Fremantle Stuff > FHS > Fremantle Studies > 2 > Geraldine Byrne

It was our life

Geraldine Byrne

Byrne, Geraldine 2001, 'It was our life', Fremantle Studies, 2: 47-64.

It is not surprising that the Catholic Church has played a prominent role in the history of the Port of Fremantle, or that its major centre, St Patrick’s, recently created a Basilica, should be among its central land marks. From the early days of settlement the social structure of Fremantle has included a strong working class element. Within that element, as in much of the rest of Australia, Catholics of Irish ancestry have played a major part. During the 20th century they have been reinforced by Italian and Portuguese families in the fishing fleet, shops, restaurant and service industries. Even the long-standing rivalry between Perth and Fremantle may have played a part, because as the centre of government housing many of the official class, Perth became home to many Anglican families. In Fremantle on the other hand even the ‘merchant princes’ who lead the community in the 19"‘ century came from non-conformist Protestant, Jewish or Catholic backgrounds.

In the history of St Patrick’s the changes in Fremantle’s society have been reflected not only in the demographic makeup of parishioners over the years, but also in the social and philanthropic roles expected of the Church’s community. Changes took place in the character of the various clubs and societies arising out of Church activities. In writing a centenary history of St Patrick’s Basilica I found that the leading organisations formed around St Patrick’s varied according to the character of Fremantle society and the status of Catholics within that society.

During the 19th century the energy of St Patrick’s clergy and congregation went mainly into the struggle for survival. Education was the first priority. First, the Sister of Mercy and later and more durably the Sisters of St Joseph of the Apparition exercised a strong influence; and finally the Christian Brothers. The presence of the colony’s major jail, Fremantle Prison, involved the Church in ministering to the convict and ex convict population. This in turn identified the Church with the underdog element in West Australian society, and facilitated its acceptance when the labour movement came to the fore from the 1890s.

The great influx of population because of the gold rushes of the 1890s coincided with the Forrest government’s decision to centralise the Western Australian transport system on C Y O’Connor’s artificial harbour at Fremantle. This brought a great increase in the working class population serving the waterfront, and these workers now replaced the railway workers who followed the transfer of the workshops to Midland in 1906.

Mercantile agents and importers made their headquarters in Fremantle, leading to the building boom which provided Fremantle with much of its memorable architecture. Concurrently the reconstruction of St Patrick’s Church between 1898 and 1900 and the arrival a few years earlier of the Oblate Fathers (who were charged with the spiritual and administrative control of the parish) provided a framework within which Catholic organisations could flourish.

In the later part of the 19"‘ century and early 20th century the major Catholic men’s organisation was a chapter of the Hibernian Society signifying the extent to which Catholicism was equated with Irish ethnicity. As the sons of Catholic families began to look beyond their working class origins to white collar careers more was heard of groups such as the Catholic Young Men’s Society with a debating team and sports. With its two Australian Rules football teams and a strong tradition in cricket, Fremantle was a notably sports minded community. Catholics who won prominence on the sporting field often went on to recognition as successful citizens.

Although at all times these young men’s organisations depended on the ever reliable volunteer help of the mothers, wives and sisters; and although women were also involved in the fund raising projects, necessary because of constant demands on the Church; it took a little longer for women’s organisations to consolidate. The Sacred Heart Sodality included both men and women among its members. In the 1920s the Children of Mary Sodality was formed, as was the Holy Name Society for men. The latter remained in force the late 20”‘ century, overtaking the Hibernian Society. These organisations were a powerful source of mutual help during the 1930s depression.

The Second World War of 1939-45 presented a new set of challenges. Fremantle was visited by thousands of allied forces, especially Americans. It fell to the lay workers of the Church to provide hospitality, as well as engaging in numerous fund raising activities for the war effort. This is a period accessible through oral history, and many informants were able to recollect vividly the humour and pathos of those years. 2

In more than a half century since the end of the war there has been an increasing demand for the Church to focus attention on social issues. After a period of relative stability, Fremantle began to grow again from the late 1960s. Growth brought with it gentrification and the development of a tourist industry, but this was accompanied by decay in the old working class culture centred on the waterfront and by greater exposure to such problems as drugs and homelessness. Southern European communities made a positive contribution though the Blessing of the Fleet and other festivals. Although the later years of the 20th century found the St Patrick’s community confronting increasingly complex issues with fewer clergy, new initiatives were still taken. Some examples of these were the establishment of St Patrick’s Care Centre, and the development of the Church as a cultural centre with a particular emphasis on music.

