WA’S FIRST SAINT: Builder of ‘faith and churches’ may earn title as WA’s first saint

21 Apr 2022

By The Record

By Amanda Murthy and Jamie O’Brien

Statue of Msgr John Hawes
The statue of Monsignor John Hawes outside the Hawes Heritage Centre in Geraldton, with the St Francis Xavier Cathedral in the background. Photo: Adobe.

Western Australia could soon have its first saint with the Diocese of Geraldton looking to advance the cause of canonization of Monsignor John Cyril Hawes through the gathering and investigation of information around his life and the existence of heroic virtue.

Known as one of the greatest priest-architects, Msgr Hawes spent some 24 years in Western Australia, designing and building 27 Churches and buildings across the – Mid West, Gascoyne, and Wheatbelt regions of Western Australia.

Diocese of Geraldton Chancellor and Director of Heritage, Fr Robert Cross explained to The Record that after some discussions and an online meeting that included Geraldton Bishop Michael Morrissey and Bahamas Archbishop Patrick Pinder of Nassau and several others, a decision was made to proceed with promoting the cause of Monsignor Hawes.

Also known as Fra Jerome, Msgr John Hawes was born 7 September 1876 in Richmond, England.

As a young man, he took great interest in the ancient buildings of his school, spending much of his free time discovering the charms of Canterbury Cathedral which loomed large over the King’s School grounds.  

He was impressed by the atmosphere of the church and its former history as a Catholic Cathedral, taking great interest in the life of St Thomas Beckett.

In 1897, Msgr Hawes qualified as an architect, later becoming an Anglican Priest in 1904, before converting to Catholicism in 1911 in New York.

He was ordained a Catholic priest four years later in Rome.

Fr Cross also explained to The Record that heroic virtue is understood to mean evidence of a person living the virtues in an exemplary manner.
“In addition, evidence is requested of any devotion or to Monsignor Hawes or recourse to him for divine intercession and any favours received since the time of his death to the present,” Fr Cross explained.

Msgr Hawes arrived in Geraldton in November 1915, commencing work on St Francis Xavier Cathedral in 1916. Photo: Diocese of Geraldton.

Msgr Hawes arrived in Geraldton in November 1915, commencing work on St Francis Xavier Cathedral in 1916. He also served as Parish Priest of Mullewa/Yalgoo.

During his time in the Mid-West, Hawes was responsible for an astounding body of work throughout the region.

His creations ranged from basic corrugated iron structures like St Patrick’s Church in Wonthella, to the unique design of Our Lady of Mt Carmel in Mullewa, or the grand structure of Nazareth House perched on the edge of Champion Bay in Geraldton.

“There is little doubt that Hawes’ built and movable heritage in the region has contributed and will continue to contribute to the vibrancy of local communities,” Fr Cross highlighted.

He designed himself a small cottage, known as The Hermitage, adjacent to St John of God Hospital in Geraldton.

John Hawes on his horse Babs at Tardun 1930. Photo: Diocese of Geraldton.

Hawes declared the building, completed in 1936, was to be his retirement home.

At the same time he also designed the San Spirito Chapel that was built in the grounds of the Geraldton cemetery, including a place for his own grave at the foot of the Rood Screen and a brass effigy of himself set into a terrazzo slab.

After leaving WA in 1939, Mgr Hawes designed and built more than 20 buildings in the Bahamas and ministered to the people for the last 17 years of his life.

One of those was a most impressive but simple dwelling on Como Hill, the highest point in The Bahamas, which he named Mt Alvernia, building his Hermitage and Chapel and also creating his own burial chamber beneath the hill. 

Fr Cross highlighted that Mgr Hawes was not only admired and respected for his architectural work, but he was also loved and respected by his parishioners, and the wider community. 

“He was especially respected for his knowledge of and love for animals. As well as breeding and at times riding racehorses, he also bred fox terriers and included a special entry for his beloved Dominie (which he is often pictured with in his WA portraits) in his house in Mullewa and the Hermitage in Geraldton,” Fr Robert said.

“His biggest regret on leaving Geraldton was having to say goodbye to his beloved companion and noted in his diary that “the loss of the dog’s companionship was the greatest cross he had to bear.” 

Known as one of the greatest priest-architects in Australia, Msgr John Hawes, pictured here with his dog Dominie, spent some 15 years in Western Australia, designing and building numerous Churches and buildings across the mid-West. Photo: Diocese of Geraldton.

Mgr Hawes died on 26 June 1956 in Miami, Florida at 79 years of age, and according to his wishes, was returned to Como Hill and placed in his own burial chamber he had built for himself inside a cave, with no coffin, dressed in the Franciscan habit, lying on his back with his arms outstretched in the form of a cross.

“We request for information that details any heroic virtues evident in the life of Hawes as well as information that demonstrates both devotion to him and requests for his intercession for Divine assistance.”

If you have any information you would like to share of any recourse to Monsignor Hawes for divine intercession and any favours received since the time of his death to the present, please email Fr Robert Cross at heritage@diocese-geraldton.org