A History of St. Bernard’s Church Bacchus Marsh

By Margaret Love


A centenary is a notable date in any calendar and aprticularly for a building within whose walls so much that is meaningful has taken place.

It has been my privelidge to compile this historical sketch from the information available on thedevelopment of our Church since that unknown date prior to 1850 when Mass was first celebrated in the district. It is as accurate as printed information, memories and my limited ability will allow, and I do hope that some unanswered questions will prompt a more detailed stdy.

I thank, sincerely, all those who have passed on any information to me or helped me in any way at all, particularly Miss Gwyn Moore of the Bacchus Marsh and District Historical Society whoe assistance has been invaluable. I acknowledge, with gratitude, the information made available by Fr. J. Keaney, Chairman of the Melbourne Diocesan Historical Commission and also the information culled from the Express files.

Finally I am grateful to my husband, Brendan, and two small sons for their special help and patience during the past few months.

Margaret Love

The Pioneering Years (1850-1886)

The 1841 census of Bourke shows that there were only fourteen Catholics out of a population of 112 in the area which extended from the Upper Werribee to the Pennyroyal Creek (Melton). The only named Catholics then were W. and G. Pyke, Pennyroyal Creek.

Some early Catholics whose names and arrival dates are known were Michael and John Egan and James Mahoney and son Cornelius who all arrived in 1844. The exact time of John Leahy’s arrival is not known, but he is listed as a farmer at ‘Springfield’, Bacchus Marsh in Kerr’s Almanac in 1847. It is thought that John Connell arrived from Ballan in 1851. His daughter, Mrs. Catherine Darragh of Ballan was born at Bradshaw’s Creek in 1849. John Leahy, John and Michael Egan purchased portion nine of the Parish of Merrimu in 1846.

Very little is known with certainty about the frequency with which Mass was celebrated in those days, but it is highly probable that it could only have been at infrequent intervals. It is known, however, that various priests did visit this area which was attached to the Keilor Mission until 1854. The first definite record of Mass being celebrated in Bacchus Marsh is found in a diary belonging to Bishop Goold in which he related events of October, 1850:

On Tuesday, 15th inst., I visited Bacchus Marsh. The next day I laid the foundation stone of a chapel, which I dedicated to St. Laurence O’Toole. Previous to the performance of this interesting ceremony, I celebrated the Holy Mysteries in the presence of a congregation of seventy persons and administered Holy Communion to thirty. What made this visit so agreeable was the readiness with which the adults availed themselves of our presence to approach the Sacrament of Penance.

Bishop Alipius Goold

Bishop (Later Archbishop), Catholic Diocese of Melbourne (Later Archdiocese)

The above foundation stone was discovered, in recent years, being used as a doorstop at the Presbytery. The Mass mentioned above was celebrated in a barn on the property of John Leahy, who gave a one-acre block of land at Hopetoun and contributed half the cost of building the church – the first Catholic Church in Bacchus Marsh. The small brick church of hand-made bricks cost £800 and was opened early in 1851. A school is also reported to have been operating therein.

On August 5th, 1851 there is a register entry listing the names of five infants who were baptised: James, the son of James and Fanny Toomey; Patrick, son of John and Margaret Leahy; Elizabeth, daughter of Michael and Catherine Callanan; Ann, daughter of Denis and Bridget Stack; and John, son of John and Mary McPherson. An earlier register entry at St. Francis lists a baptism in Bacchus Marsh by Fr. John Kavanagh on August 20th, 1850.

Occasional visits were made by Fr. Dunne of Pentridge for the celebration of weekday Masses. In 1852, Fr. Daniel Holohan was transfered here. He visited outlying homsestaeads and celebrated Mass at various parts of the district including Ballan. However, his stay in Bacchus Marsh was brief. He left here late in 1852.

Bishop Goold visited Bacchus Marsh again in July, 1853. His diary gives a lengthy description of his stay from Wednesday, July 20th to Monday, July 25th. After this visit Fr. moore was transferred here but he, too, stayed only a few months. The statistical book for 1853 shows him in charge of Bacchus Marsh, with a chapel which could hold 200 but the average attendance was listed as 100.

When Fr. Moore left, Fr Matthew Downing of Keilor took charge of the Bacchus Marsh mission. Mass was said at intervals of three months, then six weeks and later three weeks.