The remainder of this paper will be devoted to exploring the impact of these changes on the lay members of the St Patrick’s and the organisations through which they were able to nurture a sense of participation in their community. The social life of St Patrick’s parish received a boost from a series of developments in the 1870s. Convict transportation had recently ended, a vigorous parish priest, Father John O’Reily, was appointed in 1873, and the Church building was expanded after damage in the great storm of 1872. In 1876 a Catholic Young Men’s Society was established. It was followed by the Hibernian Society in 1878 and a Sodality of the Children of Mary for men and women at the same time. As well as maintaining a lending library and providing a form of medical insurance, these organisations were a great help in fund raising for the parish. The ladies organised bazaars, often lasting several days. From time to time raffles were conducted. In a major effort of this kind in 1877 a raffle offered twenty-seven prizes, the first prize being a horse — the equivalent of a sedan or station wagon today.


CYMS of WA, Fremantle Branch, 1932-1933 (Courtesy Oblate Collection, Fremantle )

Although oral histories undertaken during research for my book could not be expected to reach beyond the late 1920s at earliest, vivid first hand accounts of incidents and personalities can be found in The Record, since 1874 a Catholic weekly newspaper. Two examples from among many may be given. In June 1879 a procession celebrated the anniversary of Western Australia’s foundation. A dozen Aborigines led the procession:

… followed by a number of the oldest colonists, after whom came the colonial youth. All wearing blue bows; these were succeeded by the municipality and clergy, who preceded the school children, after whom came the local volunteer corps headed by their brass band; after those came the general public. The procession formed at the government boys’ school whence it was seen to wend its way along Cantonment Road and High Street. T o ‘the green.’ Here the children were presented with gifts of money — the older ones receiving one shilling each and those not so far advanced in years, sixpence each. The number of children in the procession was 790 of which number the Catholic schools contributed 250. 3

When the boys school was opened in November 1883 Father O’Reily’s speech included the whimsical remark ‘that as a boy visiting a travelling menagerie he formed a great wish to own a cage of monkeys:

Little I thought in those days of my youthful ambition that I was to have my wish and in having it, have more than I bargained for ... Monkeys don’t play truant, nor do they break glass windows, nor do they carry home stories to their parents. I wish I could say that boys never did any of these things. 4

The Record also bears witness to cooperation between Catholics and Protestants. When Father O’Reily resigned in 1887 to take up appointment as the first bishop of Port Augusta, he was tendered a farewell supper at the newly built Fremantle Town Hall.

Reports of the speeches covered more than ten columns in the Record with only a few lines to praise the work of the women who had volunteered to provide the catering for the occasion. These included the wives of the local members of parliament, the Catholic Mrs Marmion and the Protestant Mrs Pearse as well as Mrs Samson and her daughter with fifty others. The Concert after the supper included a contribution from former Attorney General Alfred Hensman, a talented violinist, but Bishop Salvado contributed the highlight. He excused himself from making a speech, but instead gave a dashing piano recital descriptive of an Aboriginal Corroboree. 5

In later years The Record frequently includes oral history. For instance, Father Charles Cox, parish priest from 1900 to 1911, was remembered at his death in 1936 as ‘very tall, particularly good looking with a perpetual smile, never seemed to be perturbed, very learned, a great linguist, very benign, but at the same time could be very firm’. 6 The first priest of the King Street, Plympton parish (now part of East Fremantle parish) was Father John Smyth. An octogenarian informant in 1988 remembered him as ‘a very popular little friar tuck of a man. On one occasion he delighted the boys and scandalised the girls by thumbing his nose at Sister, when she was not looking of course ‘We were not game to do that behind Sister’s back’. 6

