THE HISTORY OF THE CATHOLIC CHURCH IN MOUNT ISA
Long before John Campbell Miles' great find in 1923, the priests from the parish in Cloncurry, on their way to Camooweal, frequently passed the site of the future Mount Isa. When in 1924 Mount Isa Mines Limited was founded, the Cloncurry Parish continued to care for the spiritual needs of the growing community for some years. Some of the priests of those days were - Fathers Keane, Breen and Gibbs.
When they came to Mount Isa they said Mass in Boyd's Dance Hall (now the paper shop), in Burn's Cafe (now Amiott's Building), Smith's Hall (behind the Star Theatre), and in the Staff Mess (site of the Open Cut). These were difficult times and the priests relied greatly on the help of the early residents. One of these early pioneers recalls that she had to take a crash course in Latin, not an easy thing by any means, to enable her to serve Mass. They also gave the children their instructions. At this time Boyd's, a very active Catholic pioneering family, claimed an area of land on the "town side" as a site for the first Catholic Church in Mount Isa.
The Catholic Parish of Mount Isa was created in February 1930 by Bishop Shiel of Rockhampton - for at that time, Mount Isa was part of the Diocese of Rockhampton. The 14 year old wooden Good Shepherd Church built in 1916 in Duchess was brought by the people and erected in Camooweal Street, Mount Isa.
The first Parish Priest was Father Hugh O'Twomey. He arrived from Richmond to take up duties. He resided during those first months in the new extension to the back of the Good Shepherd Church, which consisted of a small room containing only a bed and a duchess. That same year the Diocese of Townsville was separated from the Diocese of Rockhampton, and on 25th May 1930, Bishop T. McGuire was consecrated as the first Bishop. He was also the first Australian born person to become a Bishop.
Meanwhile Father O'Twomey and his parishioners had been working hard, and the Church of the Good Shepherd, with the Presbytery (built as a Housing Commission home - in those days called "Workers' dwellings"), was blessed and opened on 13th July 1930. This was the first duty of its kind performed by Bishop McGuire. One of the first to be baptised in the new church was Father Donald Smith, who was to serve for five years as assistant priest at St. Joseph's 1960s. The first marriage in it, was between William Bertred Philp and Cecilia Rose Dalton.
While the new church was coping with its 'teething problems', Mount Isa Mines Limited on whose success the future of this young town depended, was experiencing massive problems. Estimates of development costs proved inadequate and technical difficulties were encountered - water flooded the workings. Only large injections of capital from English and American investments kept the ailing Mine alive. By the early 1930s, despite all the problems, milling operations started in the new mine. The raising of the necessary capital was due in no small part to the enthusiasm, tenacity and boundless faith of three men - James Corbould, John Leslie Urquhart, and Julius Krutschnitt. At the time when one Australian in four was out of work, Mount Isa Mines was able to employ 1000 men. Among the early Catholic population were six Americans from a group employed by the English Mining firm, as shift bosses. These men donated the first Chalice to be used at Mass.
Conditions were harsh, but these early men and women faced their difficulties bravely. The arrival of the railway and the completion of the Rifle Creek Dam in April 1929 made a tremendous difference, but residents still faced shortages of fresh food, fruit, vegetables, milk etc. Dust storms, searing heat and general lack of amenities were all born with fortitude. A severe shortage of housing made the erection of the famous tent houses necessary, and some of today's residents would recall having to buy their water supply from a tank on the back of a truck, at 5/- for 100 gallons. The wet season too, brought with it problems when Mineside was inevitably cut off from the town. For this reason, many babies were born in the Mine's Medical Centre when their mothers could not reach the hospital.
Many of the early Catholics walked long distances for Mass. For although Mount Isa was still a small town, it was spread over a large area. Father O'Twomey walked from his residence in Camooweal Street to Boyd's Hotel every day for his meals.
