romanesque design.

Bulldozers demolished the entire nave (pews section) of the church in 1967, and builders constructed a brick octagon next to what is left of Hawes’ original design, including a bell tower.

Today, St Lawrence’s is a thriving parish.

The day The Record attended Sunday Mass there, the adjacent Catholic primary school hosted a fete, where it seemed much of Geraldton had congregated on the day to share in the community atmosphere.

The Sunday morning Mass that day was packed to the rafters. Maria Godley, parishioner and chorister, assured The Record it was like this every week.

The very personable parish priest, Fr Brenton Taylor, is a convert from the Presbyterian Church who attended Scotch College in Perth. Today, he heads a thriving congregation. He often made mention during Mass of the choir’s superb efforts. The church at Three Springs was never built due to lack of funds after not unexpected wrangling with the local council, but the Anglican Church of St George across the road from St Lawrence’s looks hauntingly familiar to Hawes’ style.

It also incorporates many of his characteristic styles, but is “fragile, sweet and light”, a historical document says, while Hawes’ structures are sturdy, heavy and earthy. There are Colonnades behind this church that were designed by the Monsignor in 1936 as a place of meditation.

St Lawrence’s is the first West Australian parish to start 24-hour perpetual adoration of the Blessed Sacrament when Perth Archbishop Barry Hickey was Bishop of Geraldton.


From orphanage to aged care

By Anthony Barich


Sisters of Nazareth Anne Rodger, the Superior, with Srs Josephine Tavale, Mary Lucey and Clare Breene.

Sitting in the courtyard of Nazareth House at Bluff Point, Sisters of Nazareth Superior Mother Anne Rodger admits she could be forgiven for thinking she’s in an exotic Spanish monastery.

“But we’d never have such ambition,” laughs Sister Anne. But she loves the design. She’s been here three times over the past four decades – once in the 1960s-70s and another stint in the ‘90s before she arrived again as Superior three years ago – and she loves coming back every time.

Located on a picturesque coastal site on the northern outskirts of Geraldton near the mouth of the Chapman River, Nazareth House is of rendered brickwork, not painted but splattered with a mixture of mortar that appears to have been “splashed on”, as Sister Anne lovingly describes, to blend in with the local red dirt – just as its designer Monsignor John Hawes wanted. It was envisaged by Bishop James O’Collins as the last link in a chain of establishments – like Tardun Agricultural College, which Hawes also did the floorplans for – for child migrants and orphaned boys. Infant boys were to stay there until age seven before being transferred to Tardun, while girls were to continue their academic training.

However, World War II stopped these plans in their tracks and the Sisters took in the aged and infirm as well as orphaned children.

“It’s perfect for the climate – that’s why it was built,” she says. The open quadrangle courtyard which the central building surrounds is an unusual design that Sister says would probably not be built today, but she says it’s perfect. The high balconies block out the sun, leaving the rooms cool… even though they’ve been renovated and decked out with modern conveniences like air-conditioning.

The Sister, who hails from Kalgoorlie, doesn’t mind the rustic charm of the place, designed by Monsignor Hawes in 1939 for the Poor Sisters of Nazareth just before he left Geraldton for the Bahamas to retire as a Franciscan hermit. It was built and completed by 1941, after he left.

“He had a vision to build things for the climate and to fit into the local surroundings,” she said. “Everybody admires it. They see it as a very special building, standing (so distinct) out there.”

A local brochure describes it as possessing a “quiet dignity in construction which combines modernity with usefulness”.

The Sisters arrived in Geraldton in January 1939 at the invitation of Bishop James O’Collins. In 1975 extensions were done and Larmenier Hostel opened adjacent to Hawes’ building, in a similar colour so it blends in – just as he would have wanted. In 1994 a large extension was added to the north to provide more nursing home accommodation. Today, the seven Sisters (two of whom teach at the nearby St Lawrence’s Primary School next to the church Hawes built) and other lay staff look after 26 elderly in hostel care and 45 in the nursing home.

While Monsignor Hawes’ original building was designed for the climate, the Sisters admit that it’s not perfectly condusive to aged care, with all the levels. But it’s impressive none-the-less.

The first floor concrete block lattice balustrade adds to the delicacy of the colonnade and gives good ventilation, as the local shire proudly says. 