It is reputed that the first prebsytery was a house below the Woolpack, formerly occupied by the schoolmasters Mr. Ball and later by Mr. Simon Morrison. When it was used is not known but it must have been after 1855 as the National School was operating in the building until then.

Bishop Goold passed through the area again in in 1855. He visited the Blackwood Diggings where some 20,000 people were living. He says under the date of September 30th:

30th September 1855

At one o’clock, under heavy rain, I set off for Bacchus Marsh where I arrived after a tedious and laborious journey over six miles of the worst road I have ever been on – a most barren country.

Bishop Goold

Bishop of Melbourne, Catholic Diocese of Melbourne

On October 6th Bishop Goold appointed Fr. P. Madden as Rector of the Mt. Blackwood district, comprising Ballan, Bacchus Marsh and Gisborne. However, he does not seem to have resided in Bacchus Marsh. In 1856 Fr. W. Shinnick was appointed priest-in-charge at Bacchus Marsh. During his brief stay, he was given a grant of two acres at Darley. The lay trustees of the land were Messrs. John Connell, James Mahoney and Michael Egan. After a controversy with the Bishop, Fr. Shinnick resigned from the diocese and  was replaced by Fr. E. O’Connell who arrived in the Colony in 1857. His mission was a large and developing one, seemingly as far as Daylesford, but he travelled extensively for at least ten years until his health broke down. His mission included the Jim Crow Diggins, Mt. Blackwood, Ballan, Gordon, Melton, Riddell’s Creek, Kororoit Creek and Gisborne.

When Fr. O’Connell arrived here, the church at Hopetoun was still in use but this changed as most of the people moved further westward. A new school and church (all one building) opened on November 2nd, 1863 according to Diocesan records. Unfortunately we don’t have any local records describing this occasion. The site of this building was on the east side of Fisken Street, almost opposite Simspon Street. Regarding the Hopetoun site, Fr. Ebsworth in his book Pioneer Catholic Victoria states:

[I]n 1864, the Lerderderg River overflowed and the rough handmade bricks of the Hopetoun Church began to crumble. A few years later only the foundations remained… but its sacred character would never be forgotten, as around it were gathering the graves of the pioneer Catholics…

Fr. Walter Ebsworth

Pioneer Catholic Victoria, Polding Press (1973).

It is, however, doubtful that the building completely disappeared in the ‘sixties as the Hopetoun burial ground became the site of the Merrimu Common School No. 988 building until 1874. The committee members were Rev. T. O’Callaghan, Messrs. John Connell, Martin Shea, Matthew Finnin and Michael Griffin (all Catholics).

The earliest known burial in the Hopetoun Cemetery was in April, 1851 – the four-year-old son of Michael Connell and the last was that of Mrs. honora Shea (Moore) wife of Edmund Shea, who was buried on September 23rd, 1941. Even when the Bacchus Marsh by-pass road was being planned, arrangements were made for this historic area to be preserved. It seems certain that the Fisken Street School became known as the Bacchus Marsh Common School No. 92 and with the withdrawal of State aid the name was changed to St. Bernard’s School. The committee members were Michael Connell, John Doolan, Michael Richardson, Michael Callanan, James Hegarty and Patrick O’Hagan. Fr. T. J. O’Callaghan became a member at a later stage. One fo the terachers at this school was Patrick Kelly O’Hara, father of the famous poet, John Bernard O’Hara, who wrote an elegy after Fr. O’Connell’s death. In the Express files of 1868 there is a report of a case between the Common School No. 92 committee and Mt. T. B. O’Callaghan. Apparently Mr O’Callaghan resigned his position to Fr. O’Connell and it was then alleged that he removed books which belonged to the school.

Father O’Connell’s health broke down in 1868 and he was assisted by Fr. Patrick Dunne and later by Fr. Timothy O’Callaghan. Fr O’Connell continued to reside at the Darley presbytery with his servant, Michael Duffy (a former schoolmaster at the Catholic school). The presbytery, still standing at 2 Wellington Street, Darley, was a small brick house of four rooms. It was purchased by Mr. James Taylor about 1936 and is today owned and occupied by Mr. B. Ryan. There is a small niche in the wall where a tabernacle probably hung and there was a small shed at the rear used for confessions. After Fr. O’Connell’s death on June 29th, 1871, Fr. O’Callaghan was left in charge and he chose Gisborne for his headquarters, which is, according to the Bacchus Marsh Express files, “the very reason that the Marsh Catholic [community] was slow to build a presbytery, and the Gisborne Catholic [community] correspondingly quick.” He was assisted by Fr. Thomas Dillworth and later Fr. Michael Gough, who had two claims to fame. Firstly, he was a “competent cricketer,” but more importantly he was given the task of collecting for a new church in Bacchus Marsh – the same church that still serves the Catholic community today.