When Bishop McGuire first came to Mount Isa in 1930, he found that the parish land was not centrally situated. Because of this, a piece of land situated on Mineside was subleased from Mount Isa Mines. On this site it was planned that a convent to house the expected arrival of the Sisters of Saint Joseph was to be erected and also a school. An old iron building, formerly Marshall's Hall, the old picture theatre in Kuridala, was erected and became Saint Joseph's Church/School, the old C.P.S. Office and residence from Selwyn was moved to the site and became the Convent.
The Sisters of St. Joseph agreed to teach and the school began on the first day of February 1932. The first Superior was Sister Brigid. Many years later, Sister Thomas recalled those early days saying the Mineside was a city of tents, the railway, ambulance and boot-maker's buildings were the only wooden structures visible from the Convent. All around was bushland.
The next two priests Father T. Kinane (April 1932 to 1933), and Father J. Feeney (1933-34) had health problems. They were followed by Father Ormond Rush from Bowen in November 1934. He served until 1941. Fr. Rush retired to Villa Vincent in Townsville and died on 14th October, 1999. Fr. Tom O'Dwyer followed and lived here till 1957.
During this time Mass was being celebrated at the Good Shepherd Church and in St. Joseph's Church/School. The latter also served as a place of recreation for the community and many dances were held there. It must also be remembered that the parish was not confined to the township, but reached over some eight hundred kilometres. The priests travelled bad roads, in all types of weather by sulky and it was not unusual for a Mount Isa wedding to proceed without the benefit of a priest when on some occasions he was held up on country roads by a sudden downpour of rain and prevented from returning in time for the event and so was asked to bestow God's blessing at a later date.
Mount Isa, like the rest of Australia, experienced many difficulties arising from the war in Europe and later in the Pacific, and suffered the same privations. Fortunately, Mount Isa Mines was able to maintain its profits in spite of a severe labour shortage. It was able to do this through improved methods and increased efficiencies. During the Second World War the buildings at St. Joseph's were commandeered by the Australian Army and the Church/School was used as a storehouse. This happened one weekend while the priest was in Camooweal. He was most irate and decided to sleep in the church, to keep his eye on things. The Sisters took up residence in the Presbytery and taught school under the house, in the Church and in a bough shed in the grounds. Children from Mineside had to get over to Camooweal Street for their schooling.
Over the years the town was growing rapidly and with it grew so too the school. The foundation stone of a new cruciform classroom block at St. Joseph's was laid in 1950. The former Church/School filled with old pews from Railway Estate, Townsville, served exclusively as a Church for another five years until it was demolished to make room for the new Church which was opened on 19th May 1957. The school hall, which was opened at the same time, was built and a stone wall was built along Death Adder Gully and the level of the playground was raised.
In July 1959, St. Joseph's was set up as a separate parish with Father (later Dean) Ryan as Parish Priest. He served there for 14 years. Other priests including Fr. Tom Gard here for 12 years and known for his stand during the Strike of 1965, Fr. Peter Kerwick who served a record of three terms in Mount Isa from the 1950's until the late 1970's have since died. Fathers Joe Baxter and Ray Eagan too served here for significant time. There are others who served in Mount Isa for less then three years and are still active in the Church in various parts of the Diocese.
The community in those years experienced rapid growth and worked hard to raise money to finance so many new buildings. A really strenuous effort was made in 1956 - a Queen competition was held, it ran for five months and left all involved exhausted. The Christmas Fete, which had been launched by Father Rush was held faithfully each year over two weekends.
In January 1960 three Christian Brothers opened Saint Kieran's College. They had the care for the education of the Catholic boys of Mount Isa from Grade 5 to 10. During the Christian Brothers involvement over fifty Brothers have served here and been involved in education. Brother Lou Walker is the longest serving of the Brothers. This is his twelfth year. Likewise Br. Bill Tynan is the longest serving principal of MICHS and has served here for eight years.