“The corner towers are two storey but present a three storey scale which terminate or buttress the corners of the building.  The towers are monolithic elements, stepping in slightly to suggest a taper towards the top where they are capped with a tiled pyramid roof.  Small narrow windows punctuate the otherwise solid walls of the towers.”

The central entry with large double doors is surmounted  by a tall, three storey scale, Spanish Mission gable with rendered mouldings on the parapet, capped with a crucifix and niche housing a statue of Christ, watching over all who enter the aged care facility. 

The gable – the triangle formed by the sloping roof – is similar to that which the Monsignor designed for the elevated western end of the nave above the entry to Geraldton’s St Francis Xavier Cathedral.


Well-hidden place of romance in outback scrub

By Anthony Barich


The Pallotine Monastery, the next stop for The Record after the Christian Brothers College near Tardun.

The Pallottine Monastery that Monsignor John Hawes designed was the most difficult of the priest-architect’s buildings to find, hidden behind miles of dirt track… but there is an unmistakable romance about the place.

Completely different from any of the other churches, priest houses or convent chapels he designed, it is instead designed like the Australian bungalow, with only a church bell atop the roof signifying that this is a place of religious significance. Then again, Hawes always built his projects in accordance to the local climate and environment, and this is no exception.

Heritage documents reveal that the monastery was constructed in 1938 as ecclesiastical housing to improve the facilities of Beagle Bay Farm, which was established in 1928 as a temporary agricultural asset to alleviate the financial difficulties experienced by the Kimberley Beagle Bay Mission.

By 1948 the Pallottine Monastery began operation as a boarding school, primarily for Aboriginal children whose families worked on Murchison sheep stations and in the Mullewa area. It still serves this function today, with only a plaque installed by the current Bishop of Geraldton, Justin Bianchini, set in stone as a testimony to the hard work of the Pallottines.

The Pallottine Monastery is intrinsically linked to the priests of the order of St Vincent Pallotti, who spent his life helping the poor of Rome. The German branch of the Pallottine missionaries took over the Beagle Bay Mission in 1901 from the French Trappist Order to evangelise local Aborigines in Christianity.

Curious exterior hides a heart of gold


By Anthony Barich


Holy Spirit Chapel, or Utakarra Cemetery Chapel, on the road heading east out of Geraldton.

Utakarra Cemetery Chapel, aka Holy Spirit Chapel, is perhaps the most deceiving buildings Monsignor John Hawes built.

Built as a cemetery chapel and as a tomb for the remains of Archdeacon Adolfe Lecaille, whose sarcophagus is in the middle of the nave, the exterior betrays nothing of the glorious artistry inside, including a ceiling fresco not unlike Michelangelo’s The Creation of Adam in the Sistine Chapel.

Local records reveal that Lecaille was a Belgian missionary and was a founding priest in the Geraldton area who built seven churches over 10 years.  When he died in Perth in 1908 he was buried there, but in 1936 his body was exhumed and laid to rest in the Holy Spirit Chapel.  The Chapel also contains an empty grave that Hawes prepared for himself, before the lure of the Bahamas became too great.

It took just three months to build in 1936; its cubic design reflects Hawes’ interest in the 1930s Modern movement.

Built concurrently with Northampton’s St Mary in Ara Coeli, Holy Spirit (or San Spirito) Chapel is a strong reminder of the Spanish Mission style.

The arches inside bear the Hawes’ signature: purple zebra stripes, while above the altar hangs a Franciscan-style cross with a simple but intricate design of angels catching the blood of the crucified Jesus in a chalice, with women mourning him to the side.

The inside is curiously lit by clever use of natural light, and the vaulted roof gives it a majestic atmosphere, with a sanctuary at the back. Peel back a red carpet behind the sarcophagus and an image of Hawes in priestly vestments reaveals itself, with an inscription in Latin that reads:

“Pray for the repose of the soul of the Reverend John Hawes, Dean of the parish of Mullewa, architect of Geraldton Cathedral and builder of this and other churches.”

It is an eery reminder of Hawes’ mortality; the chapel itself is a study in his own Franciscan spirituality – simple, humble, unassuming, until a venture into its heart reveals a special gift indeed.





