A theme stretching back more than a hundred years is the strength of working class involvement in St Patrick’s parish. Writing in 1896, Brother Michael Boland noted the expenditure of money on C Y O’Connor’s new Fremantle harbour, and commented ‘ ‘I believe this would be a very good time to begin the Church, as nearly all the labourers are Irishmen’. 8 Perhaps more surprising is a story from the industrial disputes of 1919, as remembered by the former altar boy and later communist militant Paddy Troy:

Early on the Sunday morning of 4 May, the State Premier, Hal Colebatch, proceeded down the river from Perth with a party of armed police and strikebreakers, intending to take control of the wharf and erect barricades behind which the vessel could be unloaded. News of his expedition preceded him and at St Patrick’s Roman Catholic Church in Adelaide Street, where the Troy family worshipped, the priest exhorted the men to reinforce union pickets. 9

The codex or official chronicle of the parish activities varies in its usefulness according to the parish priest of the time. One or two wielded lively pens. Father John Neville, parish priest between 1926 and 1936, was one such. When a new priest, Father Thomas Purcell, attempted to improve the standard of music at St Patrick’s, the codex recorded:

Today, the First Friday, Fr Purcell made his first attempt at Congregational singing for the children, at the afternoon Benediction. All the parish schools had been notified before hand and had been given the Benediction service to teach the children. Father Purcell taught the boys himself. Owing to unforeseen circumstances Fr Kenny who should have been the celebrant, was delayed in returning from a funeral and Fr Purcell had to give Benediction himself. The children having no one to conduct them made a very feeble attempt. Fr Purcell was able to conduct them for the hymn at the end, and the improvement was very marked. 10

Jim McGowan, in an oral history in 1988, remembered Father Purcell as ‘very dominant. If the choir sang at the wrong time he would jump up and down’. It is only in the 1920s that the social life of the parish can be traced in intimate detail from first hand oral history.

Among the laity several personalities stood out. Almost everyone remembered Patrick Thompson, better known as Paddy the Horse, who took up the collection for many years. Pat Hackett (nee Collins) recalls:

Some called him ‘Whiskers Blake’, after the current wrestler, who he resembled in beard and moustache. Paddy was a devout man and up to every trick the youth was or was not to play. It is remembered clearly how someone in our pew, one boy, ‘flicked’ the long handled plate as it went past him, and up went the money. What a raucous scene took place here at the offertory. Paddy had a loud voice and he said, ‘you boys leave that alone’, as he madly scrambled under the pews to pick it up. Never a halfpenny did they want to touch, or did they touch. They were honest. This was one good reason. The other — they were too frightened.

Poor Paddy, he had his time cut out. The bigger boys, some three of them, used to play cards, during Mass, mind you, Lo! And behold, if Paddy caught them. It is heard said they kept out an eagle eye, for him. Another time some of the young men were keeping their heads bowed deeply, not in prayer, but to avoid the plate. Paddy would not be thwarted, he would stand there with the plate under their noses and boom ‘C’mon I saw you r,r,r, drinking beer at the football yesterdee. 11

Kathleen Byrne (nee Gabbedy) remembers ‘sometimes, a few lads would trick him, they would put their hands into their pockets as if bringing out that trey bit, instead bring out a hankie and blow their noses. Paddy would then shake his fist at them and would have hit them on the head if at all possible. 12

James Dowling was another who sometimes took up the wooden handled collection box. Vera Buck (nee Ross) remembers him as ‘a very English looking proper gentleman'. 13 Daphne O’Hara remembered him as ‘a very stately old man, an accountant, I think he used to do the parish books for the priests in those days. He would also make speeches at any special functions in the parish, very flowery and rather long winded speeches they were!' 14

Following the input given by Father Purcell, music was a strong tradition in St Patrick’s for many years. The organ, installed when St Patrick’s was constructed in 1900, was in later years played by Kath Droney until arthritis compelled her to give way to Joyce Nunweek. The organ was built by J C Bishop of London and sited on the north wall of the gallery. In these years, a manual pump operated the organ. Ron Cant told a story of the early 1930s:

Around 1930 I used to pump the organ at St Pat’s and Fr. Neville paid me 10/- a month and I used to be available for all the masses the choir sang at. Pumping the organ was hard work, there was a lead weight at the back of the organ that you had to keep up to pump the air into the bellows of the organ — then the weight would gradually go up and when it got to a certain height you had to turn around and pump again. 15

