Last updated on 7 November 2022
of Catholic Life at St John’s
Our Parish celebrated the 200th anniversary of its first Mass in 2022.
Historian Jeﬀ McGill paints a brief portrait of those two centuries.
The first Mass: Sunday 1 September 1822
“Wintry, wet, and stormy” is how early Campbelltown historian J.P. McGuanne described the first day of spring in 1822. That was bad news for Father John Joseph Therry, who’d arrived in Campbelltown to celebrate its first Mass in the open air of the village green.
Merely a town in name, Campbelltown was just a few tiny bark huts. It was only six years after the infamous Appin Massacre of 1816 had wiped out Indigenous resistance, and four years before Fred Fisher would go missing (with reported sightings of his ghost) in 1826. Many of the small farmers were Irish Catholic ex-convicts, but they had no place of worship. So the spreading branches of gumtrees on the green – present-day Mawson Park – was all they had as a rainstorm poured down on Fr Therry’s words. So, the pioneer priest led his flock to the nearest building – the unfinished Anglican church. It was without a floor or windows, but it had a roof, so… in they went. That created the historic quirk that the first religious service held in St Peter’s Anglican Church was a Catholic Mass!
The Anglican rector, Thomas Reddall, was not happy about this trespass, or “desecration” by Fr Therry but the unrepentant Irishman insisted his action had merely bestowed honour on St Peter’s: “I took the liberty in question, anticipating your consent, when my dilemma was explained.” The matter went no further… and an unlikely friendship might have even bloomed between the two Christian clergymen. Reddall would later make a donation towards Therry’s appeal for his church building fund.
The Australian Dictionary of Biography describes Therry as an “articulate” Celt whose influence was as impressive among Protestants, as it was among Catholics. “He also early formed a lasting interest in the Aboriginals, who became very attached to him,” it added. Fr Therry also had great sympathy for his countrymen in convict chains and was known to carry small change and tobacco to share with road gangs he passed.
The priest spent many hours on horseback. The Catholic Press on 1 May 1897 would feature the childhood memories of William Byrne, who noted:
“Well do I remember my parents relating how Fr Therry used to celebrate Mass at St Mary’s in the early morning, and then getting on his horse to gallop to Campbelltown, a distance of 35 miles [56km], to say Mass at my grandfather’s house, returning to Sydney the same day, perhaps visiting Liverpool and Parramatta on his way.”
The original St John’s
The Catholics of Campbelltown continued without a church for some years, Fr Therry jumping out of his saddle to hold Mass in the green, or in a hut, or “in the Courthouse-room above the noise and stench of crowded criminal cells.” There was also no local burial ground either, the Catholic dead being buried in establishment Anglican plots.
All that began to change when the son of a convict, James Burke (Bourke), made a donation. On 16 June 1825, Fr Therry oﬀered him public thanks in the Sydney Gazette, “for his oﬀer of five acres of cleared and valuable land” on the hilltop overlooking Campbelltown (at the corner of Broughton and George Streets). The foundation stone of St John the Evangelist Church was laid on 12 December 1824, with William Bradbury supplying the material.
Fr Therry planned a grand structure, a many-windowed church capable of holding 400 people. The land was consecrated 27 December 1826.
But no real progress happened for years. There was little money to spare among the battling Irish families of Campbelltown, and Fr Therry was half shepherd and half wolf as he pressured people for donations. “Were you ever stuck up yourself, Father?” came one reply.
A public meeting at Campbelltown’s Forbes Hotel in 1833 petitioned the Governor to match the funds raised by the community. He did. The subscription list of 1833 is a who’s who of our Catholic pioneers, names such as Burke/Bourke, Byrne, Vardy, Hurley, Keighran, Bradbury, Scarr, Rose, Meehan, and Rudd.
As the walls went up, Fr Therry oﬀered the first Mass at St John’s on 27 July 1834. In 1835, Fr Therry made Campbelltown his home as its first parish priest, residing in a rented “Chapel House” in Cordeaux Street. The hilltop cemetery got its most famous burial in 1837 when James Ruse – Australia’s first farmer – died. His headstone noted he “sow’d the first grain”.
By 1838, St John’s Church had a roof, and the rising building could be seen from the main street, but that same year Fr Therry was sent by Archbishop Polding to Van Diemen’s Land (Tasmania).
Campbelltown’s new parish priest was Fr James Alipius Goold (or Gould), who saw the opening of the first proper Catholic schoolhouse in 1840. Erected on land donated by Bradbury’s daughter, Mary Sheil, its cornerstone was blessed on St Patrick’s Day, so it became known as St Patrick’s School. The building still stands as Quondong, the Campbelltown Visitor Information Centre.