Left to right: The sarcophagus of Fr LeCaille, a priest who also built churches. Hawes originally wanted to be buried there himself before the lure of the Bahamas grew too strong; the fresco on the ceiling and a Franciscan-style cross on the wall; an engraved brass plate image of Monsignor Hawes. Below, an altar at the back of the chapel, with Hawes’ signature stripes.






End of an era looming large for agricultural college

By Anthony Barich

When The Record walked into the kitchen of Christian Brothers Agricultural School just out of the Tardun township, two Christian Brothers munching on sandwiches on their day off said the college will cease to exist at the end of this year.

It’s the sad end of an era for the school, which in 1927 the Agricultural Bank financed to “settle on the land those boys suitable for agricultural or pastoral pursuits”.

In 1935, Monsignor John Hawes drew up the floorplan for the permanent buildings on the request of his good friend and mentor Archbishop Patrick Clune of Perth.

In between the financing and Hawes’ plans being drawn up, hundreds of acres of York gums and thick scrub were cleared, and the local kangaroos and emus were replaced by hundreds of sheep, with temporary sheds erected until the school was built.

When he drew up the plans, Hawes was in his late 50s and already working on St Francis Xavier Cathedral’s completion and was also involved in the design and construction of several other churches around the diocese. But that was his status almost throughout his 24 years in Australia – pulled between several projects at a time.

The design of the school reveals a continuing evolution of style. Like the Pallottine Monastery nearby the convent especially displays an adaptation of the Australian homestead design, with its two storeys and verandahs.

However, some of his designs were not closely followed, as they were completed long after he’d retired to the Bahamas. The original plans for the Farm School weren’t closely followed, as the great central tower was omitted. The central block was completed in 1942, four years after Hawes left for the West Indies.

The chapel, at right angle to the south front, was built a year earlier.

There also stands in Tardun St Mary’s Convent, another adaptation of the Australian homestead style, that Hawes built for the Sisters of Nazareth. Until it was completed, they’d lived in a humble wooden bungalow at Tardun. A 4km drive further south of Tardun will reveal the original campsite, marked with mounted boxes incorporating historic photographs and accompanying information.

Flopping around, Hawes creates a gem out Yalgoo way

By Anthony Barich

Yalgoo is the most distant eastern outpost of Monsignor John Hawes’ scattered parish. He struggled with the searing heat unlike anything he had experienced before.

In a letter to a friend, he said he “just flopped around and struggled to exist”. He arrived shortly after emigrating from England.

While renovated in recent decades, it is inaccessible unless one arrives in the town, located 200km east of Geraldton, while the general store or the hotel is open for half a day.

The Monsignor ploughed away none the less, designing and building a convent chapel, called the Dominican Chapel of St Hyacinth, in 1920 for the Irish Dominican Sisters who lived in a wooden convent school overlooking the town.

He travelled on horseback from Mullewa, 100km away, as a labourer with a local builder during months of construction, as he was grateful for the Sisters’ presence and concerned for their welfare.

Every week he rode into town for Sunday Mass, but was always concerned about the effect his cracked and calloused hands would have on the silk vestments.

The building, which now sits behind a barbed wire fence and a heritage plaque, is simple but has the trademark details of a Hawes building, with statue niches, vertical bar windows and a belltower lovingly crafted.  After years of disuse, it became a neglected ruin until the chapel was restored and is now protected by the Shire of Yalgoo since 1980.

All that remains of the adjacent convent is two chimneys. The simplicity of the building is a stark reminder of the harsh, lonely lives of the Sisters who lived and prayed there, in a chapel that was set so far out for so few.

Clergy sank cathedral Perth might have had

It must remain one of the great architectural tragedies of Australian life that the design for St Mary’s Cathedral produced by Monsignor Hawes (above and at right) and which was blessed by Pope Pius X in a private audience with the Monsignor was rejected by predominantly Irish clergy who had been trained in European Gothic institutions and who wanted this, rather than his preferred Romanesque style with large windows and greater natural lighting suited to a Mediterranean climate such as Perth’s – despite the fact that Hawes’ clearly superior design would have been considerably cheaper to build.

Also at play were his absence in England while he was engaged in completing the design so that he could not lobby fellow clergy on the reasons why his was the best architecture for Perth’s Catholic cathedral, and the undermining of his designs by personality conflicts and professional competitors such as the eventual winners, the architectural firm of Cavanagh’s.