He pursued his advantage and before long married a member of the choir, Dorothy Bone. He said that other members of the choir at that time were: ‘the two Long girls, [Gracie and Lil], Amy Brown, Alma Matison, Phyllis Matison, Joyce Tippet, Esther Hughes. The choir mistress Mrs Eileen Jolley took on the job in 1933 and was still at it twenty-two years later. Her husband Dick Jolley was the organist who played for the Holy Name Society every second Sunday evening. 16

The outbreak of hostilities with Japan at the end of 1941 brought Fremantle into what many regarded as virtually the front line. Even before Japan entered the war the streets of Fremantle were often crowded with hundreds of visiting servicemen. When the United States entered the war, the Americans established a base at Fremantle, this prompted Father Haugh to allow the use of St Patrick’s Hall as a Catholic Welfare Organisation depot for Allied Servicemen.

Archbishop Prendiville officially opened this on the morning of Sunday 7 June 1942. Mass was celebrated by the Archbishop, served by two Australian and two American servicemen. On entering and leaving the sanctuary, the Archbishop passed through a guard of honour of thirty allied officers, and, at the Consecration, an American military guard presented arms in the main transept. Over a thousand servicemen filled the Church.

After the service, the ladies auxiliary served breakfast. The children of St Joseph’s Primary School, dressed by the Sisters to represent Britannia, Uncle Sam, nursing sisters and servicemen, sang Advance Australia Fair in honour of the Archbishop, The Aussies and the Yanks are Here for the visitors, and It’s a Great Day for the Irish, because St Patrick’s would not be St Patrick’s without some Irish contribution. 17

These years remained vividly in the memories of St Patrick’s parishioners. Verna Buck (née Ross) thought that her time at the CWO canteen was ‘marvelous years — absolutely!’ She and her sister Betty formed friendships with American families which have lasted the rest of their lives. ‘They would never miss their Mass and a cuppa and sandwiches on a Sunday morning. When they first started coming, the idea was for the social activities not so much the Mass.’ Under the pressures of wartime, they grew up rapidly. One of the sailors said that his experience at St Patrick’s ‘developed his faith in his vital years? 18 His mother, writing from America to a Fremantle parishioner, said he specially valued the family atmosphere of St Patrick’s parish.


Some of the Allied Forces after Mass at a Sunday morning canteen, 1942
(Courtesy Oblate Collection, Fremantle)

Mrs Buck’s mother, Mrs Gertie Ross, stressed the importance of Mrs Eileen Jolley in setting the tone for the canteen. She recalls ‘I used to visit the canteen sometimes, I am not a great mixer, and I used to let the girls bring home who ever they wanted for dinner. I used to have the sailors twice a week ... they appreciated the dinners very much. Of course, Mrs Jolley was always looked up to  she had the appearance and could carry it out, she was sort of the head. Mrs Rutherford, she too was a great worker.' 19

Come the post War years, it fell to Father William Byrne to encourage the initiative among the Fremantle Italian community which launched the ceremony of the ‘Blessing of the Fleet.’ This was to grow into one of the major events of the Fremantle calendar, and did much to reconcile the Italian community and their fellow citizens after the difficulties of the Second World War. Father Don Hughes OMI has recorded the story:

On the Fremantle scene, September 8th 1946 was a rough day weather-wise. The fishing fleet could not put out to sea and many fishermen, as was their custom, were warming themselves around the fire. Suddenly Francesco Raimondi said to the others, ‘do you know what today is? It is the feast of the Madonna dei Martiri and I am going to Mass'. 20

On hearing this, the others agreed to accompany him. After this Mass and several discussions, the fishermen decided that perhaps they could initiate an annual festa in honour of Our Lady of Martyrs, similar to that held in their own home town of Molfetta.