Also in 1960 a new Convent was built for the Sisters of St. Joseph on the former tennis courts at Mineside. The old Convent became St. Joseph's Presbytery, but having been stretched to its limit, it was demolished in 1970 and replaced by a cottage from Kings Cross, Mineside.
It was evident at this time, that the very old Church of the Good Shepherd in Camooweal Street would not last much longer. Father Gard and the parishioners began to plan for a new church on the corner site where the Presbytery stood. The foundation stone was laid on 17th June 1962 by Bishop Ryan. The old wooden Church served still for some years as a Parish Hall and classrooms for St. Kieran's. In 1966 Mass was celebrated in it to commemorate its Golden Jubilee. In 1974 when it was very decrepit, it was demolished and with it went a slice of history. The old Presbytery was lowered onto low blocks and moved sideways to make way for the new Church.
A piece of land, bought in the 1950's, became the site of Good Shepherd School opened in Stanley Street in 1964. This was added to in stages until it became a complete primary school. Grade 1 to 3 to begin with.
An Irishman and parish stalwart, Michael Morgan, donated seven acres of land in the Happy Valley area. It was here that San Jose College for girls was built. It opened for "business" in 1965 with years 8 and 9. Sr. Gemma McGilvery and Sr. Majella Anning (now Cecilia) were the teaching staff and travelled from the convent at Church Street each day.
San Jose School educated girls until 1985 when it merged with Saint Kieran’s School, the Christian Brothers School for boys on the Good Shepherd Church property at Mary Street. The new co-educational school was named Mount Isa Catholic High School. The "old" San Jose premises became St. Joseph's Primary School under the leadership of Sr. Patricia Nolan rsj. In the same year the new Saint Kieran's School in Short Street in Pioneer opened with Sr. Jenny Scari rsj as principal. The present principal of Saint Joseph’s School is Sr. Therese Gorman rsj and she completes her seventh and final year as principal this year. Sr.Lyn Freestone rsj has served in Mount Isa in the San Jose and Catholic High Schools and our community for sixteen years. The longest serving Sister of Saint Joseph in their sixty seven years in Mount Isa. In this time over one hundred and ten Sisters have been involved with school and parish life here. A really significant contribution to life in Mount Isa.
An important feature of the parish is that it stretches over some five hundred kilometres from north to south and three hundred kilometres east to west. Over the years churches have been built, Church of the Good Shepherd, Boulia 1955; Church of St. Peter, Mary Kathleen 1958 - now a shelter shed at Saint Joseph’s School; Church of St. Therese, Camooweal 1961; Church of St. Martin de Porres, Dajarra in 1962, and in 1980 the people contributed to a Church that is shared by all denominations in Burketown. Over the years townships have come and gone and come again in areas like Gunpowder and Phosphate Hill. These are visited regularly by the priest on his "bush trips". In 1970's and 80's a light aircraft was used to get to outlying places.
There was one parish 1930 - 1958 and two parishes from 1958 - 1972. Following the Vatican Council, a new model of ministry was discussed. In 1973 Bishop Faulkner, keen to experiment with new ideas, reunited the two parishes of Mount Isa and after extensive parish education and preparation installed a Team Ministry consisting of four priests, there was to be no Parish Priest. Fr. Peter Kerwick was installed as the first Team Leader, and priests took turns at being leader for a year. The population of Mount Isa peaked at 34,000 in 1974 and another priest was added to the Team. Another change when in 1976 Deacon Jim Erskine was ordained in Mount Isa and also joined the Team Ministry. At the end of 1977 Sr. Maureen McGrath rsj joined the Team as a Pastoral Associate. The changing character of the Team continued when Sr. Maureen left and was replaced on the Team by Barbara Erskine, the first lay person in this position. However throughout all this time the priests were gradually being replaced by other priests or transferred without replacement, so that not only were the names changing but also the numbers were declining. Some of the priests not mentioned above to serve here for significant time over these years were Dave Lancini, Terry Lyons, Don O’Brien Alan Sheldrick, Mark Kelly and Vic Dalton. The character of the Team also changed from a purely clerical team to a mixed team, containing priest, religious and laity and also containing both males and females. Today the Parish has a Pastoral Worker-Mrs. Helen Tarttelin, one priest-Father Mick Lowcock and the Parish Pastoral Council as the main bodies responsible for the Parish. The Parish has had a number of people work in the Parish Office. The earliest recollection is of Cec Dwan at Saint Joseph’s, Dolphie Tuytel, Deirdre Frain, Robyn Dolzan, Ray Cullen and Kaye Rouse having served in various ways at Good Shepherd for many years.