St John’s Church on the hilltop was finished shortly afterwards, a bold stone structure with two rows of windows, the larger over the smaller, which gave the idea of the church having two floors. (Fr Therry had a great weakness for what he called “opes”– openings, without any consideration for the intense heat and glare of summer light.)
The Australian Chronicle reported that on 31 August 1841 the Church of St John the Evangelist was oﬃcially opened with a Solemn High Mass by Fr Murphy, the Vicar-General of NSW. “The church is situated upon a beautiful eminence, commanding a view of the town and the surrounding district,” the newspaper reported.
Building a second St John’s
That commanding view, it must be noted, took a fair bit of time and sweat for parishioners to reach without a horse or buggy. So Fr Goold held many of his Masses at his presbytery in Cordeaux Street, a portion of which was fitted out as a worship hall. This policy was also adopted by his successors, Fr John Paul Roche, Monsignor John Lynch and Fr Augustus Petre. The hilltop church looked like an expensive white elephant.
Sydney Mail, 27 October 1883, noted that reality:
“The presbytery or parsonage is situated at the foot of the hill… [and] apart from the exertion necessary to reach the church, there was little occasion to use the larger building. In referring to the selection of such an inconvenient position for a church, not only on the ground of inaccessibility, but also from its exposed character.”
The idea of building a better-sited church, next to the presbytery, was obviously in play as early as the 1840s as the church began buying land along Cordeaux and Lindsay Streets.
When Fr James Dunne arrived as the new parish priest in 1886 he bit the bullet and started work on a more practical building. In March 1886 he signed a contract for the erection of a new St John’s in Cordeaux Street for a sum of £1686. Its Gothic architecture was very diﬀerent from the hilltop church, set oﬀ by an elaborate stained glass circular window framed in dressed stone above the main entrance. This new building was in use by December, but oﬃcially blessed and opened by Cardinal Moran on 22 May 1887.
Worshippers were sentimental about having to say goodbye to the old church oﬀ Broughton Street, but older folk “will gladly accept the boon of being able to worship without having to climb the steep hill,” the Campbelltown Herald noted.
Sisters and Brothers
“Old St John’s” was renamed St Patrick’s Convent in 1888 and handed to the Sisters of the Good Samaritan. They turned it into a Catholic secondary school for girls – St Patrick’s College – and it remained at that site until 1970 when it transferred to the Westview site on a nearby hilltop that had previously been St John’s Preparatory School for Boys. (This is why the road outside today’s St Patrick’s College is called St John’s Road).
The Sisters, in the 1880s, also took over St Patrick’s Primary School but it ceased to exist when a new St John the Evangelist Primary School opened oﬀ Lindesay Street, next to the church, in 1914.
The Marist Brothers arrived in Campbelltown in 1926 and converted the old Badgally homestead into a secondary school for boys called St Gregory’s College. In the 1930s, the Rudd family estate oﬀ Narellan Road – Maryfields – was donated by Sarah Mary Keane to the Franciscan Friars. A large brick novitiate was erected in 1955; the Poor Clare Nuns arrived in the 1960s.
These religious orders remain a vital part of the story of St John’s Parish.
A world moving on
Fr Dunne, who erected the new St John’s in 1887, remained as the beloved parish priest of Campbelltown until his death in 1931. His successor, Fr Arthur McHugh, remained until 1954. That was the year Campbelltown became part of the newly created Wollongong Diocese (1951).
It was during Fr Tom Grant’s time as parish priest, that brick extensions to the church were made, and in 1964 a group of parents working as volunteer labourers and building classrooms at a cash-strapped St John’s Primary School came up with the idea of creating a local social club, with the profits helping to fund Catholic education. Campbelltown Catholic Club opened its doors in December 1968.
As we look back on 200 years, most of the old landmarks in this story still exist. The green where Fr Therry preached his first Mass (Mawson Park) still survives, as does St Peter’s Church. The first Catholic Church on the hilltop was restored in the 1980s, and the second Catholic Church dating to the 1880s is still a beating heart of parish life.
The generations of parishioners who have come and gone are not as immediately visible to us – dust to dust, ashes to ashes – but their spirit does live on today. As St Paul notes, “Do you not know that you are God’s temple and that God’s Spirit dwells in you?” (I Corinthians 3:16)
Architecture and historic dates are important, but it is the spirit, faith, families, community work and humanity of St John’s Parish that truly makes 200 years of Catholic life worth celebrating.