A committee was then formed with Nicola Cantatore as President, Michele Servillo as Secretary and Giovanni de Ceglie Treasurer. Francesco Raimondi, Felice Cappellutti, Cosmo Salvemini, Leonardo Tattulli and Gennaro Caputi were the other members of the committee. 21

They were joined later by Peptone Servile, Ignacio de Bra, Sergio Chaplets, Onofrio Dell’olio and Cosimo Farinola. The women’s committee had Vittoria Messina as president, with Antonietta Paperella, Teresa Servillo, Maria Salvemini, Susanna de Bari, Lucrezia Servillo, Susanna de Ceglie and Grazia Camporeale. 22

The first festival and procession took place on 8 September 1948. It was a modest affair, which did not gain much coverage in the press. An Icon was carried in procession because the Italian community was still raising funds for a Statue of Our Lady of Martyrs. During 1949 this statue was crafted by Con Samson of Subiaco, and was unveiled at a solemn High Mass in St Patrick’s on 8 September 1949. The gift cost about £300. Father Alan Johnson, a local East Fremantle lad, whose interest in the Italian community went back more than a dozen years, preached. The blessing of the fishing fleet followed the Mass. 23

By actively involving the leaders of the Italian community, Father Byrne was doing much to break down the perception that St Patrick’s was the preserve of Irish Australians. He followed this up by arranging that an Oblate Father of Italian origin should be sent to serve in Fremantle. This was Father Pietro Abramo OMI, a Sicilian who had spent fifteen years working with Italians and Indians in the Transvaal. He was to arrive in May 1950. 24

Through Father Abramo’s efforts, the Blessing of the Fleet in September 1950 was a much grander event. The Liber Actorum Ecclesiae at the presbytery records:

A Statue of Our Lady of Martyrs was carried in procession from St Pat’s Church to the Fishing Jetty where it was placed in a boat and taken to sea, the fleet was blessed and the procession returned to the Church. Magnificent weather — big crowds and much interest. 25

Support for the Blessing of the Fleet festivities increased throughout the 1950s. In 1954, the Sicilian community successfully arranged that their own statue of the Madonna di Capo d’Orlando would be carried in the procession as well. This statue had recently arrived in Fremantle through the initiative of Francesco Vinci after a visit to his home town in Sicily. Whilst Our Lady of Martyrs was carried in the procession by the men, the Madonna di Capo d’Orlando was carried by the young women. 26

The only unappreciative note came in 1956, when a Church of Christ minister, on behalf of the fraternity of Protestant clergy in Fremantle, wrote to Archbishop Prendiville requesting that the fireworks accompanying the Blessing of the Fleet should be delayed to at least 9pm so as not to disturb evening services in the Protestant Churches. The Archbishop replied that the firework demonstration could be postponed until 8.45pm, but no later. 27

The Blessing of the Fleet grew in importance. In 1960 the Prime Minister, Robert Menzies, was invited by the then Mayor of Fremantle Sir Frederick Samson to include the festival in a visit to Western Australia. He was not able to attend, but wrote back saying that his wife Dame Pattie Menzies would love to be present. It was suitable, wrote Menzies, that his lady should attend a festival dedicated to ‘Our Lady.’

At the Blessing of the Fleet, Father Nanni was persuaded to sing Come Back to Sorrento, a song which was a particular favourite and into which he poured all the feeling appropriate for a special occasion. The sequel was a charming letter from Dame Pattie which Father Nanni placed with pride at the front of the parish codex of newspaper cuttings. She wrote:

I wish to thank you for giving me so much pleasure in singing for me during my visit to the Fishing Fleet Festival.

You have a beautiful voice, as do your friends. I am only sorry my time with you was so brief, and I shall be more than pleased if you will convey my appreciation to them all." 28

In the post war years we reach a period when Father James Sullivan, once a police officer in Ireland and in middle age a great builder for his Church, persuaded the parish to embark on the long delayed project of building and furnishing an adequate parish hall. This soon paid for itself by becoming the venue for Sunday night dances with between 450 and 500 young people attending. Leo Cooper the Master of Ceremonies is remembered as ‘a marvelous man and the functions he used to organise were wonderful’. 29

The popularity of these dances may be measured by one sample of statistics. In November 1958 nine dances were held with 2071 attending. The charge was 2/6 on Sunday and 3/- on Thursday. The total profit for November was £291.8.6. 30 This of course says nothing of the time and effort given willingly by volunteers, or of the community spirit generated by these dances.