To follow the Team Ministry, the first Parish Council was founded in 1975 with Ted Cullen as President and Teresa Van Lerssel as Secretary. It was a sign of the lay involvement called for by the Vatican Council.
FRANCISCAN MISSIONARIES OF MARY: (F.M.M.)
The Franciscan Missionaries of Mary (F.M.M.) arrived in Mount Isa in 1973. Their involvement with Aboriginal & Torres Strait Islander people has been their main work and they have been actively involved in a diverse range of ministries including: managing Marillac House; encouraging the Aboriginal & Islander Catholic Council; community development work at the Yallambee & Wulliberri Aboriginal reserves and with the Dajarra, Boulia, and Urandangee communities, establishing the physio-therapy unit at the Mount Isa Base Hospital; and pastoral work with the St Vincent de Paul Society, Laura Johnson Home, the Arthur Peterson Centre, and the Filipino community.
The presence of the F.M.M. sisters, over thirty have served here, witnesses to their belief that Australian society and the Australian Church will not be complete without the acknowledgment of the rightful place of Aboriginal people in our society, and their contribution to our Church. The Franciscan Missionaries of Mary are currently working in Mount Isa with the Aboriginal & Islander Catholic Council, and at the Yallambee & Orana Park Aboriginal Corporation.
ABORIGINAL AND TORRES STRAIT ISLANDER CATHOLIC COUNCIL (AICC)
In April 1972 a meeting was held at the Bishop's House in Townsville to which representatives of the Aboriginal community were invited. However it was not until 1980 that the Aboriginal and Islander Catholic Council.(AICC) was formed in Mount Isa with a small gathering at Marillac House. This little coffee shop gathering was instrumental in boosting the Aboriginal peoples of Mount Isa in small but community building ways such as a float in the mardi gras which won them 2nd prize and a Christmas celebration at Yallambee Reserve.
From small seeds grow big trees and so it was with the AICC. Nola Archie was the first worker for the AICC in Mount Isa. Carol Sam the first catechist. Now there are five pastoral workers (three lay Aboriginal and Islander Elders and two FMM sisters), one Administrator and many volunteer workers. All paid workers are under contract in their positions.
The Pastoral Leaders were commissioned in 1989 by Bishop Raymond Benjamin to care for the Aboriginal & Islander people of the Mount Isa area. Where 2 FMM sisters visited the bush now 1 Aboriginal lay person visits, where there were once a number of priests there is now one, so the ATSI Church Elders prepare and celebrate with families for sacraments; have written their own baptism ceremony and celebrate the sacrament of Baptism, prepare and celebrate funerals, prepare the liturgies for any Eucharistic celebrations, celebrate bush prayer monthly; do house blessings and visit the hospital, Laura Johnson Home for the aged and families. All in all they care pastorally for the Catholic Church for the ATSI people of Mount Isa and surrounding areas.
From the coffee shop of years ago, there grew Ipika Murrabi Creations a small sewing enterprise set up especially for low income families. There is a craft group where many of the mothers gather to talk, learn to make different craft and share a cuppa. The Drop in Centre that is opened each week day was set up especially to serve the homeless, but anyone is welcome to come and visit. From the garage at 32 Isabel Street, to the tuckshop in the old Good Shepherd School building then onto Room 8 at the Catholic Centre, we have had a very nomadic journey. Recently we were funded to renovate our office.
