A History of the Catholic Faith in Pennant Hills
by Tony Smith
Life was hard in the early days of our settlement. Disease, drought and poverty were constant threats to the early people in the Pennant Hills area only a few generations back. The challenge of keeping body and soul together meant coping with isolation, medical care or the things we now call the ‘necessities’ of life. More importantly for their souls, there was hardly a priest nearby to counsel them or strengthen their faith with the sacraments.
The Pennant Hills Timber-getting Establishment (1816 to 1831) that employed a total of 110 convicts, became the site of one of the area’s first chapels in 1820. It was built not by any organised church but by the superintendent of convicts, Patrick Kelly. In just six weeks with the assistance of two convicts, the former Irish carpenter succeeded in building in his spare time a chapel capable of seating 150. It was surely the most beautiful thing he did in his life; a small park in Bishop Avenue has been named after him.
The site of the chapel was close to that of the present Catholic church in Epping. Services were conducted by a former schoolmaster, Mr George Horne. Importantly, this early House of God was used for worship by all faiths – a great example of ecumenism. It is quite possible that Father Therry, the first Catholic chaplain authorised in the colony, said Mass there at some time because there were, as yet, no Catholic churches in Australia.
The 1841 census showed the Parish of South Colah, the government’s land division that included Pennant Hills, was home to 108 males and 70 females so the settlement was still extremely sparse in the district. Religious affiliations were recorded as Roman Catholic 82, Church of England 78, and Church of Scotland 18.
New South Wales may well have been colonised by protestant England but her judges found a very convenient way of reducing the pressure on Britain’s overcrowded gaols by transporting the country’s social flotsam, which included large numbers of impoverished Irish, to this remote land. As these became free settlers the colony assumed a higher Catholic population than the mother country, albeit at the lower end of the social scale.
Development of a Community
In these early years Pennant Hills was a large and ill-defined area. For example, the wharf at Ermington, used for shipping timber from the Hills, was even called Pennant Hills Wharf. Without priests or local tradition, the Catholic faithful of the area were equally indistinct and written records rare.
For important events, they made the trek to St. Patrick’s in Parramatta or St. Charles’ at Ryde. From 1824 the record of those who made their final pilgrimage can be found in those cemeteries. Thomas Meally, one of the early settlers in Pennant Hills, married and had four sons before being called for his last journey in 1855 to be buried by Fr. Coffey in Parramatta.
Others such as the Duffy and Maher families are remembered in the names of the streets near their properties. Edward Maher was an orchardist of some repute; he donated four acres of his land at North Rocks for use as a cemetery. The earliest graves there include his sister, buried in 1893. Sister Martha Mary Hunt, buried in 1894, was the first of many Mercy Sisters and Sisters of the Good Samaritan to follow, right up to the present time.
Bearing in mind the tough existence faced by the free settlers, it is interesting to find from the headstones that many in the Maher family lived into their 70s or 80s, while George Maher survived to 95. The cemetery in Parma Place, now in the Carlingford parish, is still in use today and well worth a visit. Towards the end of the nineteenth century, Mass was being celebrated in several private homes including the Duffy’s at Thornleigh and the Maher’s at West Pennant Hills. The west side of Pennant Hills came under the Parramatta parish but the northeast fell under Pymble. There are those who recall parents’ stories of the long journey to Christmas Mass at Pymble.
In 1886 the first track of the railway line reached Pennant Hills and the station opened on 5th April 1887. The iron horses changed forever the quiet of the bush and homesteads as the line moved steadily northwards to link Sydney with Hornsby, and eventually Newcastle and Brisbane. Previously, the settlement had been mainly around the Thompson’s Corner bakery where the road to Castle Hill left the Pennant Hills Road. This was where the military is alleged to have signalled the Governor’s movement between Sydney and Parramatta by raising a pennant, so giving the district its name. Others dispute that, saying it was really named after Sir Joseph Banks’ zoologist friend, Thomas Pennant. Whichever, the focal point of growth now shifted towards the railway line.
