Gunnedah was a small fledgling town when the first permanent Catholic priest was appointed to minister to the rapidly growing faith community.

The town had previously been visited by an Irish priest on horseback, Fr Tim McCarthy, who had amazingly travelled from Armidale as far out as Wee Waa, Warialda, Tenterfield and Tamworth.

An article in the Gunnedah Municipal Jubilee booklet of 1935, refers to the Catholic Church of the early 1870s as a “small brick structure” which was modified from the original and enlarged to encompass what is now St Joseph’s Hall built in 1876.

Gunnedah was still attached to the Maitland diocese when Fr Denis English was appointed Parish Priest in 1875. Fr English took the first steps to construct a new parish church. A correspondent in the Maitland Mercury and Hunter River General Advertiser in October 1875, reported that a benefit given by Ashton’s Circus Company to aid the Catholic Church building fund had been “an immense success in a pecuniary sense.

The circus was crowded by all classes of the community, evidencing the friendly relations that existed between the various religious bodies”. Mr Ashton had promised another benefit on his next visit to Gunnedah.

The Freeman’s Journal of May 13, 1876, described the arrival of the Bishop of Maitland, Dr Murray, to lay the foundation stone of the new church. The contractor was local builder JB Jones. Owing to the drought the people of the district had suffered heavy losses, but they still they came forward generously and a much larger sum was contributed than was expected.

The solemn blessing and formal opening was conducted by Bishop Murray, assisted by Fathers English and Foran.

The newspaper article said “the building was crammed to excess, fully 300 persons being in attendance, amongst whom were many of all persuasions”. The Bishop also took occasion to publicly thank those who, not being of the Catholic faith, had so generously assisted by their contributions in paying off the debt on the church.

He further expressed his gratitude and praise to the contractor Mr Jones “who had done more than was required of him, in order that the building should be more convenient to the congregation and the admirable manner in which he had completed the building and the work more pleasing to the eye”.

The Sisters of Mercy had arrived in 1879 and in 1888 an event totally new to Gunnedah was held in the little church, with the reception of four novices – Miss Leonard (Newcastle), in religion Sister Mary Joseph, Miss Kennedy (Morpeth), in religion Sister Mary Alacoque, Miss Susie Mary Clonan (Mary’s Mount, Gunnedah) in religion Sister Mary Stanislaus, Miss Kate Nowland (Gunnedah), in religion Sister Mary Aloysius.

With a rapidly growing town population and increasing number of parishioners at St Joseph’s, the tiny church had become inadequate for the needs of the faith community and plans to build a larger church were undertaken by a gentle Irish priest, Fr Daniel Keane.

Fr Daniel Keane was appointed Parish Priest in 1918.

When he was appointed Parish Priest in 1918 he set about building the new church, beginning with funds already raised in the community through balls, bazaars and socials.

A newspaper article in the Catholic Press of July 18, 1918 reported with great enthusiasm the arrival Bishop Dr PJ O’Connor, Bishop of Armidale, to lay the foundation stone of the new church “before a large and representative gathering of citizens” on July 7, 1918. The building was completed the following year.

The architect for the building was FJ Bishop and the contractor M. Audet, with Walter Westerweller, of Gunnedah, the builder. The bricks came from the Armidale Brickworks and are similar to those of Saints Mary and Joseph Cathedral in that city.

The article reported that the building committee had encountered many difficulties as a result of the war and defective seasons, but “by sheer pertinacity and persistent determination the fine sum of £3546 was received before the date allotted for laying the foundation stone”. As the contract price was £4417 there was a balance of £960 10s 2d remaining, without allowing for sums promised.

Fr Keane’s vision for the future needs of his flock came at a time when local residents were grieving the loss of so many young men on the battlefields of France and Gallipoli in World War I. The beautiful Gothic building literally became a memorial to those lost in the Great War with the Stations of the Cross dedicated to loved ones who never came home. The 14 stations cost 10 pounds ($20) each and the cost of the exquisite stained-glass windows on both sides of the church, telling the story of St Joseph, was offset by private donations costing alternately 60 and 47 pounds each.

The window of the crucifixion above the altar, costing 65 pounds, was donated by Fr Keane in memory of his parents, with a side panel in memory of William Keys, and the other donated by the Nowland family in memory of their parents, costing 59 pounds and 10 shillings each.

A newspaper report in the Catholic Press dated July 17, 1919, described the solemn blessing and dedication of St Joseph’s Church Gunnedah, on Sunday, June 22, 1919, by Bishop Dr O’Connor, Bishop of Armidale, “in the presence of a crowded congregation”.

The article went on to describe St Cecelia’s Mass, “beautifully rendered by a full choir of the Sisters of Mercy, the offertory piece being an Ave Maria and after the consecration the O Cor Amoris was sung with violin and viola obligato”.