For seventeen years these dances helped to pay the parish debts, but also provided the younger people, both Catholic and Protestant, with a social life which is still remembered with enjoyment. Danny Gill said:

I remember the Barn Dances. We used to have bales of hay in the hall and harnesses and they were tremendous nights, Father Siebert used to come with a cap gun or two to add a bit of authenticity to it. We had a roaring twenties night and on that occasion we dressed in Charleston type clothes and we got a fellow, believe it or not, to drive a car around the hall — a Lady Austin. 31

In livening up the social life of St Patrick’s, Father Sullivan was greatly assisted by Father Thomas Shortall. He was responsible for the revival of the choir when he encouraged the young people of the parish to join as part of their commitment to the liturgy. Some of those whom he recruited were still in the choir forty years later. Beryl Owen, organist from 1953 to 1987 recollects:

In the past thirty years the Choir gave concerts and recitals to Mt Henry Home, Little Sisters of the Poor, Nazareth House (every Christmas), to the Fremantle Gaol on a few occasions in conjunction with the Dramatic Society which flourished for a time in the parish. In the 1950s and 1960s the choir organised and presented each year a Christmas concert in the parish hall with distribution of presents to choir members and other invited guests. 32

Beryl Owen’s mention of the Dramatic Society bears witness to another initiative of Fr Shortall. In November 1956, nearly three hundred children from St Joseph’s school, dressed in costumes which they provided themselves, took part in a three act play, The Message of Lourdes, in St Patrick’s Memorial Hall. Next year, the adult members of the Dramatic Society entered the Theatre Council’s drama festival. The West Australian’s critic wrote kindly: ‘considering that most of the cast were beginners, the gay frolic on the village green had much of the flavour of bygone days? 33 However, they were not among the finalists.

As unemployment rose during the 1970s and 1980s, new welfare arrangements were needed. St Patrick’s Care Centre has operated for more than a quarter of a century providing food and help to the unfortunate. Brother Ignatius Hannick, well known around Fremantle for his charitable initiatives told the story of its origins:

Well when I arrived in Fremantle we were getting large numbers of people calling to the presbytery for assistance of some kind — food, accommodation, clothing and various other things. Some were suffering from malnutrition, some were anaemic and in the cold weather (winter) we would have people calling for something to eat, and all we could give them was a sandwich and some were sleeping all over the place — I thought this was very sad because some of them were quite sick and in pain. Because of this situation I spoke to the parish priest, [Father McCann] and asked him if he would allow us to do something for those needy people, and he said ‘you have my full support and you go ahead and do what you think you can do and do the best you can.’ So I contacted some business people in Fremantle and asked them if they would have any food left over at the end of the day. Places such as Coles, and various different bakeries were tremendous and gave me lots of food and the bakeries gave me all the bread that we required, we would buy a big tin of soup. 34

At first St Patrick’s Hall was used as a soup kitchen, with about ten regular callers who had their meals off the old trestle tables. The Rev Brian McGowan, the Anglican minister of St John’s in Fremantle, asked what he could do to help and promised that ‘he would put the hard word on his congregation on Sunday.' 35 Soon they had eighteen voluntary workers, about half from each congregation, organised a small roster, and set up a permanent operation.

As numbers grew, Brother Hannick became well known around Fremantle as he appealed for help. Mills and Ware and Burns Philp provided him with a lot of broken biscuits that could be made into a kind of dessert. The Potato Marketing Board in Coogee gave a bag of second class potatoes every week, from which there were always enough chips to feed the clients. Eventually the demand became so great that it was necessary to find new quarters as St Patrick’s Hall was being used for other purposes. Brother Hannick’s eye fell on the former St Joseph’s Primary School in Parry Street. It had not been used for a number of years. The corrugated iron roof was corroded with rust and admitted rain, and alcoholics had been sleeping in the school, so that in describing it as ‘worse for wear' 36 Brother Hannick was guilty of understatement.