Had the Archbishop of Sydney, Cardinal Moran, had his way a further twist to events at this time might have occurred. The Vincentians had decided they needed a House of Missions as a base. In an effort to encourage their valuable work the Cardinal presented the order with 2 acres of land near Thompson’s Corner – no doubt the origin of Cardinal Avenue’s naming. However, circumstances at Balmain, Ashfield and Bathurst kept the Order overcommitted, though they kept their options open and later extended their holding considerably.
A groundswell of opinion was leading to the view that something should be done to build a church in Pennant Hills – and soon! Around 1895 the School of Arts at Thornleigh became the venue for a monthly Mass celebrated by a priest from Pymble. As the end of the century approached the search for a suitable site was on in earnest – but more on that score later.
Saint Joachim’s is established
Although Pennant Hills did not have a Catholic church at the end of the nineteenth century, the search for a suitable site was underway, with particular attention being paid to land close to the railway line where settlement had accelerated. The final choice settled on a corner block in Wells Street close to Thornleigh Station. Selection would have been influenced by the practicality of serving it from Pymble, in which parish it remained because a full-time priest could not yet be justified for the folk of Pennant Hills.
The Freeman’s Journal of 18 August 1901 reported that the little weatherboard church at Thornleigh was opened and blessed by His Eminence Cardinal Moran. Donations were generous and 76 pounds out of the total land and building cost of 246 pounds had already been received. Dedicated to Saint Joachim, father of Our Lady, the building survives to this day, now bearing the name of St. George and serving the Maronite community. Its excellent condition is a tribute to past and present users.
Fr Maurice Martin, the then Parish Priest, facilitated the purchase and building of a new combined Church/School, St Agatha’s On the Cnr of Pennant Hills & Boundary Reds Pennant Hills, with help of many Parishioners.
Further confirming their family’s spot in local history, the first weddings celebrated there were for the Duffy daughters – Venetta in 1901, soon followed by sister Charlotte.
Father Michael Kirby from Pymble announced at the church’s opening that it would double as a school and that the Sisters of Mercy from Waitara would start teaching within a few weeks. When the school opened on 27th August 1901 enrolments amounted to 60.
It was a considerable challenge for the Sisters to travel daily to Thornleigh for this small group and by 1910 classes, unfortunately, ceased, only to be resumed some years later. However, monthly Mass continued to be said.
The start of a long and warm association between Pennant Hills and the Redemptorist Fathers can be traced back to a well-attended Mission held at St. Joachim’s in the early days. The order later established their Provincial house in the area but at that time had travelled down from Mayfield to Newcastle.
In 1901, the first year of Federation, the Catholic population of NSW, according to the Australasian Catholic Directory, amounted to 298,100. To serve their needs there were 499 churches and 344 priests, so Pennant Hills, or at least Thornleigh, was by no means the only place to have a church but no priest!
In 1907 the parish priest of North Parramatta, Fr.J.J. Murphy, who had responsibility for the area right up to West Pennant Hills, wrote despairingly: “For the past nine months I have been struggling to collect sufficient money to erect even a Sunday School hall in Pennant Hills on the church land there, but as yet have not sufficient money to make a start with.”
That must have triggered something because, much to the joy of the patient people of West Pennant Hills, a small wooden church was built in 1908 on land owned by the Vincentians at the southeast corner of Pennant Hills Road and Cardinal Avenue. The timber used for the construction is believed, by Enid Slade, to have come from trees originally growing in the North Rocks Catholic Cemetery.
The church was named after St. Columbkille, founder of the Iona community. As with many names derived from other tongues, spelling seems to vary; some omit the ‘b’, others use a ‘c’ for the ‘k’. Furthermore, the English version, St. Columba, became used.
This was still not a parish church and services were celebrated fortnightly by priests from St. Michael’s at Baulkham Hills and St.Monica’s in North Parramatta. After Fr. Murphy, pastoral care fell to Frs. Doherty, Moore and Kelleher until St. Columba’s was formally handed over by Fr. M. McNamara to the new parish of Pennant Hills when it was created in 1928.
Though memories of the little church have faded, the Catholic heritage of this formerly Vincentian-owned land lives on in street names such as Church, Cardinal, Bishop and Dean. Although they gradually took their holding up to 76 acres, the Vincentians sold it all in 1926 to purchase Curzon Hall in Marsfield for their seminary.