We have also been heavily involved in community development. Yallambee has probably been the biggest project we have undertaken and will be ongoing for many years. The Arthur Petersen Special Care Centre was also initiated by members of our organisation. The development of people is vital to our ministry. Our Mission Statement that was created by us on 9th October 1996 reminds us of this:
BELIEVING IN THE DIGNITY AND SELF - WORTH OF EACH PERSON AND OUR CALL TO GREATER ‘FREEDOM’
THE AICC STRIVES TO CONTINUE THE MISSION OF JESUS
THE AICC INVITES ABORIGINAL AND TORRES STRAIT ISLANDER PEOPLES INTO PARTNERSHIP TO SHARE AND DEVELOP OUR CULTURE AND SPIRITUALITY, TO OFFER PASTORAL CARE; FAITH EDUCATION AND NOURISHMENT AND TO DEVELOP AND PROMOTE OUR LEADERSHIP IN THE CHURCH AND LOCAL COMMUNITIES
Although the financial struggle is overwhelming at times, it is the people we have come to serve that make the AICC what it is today.
ST. VINCENT DE PAUL SOCIETY
Commenced operation in the late 1940’s. It was run from the then Parish house, Camooweal/Simpson Street. It continued through the strike in the 60’s becoming two conferences, the second operating from Church Street. It again become one presumably in 1967 when the first shop was opened behind the Taylor’s Furniture Shop in West Street. It then moved down the road next to Lou Ellis’ Sewing machine shop in the early 1970' eventually moving to the present location approx 1978. The volunteers struggled with a borrowed ute to collect and deliver donated items and furniture, after a ling struggle the shop took possession of an Isuzu 2.5 ton truck in 1990. this vehicle is still in operation.
During all this time the Society has helped in the welfare by home visitation, hospital visitation, Laura Johnson Aged Home Visitation, food parcels, volunteering at the hostel with meals and in the areas of clothing, household and furniture. The work done by volunteers throughout this time reflects the great commitment people have for the society, their community and the belief of helping our brother and sisters in need in the name of Jesus Christ.
In 1976 the society started the meal centre for homeless people. At the present location, the house came from Kuradella and today is still known as Father Brown's old house. All food was donated by Mount Isa Mines Limited and cooked on the premises. Our volunteers went and collected the night's food and gave it out to the needy. Up to 150 meals per week were given out. The need was seen for homeless men to have emergency accommodation, so in approximately 1977 the Society housed up to 9 men overnight. Accommodation was extended to 16 persons soon afterwards. in 1982 it was decided to ask the government for a grant to expend eating facilities. this took a long time to fruition. It was not until 1986 that the extensions were finished.
In 1979 the first paid night supervisor Arthur Yamaguchi was employed by the society. the need for a p;aid worker become necessary for the responsibility of the hostel and to alleviate the need of volunteers sleeping over ,as most volunteers were workers. Arthur worked until January 1984. In 1984 the society made application to the Dept. of family Services for funding for a paid worker to man the hostel. Our first Welfare/Manageress, Mrs Jean Restall was employed on February 1986, as well as a night supervisor. in 1986 the society was able to Attain funds to employ a paid cook, this meant that SAAP funded the workers for the hostel - a cook full-time, welfare officer 50% and a night supervisor full time. The Society was able to be independent from Mount Isa Mines Ltd. in Sept 1986. With funding from the government the financial burden was lifted from the committee, MIM and volunteers.
The society has previously, when membership was greater than it is now, been able to liaison with the schools so that younger ;people can have awareness of the work of the society. The Mount Isa conference has a sister conference in India, which we regularly correspond with and help financially time to time. The need at the present time is for all conferences and others in Australia to help by adopting a child form an overseas “third world country” and help with their education, the Mount Isa conference has adopted three students.