Tenders were called to erect St. Bernard’s in The Argus on 24th August 1871. The Foundation Stone was laid by Bishop Goold on 14th January 1872. This stone was laid at the south-west corner of the buuilding but because it was never incised it is not known exactly where it is. A temporary altar had been erected on the site and, after a procession by the school children, the Bishop offered Mass and Dean Moore of Ballarat preached. The Express report of the event gives the following outline of the plan of the building:

…the internal measurement is 100′ of which 25′ form the sanctuary which is 20′ wide while the body of the church is 30′ wide. There are two sacristies 14′ 16″ by 12′ 8″ and 20′ by 12′. In addition there are a porch and an octagon tower – the latter being the main feature in the design. The contract at present let is for the erection of the whole building ready for carpenters and plasterers. The contractors are Messrs. Hiam and Rose of Ballarat who have up until 1st April to complete their work – the contract price being £480. They have already got in nearly the whole of the foundations and very massive work it appears to be. The estimated cost of the whole building is something over £2000. The architect is Mr. H. R. Caselli of Ballarat. The superstructure is to be of brick, cemented, mostly 22″ workand the roof of slate with the ceiling of stained wood…

Bacchus Marsh Express

The ceremonies are described in detail and the report concludes thus:

… the Rev. T. J. O’Callaghan then received money on the foundation stone, calling out names and amounts and stating that the list would be read at the altar next Sunday. A sum of about £90 was received, a good portion of which came from Protestants. The weather was excessively warm and doubtless kept many away but there was a tolerably large assemblage nevertheless…

Bacchus Marsh Express

The land that the church was being built on had been sold by James E. Crook to Bishop Goold and others on 17th January 1866 for £40. Mr. Stephen Whelan cut the stones for the foundations in McLennan’s Gully near the old Parwan School and his brother, Mr. Patrick Whelan, worked on the construction of the church. Local bricks were used and a local blacksmith, Patrick O’Hagan, did the ironwork. Known members of the building committee are Rev. T. J. O’Callaghan (Chairman), Messrs. Patrick Cain, martin Cain, P. McCluskey, t. Cain, Michael O’Connell and J. F. Taylor. The last two carried out the secretarial duties at different times.

Several reports of Bazaars and Bruce Auctions, which were run tp raise funds for the building project, appear in the Express files. They were extremely successful in raising funds for local institutions. There was a Bruce Auction advertised for 10th May 1873. The auctions were apparently highlights of the bazaars which lasted from three to five days.  The above auction was in aid of the Building Fund of St. Bernard’s Church, Bacchus Marsh. It was to be conducted in the Shire Market Yards adjoining the church. James E. Crook was the auctioneer and the Express lists in detail the many and varied items for sale. They included farm animals, produce and implements, riding equipment, a pair of greyhounds, several sets of swingletrees, drapery, boots, fruits, etc. On 31st May 1873 a very lengthy list of contributions is published. The balance sheet at the end may be of interest:


Proceeds Bruce Auction .. .. .. £303-7-3
Private sale .. .. .. 3-5-6
Refreshment tent .. .. .. 43-8-3
Cash collections
O’Connell and Cain .. .. .. 100-3-6
McCluskey and Ryan .. .. .. 41-17-6
Richardson and Doolan .. .. .. 19-0-6
Mason .. .. .. 16-10-0
Hegarty and McCullagh .. .. .. 7-16-0
Cain and Bourke .. .. .. 5-7-6
Total .. .. .. £540-16-0



Clerical assistance .. .. .. £3-0-0
Printing and advertising .. .. .. 4-4-6
Tetmporary licence .. .. .. 2-0-0
Sundries – .. .. ..
Morand, Wells, Taubman, Dickie, Cobb & Co., McKenny .. .. .. 2-10-6
O’Callaghan (Melbourne) .. .. .. 5-0-0
Cash for change .. .. .. 3-0-0
Errors in account sale .. .. .. 19-6
Balance .. .. .. £520-1-6

Progress on the new church was quite good, however, it did suffer a setback on Saturday, July 1st, 1872 when according to the Express of July 6th, 1872:

… two gables and a sort of buttress were blown down causing a loss of £50-60 we should think. The church has recently been finished so far as brickwork is concerned and as the carpenters work has not been commenced the tall gables have been left in an unprotected state not contemplated by the architect… the accident should show to the congregation of St. Bernard’s the urgent necessity of at least getting the roof timbers erected to support the brickwork.