The Good Samaritans Come
In 1924 there was a ruinous fire at the Central Novitiate of the Sisters of the Good Samaritan in Randwick. The 40 novices moved to temporary accommodation at a Balmain convent until a site was found to make a new start. Rural Pennant Hills was seen as attractive and an advanced group of three Sisters came in 1925 to live in a house that later became part of the convent. The present high position on the Regenbah property on Pennant Hills Road was purchased following the sale of the Randwick property.
The airy, solid brick building of the Mount Saint Benedict Novitiate was opened by Archbishop Kelly in 1926, Bathurst-born Mother Mary Berchmans leading the community until she died in 1931. The last survivor of the Balmain days, the much-loved Sr. Frances Borgia, spent her final years at Polding Villa, Glebe, until her death in 1995.
A Parish at Last.
Pennant Hills now had the Sisters and the Redemptorist Fathers, who had settled in a large house for their monastery in Hampden Road near the railway station during 1923. These features no doubt added weight to the case for the Bishop to form a parish. Epping had been established as a parish in 1916 and a new church was built there. Waitara has also created a separate parish encompassing Thornleigh, which enabled weekly Mass to be celebrated at St. Joachim’s in Thornleigh.
Finally, in 1928 the good news came: Pennant Hills had come of age and was henceforward to be considered a parish. Father Cornelius Lynch, who was also chaplain to the convent at Mount St. Benedict, was appointed as the founding parish priest. Until something better could be organised the little timber church of St. Columba’s had to be used as the parish church. That clearly had limitations!
The announcement in 1928 by Archbishop Kelly that Pennant Hills was to be a separate parish with Father Lynch as the priest in charge was a welcome sign of his confidence in the area. Until then, Pennant Hills and Thornleigh were in the Waitara parish while West
Pennant Hills came under North Parramatta.
Until he could organise a presbytery, Fr. Lynch was indebted to the Sisters at Mount St. Benedict for providing him with a home. One of our senior parishioners, Mrs Helen St. Julian recalls that it was an unpretentious little room next to the chapel. The fact that successive parish priests continued to live at the convent until the 1950s indicates the extent of the financial problems faced by the fledgling parish.
St. Columba’s at Thompson’s Corner, now assuming the role of the parish church. It was little more than a glorified hut, so the planning began for a more solid structure. By 1929 Fr. Lynch had decided the best site would be on three blocks facing Pennant Hills Road between Boundary Road and Trebor Street – sufficient land for a church, school and presbytery. The Archbishop approved. Sadly, the depression and the 1939-45 War limited funds, causing a frustrating delay before the building could start.
Ave Joachim, Vale Columba
The inconvenient location and white-ant infestation of St. Columba’s forced its closure in 1931. However, to ensure the parish had a house of worship the parish boundaries were revised on 8th December 1931 to take in part of Thornleigh including St. Joachim’s, thereby restoring a parish church. Fr. E. J. O’Brien, who briefly succeeded Fr. Lynch, called a meeting of parishioners and got their consent to sell off the iron roof of St. Columba’s and burn the timber. The parish paid three men, one of whom was an old soldier living there, to demolish it in October 1932.
St. Joachim’s once again doubled as a parish school, this time under the Sisters from Mt. St. Benedict. A commonly held memory of Sunday Mass there was of gross overcrowding and the enthusiastic efforts of sidemen packing in people like sardines to get the maximum number seated.
Parish priests were Fr. M. Farrell from 1933, followed by Fr. J. O’Flaherty in 1937. But the greatest impression was made by Fr. Maurice Martin, the pastor from 1941 until his death in 1960. As an extravert, he was a down-to-earth spirituality, and he became well known in the district. His habit of tossing lollies through the school windows at St. Joachim’s caused chaos for the teachers but made him very popular with the children! Altar servers also looked forward to the annual picnics he organised, while his home-grown cabbages were enjoyed by many a parishioner.
Just like his predecessors, Fr. Martin was continually reminded by the Archbishop that he had to build a church! As the tough post-war years moved into the 1950’s it finally became practicable and work got underway in 1954 on the site purchased over 10 years earlier. Under builder and parishioner Pat Berecry, who had also built St. Joachim’s, the red brick church rose to become a landmark on Pennant Hills Road, though not as close to the highway as it is today.