(A Conference of the St. Vincent de Paul Society was formed in Mount Isa in 1953, and this Society has always been a vital part of parish life. The members visited the sick, and helped to arrange for support for those people who are in need. Under President Alan Nixon, Marillac House, a hostel for aboriginal girls was opened in 1973. It was staffed in the beginning by the Franciscan Missionaries of Mary. Fr. Kevin Brown with the Society’s members initiated meals to be served to people in need, these meals were provided on a daily basis from the back of the old presbytery in Church Street. Meals were donated by Mount Isa Mines and were collected each afternoon and served by volunteer workers. In 1976 the Society opened a hostel to provide accommodation for homeless men at 11 Camooweal Street, the meals were then prepared and served from the hostel’s kitchen and continues today. The SVDP Shop has been at several locations and is currently run from Miles Street.)
The Missionary Franciscan Sisters (O.S.F.) came to serve the people of Dajarra from Kedron, Brisbane in 1972. Sister Raymond, a qualified teacher, worked at the kindergarten started that year at the Dajarra State School. Sister Rumold commenced teaching of sewing to the women in Dajarra with the aid of a treadle sewing machine - there was no electricity in Dajarra at that time. She also taught cooking when gas stoves were installed in their kitchen. The Sisters became part of the extended family of Aboriginal people at Dajarra. They taught religious instruction weekly, had "song nights" when they would go across the creek, light a fire to keep away the bugs, and sing hymns to the accompaniment of the youngsters on guitars. They held Youth Club nights, good film nights, played pool and table tennis, read comics and ducked out of the way of stray darts - and laughed a lot. Dances were held in the hall. The Sisters stayed there until 1982. Their work here was followed by the FMM sisters.
1985 will long be remembered as the year of "The Rationalisation Project". This project has meant the re-organisation of every parish facility in Mount Isa - two churches, four schools, two convents, a presbytery and Brothers' residence. In 1976 there had been a reorganisation of the schools, but this was only temporary as each primary boy had to attend three different schools and each primary girl had to attend two. What happened was -
* A new single stream co-education primary school for Years 1-7 was built in Short Street, St. Kieran’s Primary School.
* San Jose Secondary School became a double stream co-educational primary school for Years 1-7, and renamed St. Joseph's Primary School, Twenty Third Avenue.
* The primary/secondary boys' college converted into a secondary co-educational school for Years 8-10, renamed Mount Isa Catholic High School. The Good Shepherd Church and the Brothers' residence on the site were converted to school facilities.
* The St. Joseph' Church and School on Mineside were sold to Mount Isa Mines Ltd.
* The Good Shepherd Primary School in Stanley Street was converted into a Parish Centre, and a new Church and priests' residence were built in the grounds there.
* The priests residence in Simpson Street became the residence for the Brothers.
*The Sisters of Saint Joseph were to live in the house at Twenty-Third Avenue.
After an expenditure over $2 million the official opening and blessing of the three schools took place on the same day March 17, 1985, an educational hat trick for Bishop Raymond Benjamin. The new Church and Parish Centre in Stanley Street were opened on November 30th of that year.
Mr. Guido Vogels, the director of Centacare Townsville, together with Bishop Raymond Benjamin saw a need to offer a relationship counselling service in the West. Funds were sought from various sources and Centacare was officially blessed and opened by Bishop Raymond Benjamin on 16th October 1992. Mrs. Mary-Jane Costello was employed as a part-time counsellor and Mrs. Trinidad Kreutz as full-time migrant support worker. Since then Centacare has been responsible for providing a variety of services and has employed various people to coordinate many relationship based programs. Centacare today employs a full -time and part-time relationship counsellors, a full-time family support worker and a part-time migrant support worker.
This history of people and buildings is a reminder of the constant witness of many people to the faith and relationships built here. Some have been the building blocks of many other parishes as people have moved on from Mount Isa. The faith, Church practice and commitment of so many people has been and will be a source of inspiration. Over these years the Catholic Community has been active in many areas of civic life. We reflect on the past and to remember with gratitude the faith in God and commitment of people and gifts they have shared that have have added significantly to life in Mount Isa.