The article continued: “The building was begun when the disastrous European war was raging most fiercely. It was continued during the most droughty conditions that have ever affected the district, and it is now being completed during this dreadful epidemic, which has caused panic throughout the country”.

Father Keane then read a list of donations received since the laying of the foundation stone, and after thanking all those who “from the outset, by their generous contributions, made possible the erection of the church, he referred to the various gifts, which form so striking a feature of its furnishing and ornamentation”.

The church was described as ‘purely Gothic throughout, consisting of a nave, 75ft by 35ft, sanctuary 23ft by 20ft; a nuns’ chapel, 15ft by 15ft; and a 35ft by 19ft gallery, with the foundations of reinforced concrete girder principle and the superstructure of brick with hollow walls, the outer portion being picked Armidale white bricks’.

The architect was FJ Bishop and the contractor M. Audet. The terrazzo flooring was laid by the firm of Melocco Brothers, of Sydney, and the altar, windows, Stations of the Cross, statuary and metalware were supplied by Pellegrini & Co. of Sydney and Melbourne.

Early photos depict the original presbytery on the block to the east of the 1876 church on the Henry Street side. According to an article in the Maitland Mercury and Hunter River General Advertiser, dated July 5, 1877, the contractor was James Eames, who met with a severe accident by falling from a scaffold during construction.

This building proved to be inadequate by the early 1920s and a decision was made to purchase the property known as Loloma, constructed by a local solicitor and former mayor, Horatio Hogarth on a block behind the church.

On Sunday, October 31, 1926, the building was blessed by the Bishop, Dr O’Connor, and the clergy lived there until the current presbytery was constructed in 1937.

A stone at the front of the presbytery reveals that it was blessed and opened by Bishop JA Coleman DD, Bishop of Armidale on October 17, 1937. The architect was EA Tolhurst and the builder PJ Knudson.

The iron gates to the church were donated by the Goodwin family, of Ruvigne, in memory of their son who was killed in a car accident near Carroll. The gates bear the inscription: “In memory of John Alexander Goodwin, presented by his mother, Mrs ES Goodwin, July 1929”.

Bishop Dr PJ O’Connor, Bishop of Armidale, laying the foundation stone of the new church in Gunnedah “before a large gathering of citizens” on July 7, 1918.

Charles Worthington, the father of current parishioner Peter Worthington, designed the imposing brick, iron and cement fence, erected to replace the original picket fence. The magnificent ironwork on the fence was manufactured by local firm Oscar Mirow and Sons and the brickwork was completed by Kruger Babbage, with the ornate gates created by Edmund Pye. The gates were blessed and opened by Dr Coleman, Adjutor Bishop of Armidale, who described them as “a fitting finish to the beautiful Gothic church”. After the blessing had been carried out, Fr Keane handed the bishop a golden key to open the gates before the procession moved into the church for Benediction.

Originally parishioners would enter the church through the front doors facing Conadilly Street, the portico was added around 1936/37 when the presbytery was under construction.

It is understood that Fr Keane had inherited money from his family in Ireland and it was this that he used to fund the construction of the porch on the church and to purchase many other items.

A man of vision, Fr Keane worked hard to raise funds for his futuristic plans but was also meticulous in his bookkeeping, recording all income and expenditure.

When Fr Keane died in 1944, the funeral procession reached from the church to the Hunter Street cemetery. All shops and offices were closed as a tribute to a great citizen.

The impact of Fr Keane’s death on the whole community of Gunnedah was reflected in a full-page description of his life and devotion to those he served, along with a moving tribute from the Bishop of Armidale, JA Coleman.

The original marble altar was replaced by a timber altar constructed by men of the parish from kneelers in the pews when the church was renovated in 1992. This altar was used for the first time at the ordination Mass of Fr Anthony Kennedy on August 1 that year.

In 2018 the church underwent a major renovation for the centenary of the laying of the foundation stone, when Fr John McHugh was parish priest. The pews were altered to create two aisles instead of the central aisle and the war memorial Stations of the Cross were restored.

The new altar erected for the centenary of the laying of the foundation stone in 2018 was prepared from rescued sections of the original altar and the altar rails and gates, and was created by Lamistone Tamworth.

Hundreds of former parishioners returned to celebrate with Bishop Michael Kennedy dedicating the new altar and laying a relic of Australia’s first Saint, Mary McKillip into the centre. A commemorative plaque was laid at the church entrance.

A comprehensive history of St Joseph’s was prepared for the centenary, with booklets available at the presbytery. Today, St Joseph’s parish is administered by Fr Abmar Dumayag, with the fifth generation of parishioners now attending Mass in this historic building.

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