Gathering a team of helpers, he worked hard for hours every day to render the building fit for use. Brother Hannick got a spade himself to scrape away the terrible accumulation of dirt cemented into the floor. Father McCann gave him permission to put on a new roof and he acted as the roofer’s assistant. It took some time for the old school to be fit for use, but eventually the soup kitchen was moved there and formally became St Patrick’s Care Centre. 37

Probably the major objective of the Church as it enters the 21st century is the upkeep and extension of the St Patrick’s Care Centre. The initiative taken nearly thirty years ago by Brother Ignatius Hannick, still enjoys the benefit of his participation and is a critically important element among social welfare services in the Fremantle district. The Care Centre was referred to recently by Bishop Healy in his Official Visitation to Fremantle as the ‘public faith of St Patrick’s.’ 38 Without it, the hardship and poverty of those less fortunate would be much greater. It is in this example of practical Christianity that the spirit generated in more than a century of parish life at St Patrick’s has an impressive and continuing impact on the Fremantle community at large.

St Patrick’s also maintained its special character as a church in a port city. In November 1999 the massive American aircraft carrier USS Constellation called at Fremantle. The Codex recorded:

The visit of the USS Constellation (Aircraft carrier) to Fremantle had a real impact on the parish. Frs Tony and Don attended the on board reception on Wednesday as guests of the chaplain. 600 attended. The following day 30 crewmembers arrived at the parish house. They cleaned all the windows and then all the surrounds of the church and hall. The following day Admiral Hart (a proud Catholic) led thirty men to the Care Centre where they painted, cleaned up the yard and then led by the Admiral took over the kitchen where they prepared the food and served it. The Admiral told the PP that it was a privilege to serve the poor. He had learnt that from the Christian Brothers who taught him in New York. The Admiral, the chaplains and some others joined the Oblate community for drinks after the Care Centre work.  Sunday saw the chaplain concelebrate the hospital Mass. He brought the ship’s clowns with him and they toured the hospital afterwards. The Oblate community entertained the Catholic and Uniting chaplains to dinner where the community was presented with ‘Constellation’ caps. The carrier was farewelled by Henry McFall as its 327 metres carefully swung as the pilot sent his instructions to the four tugs and they pointed the carrier in the direction of its next stop — Sydney. 39

Another strength in the relationship of St Patrick’s with the wider community in Fremantle lies in its associations with Fremantle’s vigorous sporting traditions. Most of the priests have enjoyed Saturday afternoons at Fremantle Oval, and some have suspected that the timing of weddings may have been influenced by the need to avoid a ‘Port Derby’. Even the impartiality of the formal record in the Codex cannot disguise the fondness of priests and laity for the South Fremantle football team, and in recent years the Dockers. Father McFall went so far as to entitle half yearly reports: ‘Port Report — Dockers Doings.’ 40 Father Don Hughes is son and brother of long serving presidents of the South Fremantle side, so there could be little doubt of his allegiance. In cricket also pride is taken in the achievement of Justin Langer, some of whose family, the Townsends, have been stalwarts of St Patrick’s for over a hundred years. 41

This is not all. St Patrick’s continues to consolidate its reputation as a centre of cultural activity for the Fremantle community. Music is a special strength, and the Christmas presentation of Handel’s Messiah presented by the Collegium Symphonic Chorus directed by Dr Margaret Pride in St Patrick’s Basilica sets new standards which there seem likely to be maintained in the future. 42 The parish has also moved on in its multicultural character, and although its Irish/Australian roots are still evident, ceremonies such as Blessing of the Fleet and the Portuguese procession in May reflect the wider Catholic tradition.

All the strengths of the St Patrick’s community came to the fore during the Jubilee Year of 2000. The four major processions of the Fremantle church year were celebrated with even greater panache than usual. St Patrick was the first, but as Peter Rosengren commented: ‘He was the only man who gets a look in." 43 The feast of Our Lady of Fatima belonged predominantly to the Portuguese, while the procession of Our Lady of Tindari saw her statue taken from St Patrick’s Italian chapel and paraded through Fremantle’s streets. Finally in October the statues of Our Lady of Martyrs and Our Lady of Capo d’Orlando were as usual the central figures at the Blessing of the Fleet. Perhaps the highlight of the year was the visit of Cardinal Francis George OMI of Chicago to celebrate a centenary Mass on the 28 May 2000. 44


St Patrick’s Church and Manse continues to be a landmark at the entry to Fremantle (Courtesy Oblate Collection, Fremantle)