Bacchus Marsh Express

6th July 1872

In April, 1873, a £950 contract for rebuilding the gables and roofing in St. Bernard’s was let to J. F. Taylor. An August, 1873, Express reported that the roof work was proceeding satisfactorily. In the Express of October 4th, 1873 tenders were called for the completion of St. Bernard’s Church, Bacchus Marsh. There were three separate contracts – one for the plastering and cementing, one for the painting and varnishing, and a third for the carpenter’s and joiner’s work. Mr. T. Murphy was the contractor for the painting and varnishing work. The plastering and cementing was done by Mr. J. F. Taylor.

The plans and specifications were on show at the Royal Hotel and at the architect’s office. The report said “it is expected that this church will be opened for divine worship at Christmas.” A report in October, 1873 says: “It is now thought that the church cannot be opened until Easter and as Bishop Goold will probably return to the Colony by that time there is that reason for deferring the opening.” During the later stages of construction Mr. P. Whelan attached the Cross, weighing one cwt., to the top of the spire. He climbed up the inside of the spire and stepped out onto the scaffolding which had begun to perish because work on the building had ceased some time earlier owing to a shortage of money. However, it held and the dangerous task was comepleted.

A December report said that the church was complete except for doors, windows and seats. In December, the opening date was fixed. It was to be Sunday, January 25th, 1874. We know now, of course, that the opening did not take place then.

The day for blessing and opening the church did, however, finally arrive. The following advertisement appeared in the Express on June 20th, 1874:

St. Bernard’s Church, Bacchus Marsh. The ceremony of dedicating and opening this church will take place on Sunday, 28th June and will be performed by the Very Reverend Dr. Fitzpatrick, Vicar General. Mozart’s No. 12 Mass will be sung by St. Bridget’s Choir, Gisborne. The Rev. W. Kelly S.J. will preach on the occaision. A collection will be made in aid of the church after the sermon. Admission by ticket only.

Bacchus Marsh Express

20th June 1874

This Express also says that the church had been built rapidly except for some “delay of late, caused we suppose, by the removal of Mr. Michael O’Connell from the district.” This may explain why the opening did not take place in the previous January.

The Advocate account of the opening also says that the Vicar General, the Very Rev. Dr. Fitzpatrick was present at the opening; however, neither the Express nor the Advocate report say that he took part in any of the actual opening ceremonies. This may well cause one to doubt whether he was actually there on the day. Bnoth the Advocate and the Express published detailed reports of this historic occasion and because of their interest and historical value both are included here.

The ceremony of solemnly blessing and dedicating St. Bernard’s Church, Bacchus Marsh, took place on Sunday. Very Rev. Dr. Fitzpatrick, Vicar General, accompanied by Fr. Kelly S.J., arrived on Saturday and were received by the Rev. Fr. T. J. OÇallaghan.

On approaching Bacchus Marsh from Melbourne, the church is the first object of importance that meets the eye. It is built on rising ground about a quarter of a mile from the Melbourne Road on the northern side, and presents its finest facade to the passing traveller.

It is built of brick, with cement dressings from plans by H. R. Caselli Esq., architect, of Ballarat, and consists of a name 75′ by 30′, a sanctuary 25′ by 20′, two sacristies 15′ by 12′ and 20′ by 12′, two porches 6′ by 6′ each, and a turret at the south-western angle of the nave rising to a height of about 100′. The sanctuary is nicely carpeted. The altar is hardly in keeping with the rest of the church. Still, it is chaste and capable of being greatly improved. All its accessories are good and in keeping with the geeral style. The seats are of the same design as those of St. Patrick’s, Ballarat. An organ gallery will be erected at the western end of the church as soon as the debt already incurred is paid off.