The original St. Agatha’s
As if to underline the value the church puts on education, the commemorative stone in the entrance of the church-come-school states that Cardinal Gilroy, Archbishop of Sydney, blessed and opened St. Agatha’s School on 21st November 1954. Until a separate school building could be afforded it could only be used as a church on weekends and St. Joachim’s continued to be used midweek.
Nothing has been found to explain the choice of St. Agatha as the parish patron, but there is a belief that it was because she featured in the history of the Redemptorists, who worked so faithfully in the parish over many years. Every Saturday the school was transformed into a church by parishioners moving the desks to one side and hulking in the heavy pews; after the last Mass on Sunday the reverse occurred. Sister Mary Gervase, the first Principal, soon found the school too cramped and a further building was erected; later the verandah on the Trebor Road side was enclosed, as we see it today in what is now the parish hall.
With church building underway, the priests moved into an old cottage in Boundary Road until a presbytery was built, but while still at the convent, one young curate became quite notorious for his habit of cycling around in brief shorts – even in the hallowed precincts of the convent. However, like Fr. Martin, his informality did much to break down barriers.
Ice Cream to go!
The first President of the Parents & Friends Committee was Wilfred Truelove. He and Secretary, Narelle Macken, vividly recall one of their most effective fund-raising efforts. The housing industry had embarked on a major promotion in West Pennant Hills using the Woman’s Weekly magazine. Big crowds came on the weekends and the P&F saw the opportunity for a refreshment stall in John Savage Crescent. In one month, they were told, they became the largest outlet for ice cream and soft drinks in the whole of Sydney! The St. Matthews Anglicans also shared in the venture.
When Fr. Martin died in 1960 he was succeeded by Fr. Thomas Keogh, a godly man who also had a great determination to win through against all odds. He was crippled with arthritis and in his later years found it taxing even to make his way into the sanctuary for Mass. One little child in answer to a question on what he thought God was like, replied to his teacher: “An old man with two sticks, always asking us to pick up papers!”
In 1959, the St. Vincent de Paul Society restarted (it had been active in the early days of St. Joachim’s); then came the CYO and scouting. Around this time, devotional organisations like the Holy Name Society, the Sacred Heart Sodality and Children of Mary flourished, while a Planned Giving program aided the financial concerns of the parish.
A Bright New Church
In September 1979 Fr. Denis Callahan came to St. Agatha’s from Blackheath in the Blue Mountains and a background that included a spell in New Guinea that had left its malarial legacy. He organised the building of the present church, further expansion of the school, and became our second-longest serving PP, quite fitting for someone so well versed in history and the classics.
On trivial pursuit evenings, he was in great demand! Under his guidance, the opening of the new church on 30th May 1982 was quite an event. The weather was fine and Cardinal Archbishop Freeman gave his blessing and joined with hundreds of parishioners in giving thanks to God for the bright new house of worship. “We now have enough room to worship in comfort and surrounded by beautiful trees and shrubs”, said Fr. Callahan.
There were copious refreshments after Mass and, as Mrs Joan Woods (one-time librarian and relief teacher) recalled, “It was wonderful to see so many local people, not just Catholics, join us in the celebration. We felt the parish, at last, had a church worthy of our great God and a credit to Pennant Hills.
Many parishioners contributed their talents. Stonemason, Maurie Baynie, built the altar and plinth for the tabernacle; Ted Hofman used his talent to craft the priest’s chair and other sanctuary woodwork; Valerie Swane and the Takchi family provided the landscaping; others helped in countless ways.
Over the years the parish priest and people have been helped by and helped train, many curates. One who left a lasting impression was Fr. Robert Borg, a big man in mind and body, who did much to demonstrate the joy of Christianity in action. Even after an embarrassing fall when he sat down on a chair that ‘wasn’t there’ during the solemn Easter ceremonies, he managed a wry smile before resuming Mass with dignity. Fr. Lex Johnson moved to the Cathedral and was honoured as a Monsignor while others found their vineyards in hospitals, the armed forces, or normal parish life. Another assistant priest, Fr. David Taylor, brought with him invaluable experience from the social welfare sector.