In a letter he foretold the problems that came with the more expensive designs they wanted, which included flying buttresses for purely cosmetic purposes: “…but they must have their pet flying buttresses, also their spires, although by the time the towers for them rise to roof level all the building enthusiasm and flow of donations will probably have ebbed away.”


The church that escaped Hawes’ direct influence

By Anthony Barich

The Church of St Andrew in Carnamah escaped the direct influence of Monsignor John Hawes when it was built in 1930 for 600 Pounds, but it still bears his mark.

It was built at a time when the Monsignor had consumed himself in building the Priest’s House adjacent to the Church of Our Lady of Mount Carmel and the Holy Apostles Ss Peter and Paul in Mullewa – a very personal project of his, as he’d been stopped from continuing work on St Francis Xavier Cathedral by Geraldton’s new bishop.

Not only was Hawes immersed in the Mullewa project, but Bishop James O’Collins, who blessed the Church of St Andrew, was yet to confirm Hawes as the architectural consulter for the diocese.

John Taylor, a modern architect who has produced over 50 conservation plans throughout WA for everything from cathedrals to mine sites, said in his book Between Devotion and Design: The architecture of John Cyril Hawes, 1876-1956 that notes and sketches that remain today confirm that the Church of St Andrew was likely not the design that Hawes preferred.

But Hawes certainly had an early influence on it.

On a sheet of notepaper titled ‘Carnamah’ that Hawes left, there is a sketch with his characteristic Romanesque windows, with the caption “as designed by the architect”; and another sketch illustrating a simple box structure and Gothic pointed head windows, bearing the open caption ‘showing it as erected with improvements by a local genius!’

Thus the construction of St Andrew’s appears to have been done in Hawes’ absence and prior to the direction of Bishop O’Collins.

Taylor notes that elements Hawes used extensively in his other buildings are present in St Andrew’s today: the modern style campanile (bell tower) with round head windows and an entrance incorporating recessing details around its doors.

Architect priest’s loathing of Gothic design gives way to creation of prayerful environment

By Anthony Barich

Monsignor John Hawes’ strong personality, loath to be a slave to architectural styles of the past, nearly got in the way of the Church of St Mary in Ara Coeli (‘altar of heaven’) in Northampton being built.

A mark of Hawes’ buildings is to steer clear of the gothic designs popular in Europe, opting instead for buildings more heavily influenced by the Arts and Crafts movement, the “quiet revolutionary” movement in England that rejected the beloved classical and gothic models.

Instead, Hawes wanted a simple, rough-cast homeliness by using natural building materials with “restrained organic decoration”, as a Heritage Council brochure points out.

The Church of St Mary in Ara Coeli, however, is one example where the local priest of the parish of Northampton, Dean Irwin, held sway over Hawes’ preferred design, convincing the architect to design and build for him a gothic-style church.

Dean Irwin wanted the church to be a commemorative building to Father Lecaille, a Belgian pioneer missionary and also an arthitect.

In the end, Hawes didn’t mind, so long as people found in the church a place of worship and reverence.

“I care not what, or how, debased the style might be, as long as it is an interior that will be an aid to people to pray,” was his back-handed compliment during the solemn opening of the church in 1936.

The gothic design could not hide, however, Hawes’ trademark: using local materials – in this case red sandstone – so it blends into the local environment.

The Cathedral Chronicle of October 1936 described the church thus: “As regards the exterior, it gains character from the rugged nature of the hammer dressed masonry, the deeply raked-out joints emphasising the charming and various colours of each stone.

“The green tiles that cover the roofs give a very similar appearance to the green Westmorland slates of the north of England.”

The ochre-pink coloured striped arches – another Hawes trademark seen in St Francis Xavier’s Cathedral and the San Spirito Chapel in the Geraldton cemetery – cover the arch over the sanctuary.

Hawes believed that each of his church designs expressed a particular concept architecturally – in the case of the Church of St Mary in Ara Coeli, the soaring Gothic lines are believed to have been intended to convey spirituality to those who darken its doorways.

The Sacred Heart Convent next to the church was built in 1919 to Hawes’ specifications.