As Fr. Kelly observed in the course of his address, this church is one of the best finished and most comfortable at the opening of which he has had the pleasure in assisting in this Colony, and it is very rare indeed to find a church so nicely finished and complete even after it has been opened, as this one was on Sunday last, and to Fr. O’Callaghan’s energy and perseverance are the Catholics of Bacchus Marsh indebted for this satisfactory state of things.

The ceremony of blessing and dedicating the church took place before High Mass celebrated in the new church at 11am. The Rev. T. J. O’Callaghan was celebrant, Rev. M. Gough was deacon, and Rev. W. Kelly was sub-deacon. The choir (St. Bridget’s) under the leadership of Mr. P. Hart of Gisborne, rendered portions of Mozart’s No. 12 Mass in a creditable manner; Mrs. Buckley of Gisborne singing the solo passages remarkable well. This lady has a very sweet soprano voice. The devotional pathos which she infused into Webbe’s delightful morceau, O Jesus, Deus Magne, sung as the Offertory piece, was the theme of general admiration. The same lady sang Incarnatus very nicely. We do not oten hear such singing in country places. Miss. C. Dwyer of Melton presided at the harmonium.

After Mass, Fr. kelly S.J. preached an eloquent sermon, taking as his text the words of the 23trd verse of the first chapter of St. John: “I am the voice of one crying in the wilderness. Make straight the way of the Lord.” At the conclusion of his sermon, he made a powerful appeal to the congregation to contribute liberally to the fund necessary to pay off the debt. The talented preacher’s eloquence was not exerted in vain. The collection, including the sum received for tickets, amounted to nearly £200.

We were infomred that a large number of the leading Protestants of the district were present and contribute in a liberal manner. This is a very gratifying proof of the kindly feeling which exists among all classes at Bacchus Marsh.

At 7pm Vespers were sung after whcih Fr. kelly again preached. Benediction was given by the Vicar General.

The church has cost the people £3600, and local stone from Parwan was used in its construction.

The Advocate

4th July 1874

St. Bernard’s Church Bacchus Marsh.

The above named handsome place of worship was opened on Sunday last when the Rev Fathers O’ Callaghan, Gough and Kelly conducted the ceremonies of their church in an impressive manner assisted by the choir of St. Bridget’s Church, Gisborne, whose singing was of a high class character and must have entailed a deal of labour in preparation. The services were lengthy and it was not until two o’clock that the large congregation left the church. Fr. Kelly preached from first Luke, 13th verse – “But the angel said unto him fear not Zacharius for thy prayer is hear and thy wife shall bear thee a son and thou shall call his name John.” The preacher alluded to the fact of the church being opened near the anniversary of Jon the Baptist who was one of the three holy personages whose nativity the church celebrated, all the other saints and martyrs being commemorated only on the days of their death and not of their birth, as they were born sinful and the church being pure could not recognise anything impure. The Rev. gentleman made a variety of ingenious comparisons between John’s birth, life, and labours and the formation and subsequent perpetuation of Christ’s Church on earth and also used several similes to show how the mind became impressed by external objects – such as beautiful church buildings – to a degree equally as great as by the most brilliant eloquence. Fr. Kelly spoke with great animation, without notes of any kind and his reasoning was remarkably close for extemporaneous discourse. The sentences were also well constructed and on the whole his congregation must have felt that they had enjoyed an intellectual treat in listening to him. he alluded, among other things, tot he unusual completeness of the church, which, he said, showed fewer signs of being a new one than nearly every one he had been present at the opening of and he hoped the congregation would encourage their energetic pastor by speedily placing the building out of debt and more especially as they knew that some of the most important offices of the church could not be performed while debt remained upon the building. The Rev. Fr. O’Callaghan then took up a collection which was tedious work as he visited each sitter and took down the names and the amount of each contribution there and then. About £220 was realised in this way and by the sale of admission tickets. in previous issues we have described this church. It is a large building built of brick with cement facings. It has a tower and the style of architecture is Gothic, although not pure Gothic. Mr. H. R. Caselli is the architect. There have been several contractors and the total expenditure is something like £3,600 of which £3,000 has been raised. £400 of this sum was collected about eleven years ago by the late Fr. O’ Connell. The church is now complete with the exception of an organ loft and probably at some future time stained glass will be substituted for the present plain glass in all windows.

Bacchus Marsh Express

4th July 1874