More than a hundred years ago, the first Oblate Fathers came to the raw and challenging environment of the underdeveloped goldrush port which was then Fremantle. As the city has grown and its problems and opportunities have become more complex, they have entrenched themselves as a vital and much respected element in the community. Setbacks and shortcomings there may have been at times, but throughout their association with the Fremantle Catholic community, the Oblate Fathers have shown great human qualities and skills in identifying themselves with the people of Fremantle, and enriching the quality of that community. It has been a force for stability that the Oblate Order, following the traditions of its founder Bishop Eugene de Mazenod, has been able to identify itself with its parishioners so closely and over such a long period of time.

It speaks volumes for the social role of St Patrick’s Basilica at the end of the 20“ century that although only four hundred people now appear on the parishioners’ roll, Sunday congregations regularly total an attendance of more than twelve hundred.

A strong parish survives only as a partnership between priests and people. The story of St Patrick’s is also the story of its parishioners, hardworking, good humoured, shrewd and neighbourly, unafraid to comment on the happenings in their community, enjoying their pleasures, and never quite forgetting their cardinal responsibility to their faith. In the 21st century and beyond, it may be forecast that Sunday after Sunday will still witness a packed Basilica and congregations leaving their handsome place of worship to stop and chat on the footpath outside, against the backdrop of William Marmion’s memorial and the spreading Proclamation tree. 45

Presented at the Fremantle Studies Day
29 October 2000


l. This paper is based on material contained in G F Byrne A basilica in the making, Mazenod Press, Fremantle, 2000.

2. In 1988, the then parish priest, Fr Hannah, organised different members of the parish to interview many of the old parishioners. Unless otherwise specified the oral histories referred to below are part of this archive, which is held in the OMI Archives at St Patrick’s Basilica, Fremantle

3. The Record 5 June 1879 p 6

4. The Record 29 November 1883 p 6

5. The Record 22 September 1887 p 3

6. The Record 25 April 1936 p 13

7. Mrs Elder, interviewed 1988

8. Austin Cooper OMI A little of ourselves — Oblate of Mary Immaculate 1894-1994, Mulgrave, Victoria, p 11

9. Stuart Macintyre, Militant — the life and times of Paddy Troy, George Allen & Unwin, North Sydney, 1984, pp 8-9

10. OMI Codex, St Patrick’s Basilica, Fremantle, vol 2, 1919-58, p 20

11. Pat Collins interviewed 1988

12. Kathleen Byrne interviewed by Geraldine Byrne, 15 October 1999

13. Verna Buck interviewed 1988

14. Daphne O’Hara interviewed 1988

15. Ronald Cant interviewed 1988

16. ibid

17. ibid

18. Verna Buck interview

19. Gertie Ross interviewed 1988

20. Donald Hughes OMI, Fishing fleet festival 50th anniversary, 18 October, 1998, p 7

21. ibid

22. ibid

23. ibid

24. ibid

25. Liber Actorum Ecclesia, OMI archives, Fremantle

26. Donald Hughes Fishing fleet festival p 8.

27. Rev R K Brittain to Archbishop, 12 September 1956, and the Archbishop’s reply. The letter was written on behalf of the ministers of other denominations in Fremantle. Original in Archives of the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Perth

28. Dame Patti Menzies to Father Nanni, 28 October 1960. OMI archives, Fremantle

29. G F Byrne, A basilica in the making, p 136.

30. OMI Codex, Fremantle, vol 2, 1919-58, November 1958.

31. Danny Gill interviewed 1988

32. Beryl Owen interviewed 1988

33. The West Australian, 28 September 1957, p 13

34. Ignatius Hannick OMI interviewed 1988

35. ibid

36. ibid

37. ibid

38. Visitation, Bishop Robert Healy, 1998

39. OMI Codex vol 4, p 81.

40. ibid p 68

41. OMI Codex 1999, p 81

42. Handel’s Messiah programme, 17-18 December 1999. In OMI archives, Fremantle

43. The Record, 24 February 2000, pp 8-9

44. ibid p 16

Garry Gillard | New: 23 August, 2017 | Now: 16 December, 2018