With statues of Mary with the baby Jesus and Joseph guarding the steps ascending to the front door, it is now used as a backpackers’ lodge, known for its cheap accommodation but immaculately kept bathrooms and bedrooms.














Prematurely worn out, Hawes stays for one last stand

By Anthony Barich

Monsignor John Hawes was ready to retire to the Bahamas before he was even posted to Greenough as its last residential parish priest, but the obedient cleric stayed there for a time, regardless.

At 62, he was “prematurely worn out”, having built some 22 churches, chapels, priests’ houses and other buildings, and wanted to return to the West Indies, where he had spent time before arriving in Australia in 1915.

It is understood that Hawes built or designed the altar in the Gothic-styled Church of St Peter, built by Archdeacon Lecaille, for whom he built a tomb at Geraldton Cemetery.

The cramped presbytery, now marked as Hawes’ residence by the Heritage Trust, was crumbling, “decrepit and mouldy”, but suited his Franciscan spirituality that thrived on poverty right down to the ground.

Today, the whole townsite of Greenough is a historic relic. Tourists must pay just to get in to see the church, presbytery, residents’ houses and the old police station and prison across the road (or track).  Photos and old house implements still in place in their old houses next door to Hawes’ presbytery honour local townsfolk, a reminder of the harsh realities faced by the priest and lay alike.

Greenough was his last post before he left for the Bahamas, leaving everything including his trusty fox terrier Dominie, and his briefcase, which lies in the presbytery at Mullewa that now serves as a museum of his life.

“I shall be only too glad to leave this prosaic and mundane land full of hotels, beer, wool and sheep… I am homesick for the Bahamas,” he wrote in a letter to a friend.

Though the man may have been burnt out by the time he left, his buildings survive today as some of the most important examples of practical architecture, years ahead of its time.









Cunning strategy leads to homely cottage for bishop

By Anthony Barich

Archbishop Barry Hickey thought it such a shame that the Hermitage that Monsignor John  Cyril Hawes built in 1937 had fallen into disuse, he decided to live in it himself when he was Bishop of Geraldton.

During this time, the then-bishop consecrated St Francis Xavier Cathedral, also designed and built by the Monsignor.

It would be hard for a priest or bishop working in the diocese of Geraldton not to have an affiliation with something Hawes produced, as his works are scattered throughout the diocese.

The Hermitage, however, is – apart from the priest’s cell in Morawa that the Monsignor built while overseeing construction of the adjacent Church of the Holy Cross – perhaps the humblest of his projects.

The Hermitage was built by a local contractor who owed him money, in a deal that Monsignor Hawes rather cunningly sealed.

“The only way I am likely to get my money back is to let him wipe some of it off by putting in some work for me and he is a good capable carpenter, so my motives are not purely altruistic,” Monsignor Hawes wrote to his bishop at the time.

Hawes designed the building as a cottage where he planned, “with not too serious intent”, as historical records say, “to end his days as chaplain to St John of God Hospital across the road”.

His burning desire to return to the Bahamas ended up consuming him, however, and The Hermitage is now a disused building owned by the National Trust of Australia. The design shows the influence of Charlie Voysey, a Victorian architect who, like many in Hawes’ era back in England, rebelled against the contemporary liking for Gothic designs.

A steep-pitched roof, cottage windows with mullions, brick arches and exposed timbering – an unusual feature at the time – gives The Hermitage a homeliness which obviously appealed to the then-Bishop Hickey when he was in Geraldton.

The interior reveals an entrance gallery on one level, with a tiny kitchen, and a large stone fireplace and wooden stairway leading to a top gallery and main bedroom – all fitting nicely in such a small space.

Hawes himself lived only briefly there while working on St John of God hospital across the road, before his abrupt departure to the Bahamas, where he became a Franciscan Friar and sought solitude. When he left, his friend Fr Jim Prendergast stayed there.

Simple church a preview to monastic Bahamas life

By Anthony Barich

When Monsignor John Hawes built the Church of Our Lady of Fatima in Nanson in 1939, his mind was already filled with homesickness for the Bahamas.

By 1938, the Monsignor had already made his mind up that he couldn’t stand living in Mullewa anymore, the “God-forsaken place with its heat, dust and flies”, and having already been in Australia for 23 years he believed that at 62, he felt “prematurely worn out”.