The Changing Face of a Parish
With the building boom of the 1980’s, and the growth of Cherrybrook in particular, the population of the parish expanded enormously. Its ethnic diversity was enriched with around thirty nationalities, including most Asian countries now represented in the congregation.
However, the first ‘new Australians’ to adopt the district in any number had come from Lebanon Back in 1925. Emily Baynie came as a young girl with her parents, Anthony and Elma from the village of Bann, or Bane, which gave rise to the family name. The Baynies helped numerous other villagers migrate and settle in Thornleigh. This culminated in 1989 with the purchase of St. Joachim’s church by the Maronite Catholics and its renaming as St. George’s. A current 2021 parishioner, John Baynie was a former pupil of St Joachim’s, and remembers “The timber church was both a church and primary school located at Yarrara Rd Thornleigh.” John Baynie was subsequently instituted into the “Order of the Acolyte”, as described by Bishop Muldoon (RIP) when he installed the first group of Acolytes, on the 20th December 1978. The parish subsequently became part of Broken Bay Diocese. John served for about 38 years as an Acolyte in Our Lady of the Rosary Parish, Waitara, before returning and retiring to Pennant Hills in 2016.
Even back in the early days, the Parish Priest relied heavily on his Committee to advise on whether St. Joachim’s should be extended or the money saved for a new church to be built. Social committees organised dances, raised funds and did much to bond parishioners, but the Vatican Council forced a quantum leap in the involvement of the laity in church affairs. A more democratically elected parish council was formed and a Parish Mission Statement was prepared.
An increasing Commitment
The role of Special Ministers of the Eucharist and acolytes was one of the more public signs of a maturing church but more significant was the role the laity was called upon to share in religious education. It is impossible to overestimate the value of the wonderful work done by today’s catechists in their visits to the schools in the district.
The underprivileged, sick, and aged of Pennant Hills benefit from the involvement of numerous parishioners in ministries as diverse as Careline, before and after-school care, family groups, playgroups, the ‘over-50’s’ club and, as ever, the powerhouse of the St. Vincent de Paul Society and prayer groups.
A significant step in the continuing evolution of the parish was the employment in 1982 of Sister Elizabeth, a Good Samaritan sister, as a full-time parish worker, focusing on supporting family life. She was succeeded progressively by Srs. Helen, Marie and Sue have focussed on adult education and sacramental programs. Mrs Colleen Shaw has played a vital role in almost every aspect of parish life as well as launching the wonderful Careline program that has been a life-saver for many in strife. Christ works through ordinary folk and He’s sure keeping them busy here!
Pennant Hills was one of the parishes that fell within the new diocese of Broken Bay when it was formed under Bishop Murphy in May 1986. The parish was bounded by Normanhurst to the north, Arcadia to the north-east, Castle Hill to the west, with Carlingford and Epping to the south.
The population is too large to be adequately ministered by one priest and a curate and consideration have been given at various times to building another church or establishing a Mass centre but, sadly, no solution is in sight. However, life goes on, and with 560 children at the parish school, St. Agatha’s is certain to continue to be seen as a valuable contributor to the historic Pennant Hills community.
I would like to express my thanks to Fr. Callahan and many parishioners who have given support in preparing this brief history. Acknowledgment is also made to the archivist at St. Mary’s Cathedral, the Sisters of the Good Samaritan, the Vincentians, and many publications that have served to put things in context. I hope that this simple record will help present and future generations realise that society is continuously shaped by the actions of ordinary people. We owe a debt of gratitude to our forebears but must share responsibility for the future. With God’s help, how can we fail!
Recent changes (including great historical images below)
by Malcolm Bocking
Recollection of the significant changes to the sanctuary of St Agatha’s, since it was originally completed in May 1982, include the following:
1. The installation of Venetian blinds to cover the glass side windows, about 1983.
2. The installation of ceiling fans and additional Sanctuary spotlights by Fr Denis in about 1985.
3. Replacement of presider’s chair with ‘heritage’ style version. Relocation of the modern green upholstered original to reconciliation room. (Probably 1990s.)