Pastors of St John’s
Archdiocese of Sydney
(Erected in 1834 as the Vicariate Apostolic of New Holland and Van Diemen’s Land; became the Diocese of Sydney on 5 April 1842, and the Archdiocese of Sydney two weeks later on 22 April 1842.)
|1835 – 1838||Fr John J Therry – Parish Priest|
|1838 – 1848||Fr James A Goold – Parish Priest, then Archbishop of Melbourne|
|1850 – 1877||Fr John P Roche – Parish Priest|
|1878 – 1883||Mgr John P Lynch – Parish Priest|
|1884 – 1885||Fr Augustus W Petre – Parish Priest|
|1886 – 1933||Fr James Dunne – Parish Priest|
|1933 – 1954||Fr Arthur McHugh – Parish Priest|
Diocese of Wollongong
(Erected 15 November 1951; extended to include the Macarthur in 1954)
|1954 – 1955||Fr Thomas Vaughan – Administrator|
|1955 – 1957||Fr Isadore Ekerick – Administrator|
|1957 – 1974||Fr Thomas Grant – Administrator|
|1974 – 1978||Fr Peter Lewis Comensoli – Administrator|
|1978 – 1985||Fr Paul Ryan – Parish Priest, later Monsignor|
|1985 – 1997||Fr Bryan Jones – Parish Priest, later Monsignor|
|1997 – 2017||Fr Michael Healy – Parish Priest|
|2017 – now||Fr John Ho – Parish Priest|
Parishes in our diocese created from Campbelltown
The original territory of St John’s Parish was not clearly defined. The pastoral care extended across the whole of the Illawarra to the south coast, and the southern highlands through to Goulburn and Yass. The dates that ‘daughter’ and subsequent ‘grand-daughter’ parishes were created from the original territory of the parish are:
1838 Wollongong (St Francis Xavier)
- 1852 Kiama (Ss Peter & Paul)
- 1867 Albion Park (St Paul)
- 1886 Bulli (St Joseph)
- 1890 Milton (St Mary’s, Star of the Sea)
1847 Picton (St Anthony)
1859 Camden (St Paul)
- 1965 The Oaks (St Aloysius)
- 2015 Oran Park (St Mary MacKillop)
1889 Moss Vale (St Paul)
- 1917 Mittagong (St Michael)
- 1948 Bowral (St Thomas Aquinas)
1968 Ingleburn (Holy Family)
- 1977 Macquarie Fields (Mary, Mother of the Church)
- 1980 Varroville (Our Lady of Mount Carmel)
1984 Ruse (St Thomas More)
1991 Eagle Vale (Mary Immaculate)
1994 Rosemeadow (Our Lady, Help of Christians) – includes St Bede’s, Appin, built 1837
Assistant Priests at St John’s
All dates indicated are approximate – unfortunately recording the appointment of assistant priests has not been a priority!
- Fr Michael Bach
- Fr Joseph O’Donnell
- Fr Vince Whiteman (1966 – 1972)
- Fr Michael Healy (12.1968 – 6.1970)
- Fr Graham Schmitzer (12.1969 – 2.1977)
- Fr Terry Fox (1971 – 1973?)
- Fr Peter Caruana (2.1976 – 1.1980)
- Fr Gerard Stoyles (9.1977 – 11.1983)
- Fr Clem Hill (1977 – 1979)
- Fr Kim Watson
- Fr Maurice Rosa (6.1979 – )
- Fr Brian King (10.1979 – )
- Fr Bernie Dowdell (2.1981 – 1.1984)
- Fr Ross Naylor (2.1984 – 10.1985)
- Fr Mark O’Keefe (6.1987 – 1.1988)
- Fr Chris Sarkis (12.1985 – )
- Fr Peter Hill ( – 1987)
- Fr Rick McCann (1.1988 – 3.1990)
- Fr Maurice Crocker (1980 – 1981)
- Fr David O’Brien (1990 – )
- Fr Steve Reeves (3.1991 – 1996)
- Fr Ronan Kilgannon (12.1996 – 3.1997)
- Fr Hugh Dowdell ( – 1996)
- Fr Mark de Battista (1995)
- Fr Leo Duck
- Dn David Catterall (2000)
- Fr John Ho
- Fr Honorio Hincapie
- Fr George Condookala ( – 2015)
- Fr Lucas Myint (2013 – 11.2017)
- Fr Mark de Battista (2016)
- Fr Victor Vincent (11.2017 – 09.2018)
- Fr Feleki Tautunu (12.2018 – current)
- Fr Richard Healey (01.2022 – current)