The ex-plumber Bishop James O’Collins, however, had other ideas, and wanted more out of his Monsignor, as he saw great value in his work.

The energetic bishop posted Hawes to Greenough, where he lived as its first parish priest in St Peter’s a Gothic-styled church built by Archdeacon Lecaille, whose tomb he built at the Geraldton cemetery.

It is clear that his mind was on the Bahamas, where he eventually retired, as the Church of Our Lady of Fatima, and others built around this time, bear a resemblance to later structures he built in the West Indies where he became a Franciscan Friar.

Nanson is a humble church that was also used as a school by the nuns who live in the adjacent convent. Like others in the remote areas around the diocese, it seems to almost come out of the ground as it’s built from locally-quarried stone.

It can be found in a dirt turn-off from Chapman Valley Road, coming down from Northampton, where he also built the Church of St Mary in Ara Coeli and the Convent of the Sacred Heart.

Around the convent and church-school are a concrete iron toilet block, a corrugated iron clad agricultural shed and a number of garden sheds and rainwater tanks that complete the humble outback scene.

Matriarch builds legacy with Hawes, relived by family

By Anthony Barich

St James’ Chapel in Kojarena has been described by a descendant of the family who helped build it as a ‘poor relation’ of Monsignor John Hawes’ other glorious buildings, but the story of its genesis is perhaps the most remarkable.

It is the story of everyday Catholics getting on with the job of being Catholic – that is, teaching their children the faith and witnessing to Christ through their actions. In this case, it was showing strength in a difficult time, when Australia was experiencing the Great Depression.

When land was being opened up in Kojarena for the first time, James and Maggie O’Brien – a descendant of a Spanish Benedictine missionary who came to Australia with then-Father Rosendo Salvado, the future bishop of Perth – were the first to take up land in about 1897.Despite their 11 children, their modest home always had room for a priest who would travel one and a half hours by horseback from the Walkaway-Greenough area once a month on a Saturday and give religious instruction to the local children at their house.

The priest would stay at the house and celebrate Mass on the Sunday morning followed by a big breakfast feast, which Maggie would prepare. It was invariably a gathering of all the local Catholics from the surrounding farming area. Maggie had been keen on a “little church” to be built and helped fundraise by hosting card parties, raffles and other community-building events.

Monsignor Hawes designed in 1933 then built in 1935 St James’ Chapel with two builders from Walkaway with local stones quarried and carted to the site by locals. It was a community effort. Once the stone church was built, Maggie would walk a few hundred metres up a hill from her property carrying all the equipment for Irish priest Dean Irwin to celebrate Mass, prepare the bed with fresh linen along with a jug of water, and trundle back the following day to pick it up.

After each Mass, Maggie would screen the altar off with a large sheet, one of the locals would supply a piano and accordion for music, and the locals would arrive on horseback or horse-drawn vehicles to dance the night away. They would have two suppers through the night – one at about 11.30pm and another at 2am. And as there was never any power or water, everything had to be brought from the homestead down the hill. In the meantime she would prepare morning tea for all the parishioners after Mass.“Grandma was a tough old lady – tough as nails,” says Pat Mills, one of Maggie’s grand-daughters who was baptised by Monsignor John Hawes. “She brought up 11 kids while her husband developed another property out at Mullewa (some 80km away).” The tiny school in Bringo down the road also used the chapel as a hall. Mass was celebrated there until 1982 when it closed due to a shortage of priests, and termites started deteriorating the building and birds had taken up residence inside.

Pat is one of 200 descendants who banded together in 2007 to raise $10,000 to bring the beloved church her ancestors built out of disrepair. They held another reunion last year and will do so again this year. The tradition that has now begun has brought the clan closer, as many had not seen each other since they were kids. Even today, the church – called a ‘Chapel of Ease’ so it can also be used for community functions – has no power, water or toilet. One of the cousins, a descendant of Maggie and James, donated a generator, and a barbecue sits in the room adjoining the church that Hawes built for the priest to stay the night, awaiting the next O’Brien family reunion.

“The project has been a most satisfying and happy one, as it has not only kept our grandparents and parents’ dream alive, it has brought together this very large extended family, and created a close bond,” said Pat Mills, Maggie and James’ grand-daughter.

“What is particularly encouraging is that the young relatives seem just as enthusiastic as the older generations.”