4. The initial removal and storage of the Baptismal font from the NE side, by Fr Denis, in about 1995, I think, to enlarge the choir space. The original location of the baptismal font is shown in the 1983 image attached.
5. The installation of roller shade screens to SW clerestory windows about 1995.
6. The installation of seating benches to pew frontals by Fr Vince about 1999.
7. The provision of roll screens for use with ‘data projector’, by Fr Vince about 2002.
8. The repainting of the ceiling and, the removal of the large pendant lights from the nave and the installation of the small high pendant lights in their place, by Fr Terry in about 2007.
9. Re-carpeting from light green to dark green by Fr Terry, in about 2007.
10. The installation of a ceiling-mounted projector and new Bose speaker system, by Fr Brian about 2009.
11. The installation of the NE side disability access step and handrail for celebrants and readers, by Fr Brian.
12. The re-installation of the Baptismal font by Fr Brian, in about 2010 or 2011, on the SW side and removal of the St Joachim’s heritage brass balustrade to storage.
13. Replacement of fluorescent tube lighting above pelmet with mercury vapour luminaires (timing unknown – maybe 2010)
14. The installation of air conditioning units to clerestory window areas on either side of the sanctuary and nave, Fr Paul in 2017
15. The removal of the organ speaker boxes, the installation of replacement speakers to SE loft area, and installation of flat AV screen to either side of the timber altar canopy or baldachin, by Fr Paul in 2018.
16. The removal of seating benches and pew frontals and their replacement by pews by Fr Paul in 2019 as part of the pew refurbishment project.
The names and dates above may be approximate. Some verification, based upon photographic records, is below. Prepared by Malcolm Bocking.
1. The tabernacle itself most recently moved from the original St Agatha’s church and was placed in its ‘alcove’ on the NW side of the altar immediately prior to the dedication of the new church in May 1982. Photographic evidence suggests it was previously that from St Joachim’s at Thornleigh but it may also be that St Joachim’s and St Agatha’s had identical tabernacles as the Pincini wedding appears to show tabernacle, in the photo labelled 5/5/1956, is similar to St Agatha’s first mass around 1954. See the 1954 photo attached. Others may be able to verify this detail.
2. The current crucifix behind the altar was made, as a heritage preservation gesture, from the original altar rails from the first St Agatha’s church, and installed prior to the dedication of the new St Agatha’s. Two images from David Hoffman’s post ordination thanksgiving Mass, 1980_02, in the original St Agatha’s show both the tabernacle and the altar rails
3. The figure of Christ on the crucifix is that from the Pennant Hills Road frontage of the original St Agatha’s church, which had been placed there as a memorial to Fr Maurice Martin who had died soon after its completion in 1954.
4. The brass altar rail posts at St Joachim’s are shown in images from 1953 and 1956 (modernised) attached and also as relocated to St Agatha’s, as a balustrade on the sanctuary LHS, in 1982 as imaged from Christmas 1987. (These are currently in storage).
5. The brass altar rail gates from the original St Agatha’s shown in early 1982 (attached) appear to have provided the Chi Ro or Chrismon now on the altar front (attached 1982_5 image) and also form part of the balustrade behind the altar server’s seat on the RHS of the sanctuary (1983 image attached). A 1961 image of the original St Agatha’s interior shows a different Chi Ro on the Lectern on the LHS of the sanctuary. The brass gates came later with a slender Chi Ro.
6. Full plans of St Agatha’s church as constructed in 1982 are not held by the parish. Further options to relocate plans exist but were derailed by Covid last year. An incomplete collection of sundry plans are held and three images showing plans 2,13 and 14 are attached. Plan 2 the initially proposed Floorplan shows an annotation where the tabernacle alcove is located but the details are illegible in the image attached. The Note is omitted from Plan 13, the Final floor plan. Mark Owens may now have had the plans currently held scanned in more detail and the Note mentioned as present on Plan 2 may be legible and of interest.
7. Stained glass windows were intended on either side of St Agatha’s sanctuary as shown on Plan 14 attached, but to this date have not been commissioned.
8. The existing two eight-sided altar ‘candle’ holders and the four similar ‘church dedication’ candleholders were commissioned by the church architects as part of the church construction.