St Joseph's Parish, O'Connor
View of the St Joseph's Convent building
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61 Boronia Drive, O'Connor ACT 2602
Fr Paul Nulley
(02) 6247 5957


Some History of St. Joseph’s Parish, O’Connor

By Jack Monaghan and Anne Rosewarne

In the early 1950s Catholic residents of Turner and O’Connor, used to attending Sunday Mass in the Convent School at Braddon, welcomed the erection of St. Patrick’s Church and the concomitant establishment of Canberra’s second parish. Fr. Stan O’Donnell was the first Parish Priest of St. Patrick’s and his domain covered everything north of the Molonglo River. We were happy to be members.

Before long Fr. O’Donnell could see that further development would be needed. Population was expanding rapidly. The Public Service was growing and, particularly in the western half, many assisted migrants were being housed here. We were developing a sizeable Polish community, while substantial numbers were coming in from Croatia, Italy, the Netherlands, and many other European countries. We were multi-cultural.

The Government approved the lease of a large area between Macarthur Avenue and Boronia Drive. A school, designed to serve also as a church, was built near the eastern end of the block. A house in Boronia Drive was purchased and extended. In 1956 the Sisters of St. Joseph of North Goulburn came to teach at the new St. Joseph’s School. 

For some years, until their Convent was built adjacent to the school, six sisters lived in the house in Boronia Drive. The accommodation might fairly be described as basic. A remarkable woman, the late Sister Mary St. Jude, combined the roles of head of the Community house and Principal of the school. She helped her colleagues cope with the stresses of both. 

Much development work was required in the school grounds. Drainage of the low-lying area was a priority, as was the paving of the entrance and assembly areas. A major project was the acquisition and restoration of a large old hut, similar to the O’Connor Scout Hall. A kitchen was built at one end. In the remaining area the floor was polished and seating provided along the walls. The building was to serve school and parish purposes for fifteen years, until the time when major extensions to the school made it redundant.

Most of this work was accomplished with supervised voluntary labour.

In 1959 we were cut adrift from St. Patrick’s Parish. O’Connor was one of Canberra’s first suburban parishes. Many more were to follow. The Apostolic Nuncio of the time was heard to remark that the spread of churches in Canberra reminded him of the Acts of the Apostles.

While we were still part of St. Patrick’s Parish Sunday Mass was celebrated here by Fr. Paul Bateman, an assistant Priest at St. Patrick’s. Also, a Polish Mass was celebrated by the Polish Chaplain. Now, Fr. William O’Shea was appointed as our first Parish Priest, and Fr. Bateman was transferred to St. Joseph’s. The Polish Chaplain continued to serve the Polish community and also gave some assistance in the parish.

Our new parish comprised the suburbs of O’Connor and Lyneham and the village of Hall. Fr. O’Donnell had managed to retain Turner and Acton, his motivation being that many of his staunchest parish workers lived there. Several decades were to pass before those suburbs were transferred to St. Joseph’s Parish while Hall then reverted to St. Patrick’s.

Fr. O’Shea did not take up his position immediately, as Archbishop O’Brien wished him to continue for a time in his previous role as Archdiocesan Inspector of Schools. For our first two years Fr. Lloyd Reynolds was the Parish Administrator.

There we were, we had inherited the Church-school and its hut, the house in Boronia Drive, the historic stone church at Hall, the extensive leasehold, not much in the way of financial resources and a debt of £36.000.00. For a time, working bees and fund-raising activities were the order of the day. In 1962 we successfully introduced the Canvass, or planned giving.

Meanwhile the school had some high points. For instance, girls of sturdy European stock formed a formidable basketball team (nowadays, net ball) which dominated the Catholic schools’ competition. In 1962 St. Joseph’s had its first success in the swimming pool, winning the Catholic Primary Schools swimming competition.

But there were problems. Some were manageable, like the unreliability of the kerosene heaters used to warm the classrooms. Much more importantly, within two years of its establishment the school was overwhelmed by the volume of enrolments. The Sisters coped with class sizes that were almost beyond belief.

A decision was made at Archdiocesan level to establish a second school in the parish. As well as the problem of overcrowding at St. Joseph’s there was an understanding that Government agencies were planning early residential development to the north of Lyneham. A lease of land was obtained near St. Ninian’s Church in Lyneham and St. Michael’s school was opened in 1965 (?). The school was conducted by Sisters of the Ursuline Order.

A decade later, changing demographics led to a decline in school enrolments. The expected development north of Lyneham was yet to come. There was no longer a need for two schools. Amid a deal of hurt and heartburning, and some acrimony, St. Michael’s school was eventually closed.

Through much of the 1960s and early 1970s a well-supported weekly housie night was conducted in the Parish. After the end of the evening the men who ran it would put the loose change towards the purchase of two lottery tickets - one for them and one for the parish.

In 1972 one such ticket won the Sydney Opera House Lottery prize of £200,000.00. It is a tribute to the honesty and unselfishness of those men that they confirmed it was the parish’s ticket that won the prize.

After some deliberation Fr. O’Shea secured Archdiocesan approval to commission leading architect Kevin Curtin to design a church, to be built towards the western end of the leasehold. The resultant St. Joseph’s Church is considered to be Curtin’s finest work in Canberra. As the church was completed free of debt it was consecrated by Archbishop Cahill at its opening in October 1973.

An important local touch is that the Church is constructed of Canberra blue stone. But Fr. O’Shea contrived to persuade Curtin to introduce significant links with the priest’s native Ireland. Thus, the ground plan of the church is the outline of a Celtic cross. Another Celtic cross is to be seen atop the church tower.

Not the least distinctive features of the church are the Irish stained-glass windows flanking the Sanctuary. They were produced by the celebrated Dublin studio of Harry Clark. Fr. O’Shea chose the designs, from options proffered by Clark. The Mary window is a Clark standard, to be seen also in churches overseas.

Another distinctive feature is the altar. Conceived by Fr. O’Shea, designed by Canberra architect Morrie Mitchell and built by a local craftsman, it is an artistic representation of Christ at the centre of His Church. The Altar is in the shape of a ship- “the barque of Peter.” The monogram amidships comprises the Greek letters Chi and Rho bracketed by Alpha and Omega. In other words “Christ, the beginning and end of everything”.

The altar incorporates another link with Ireland. In the marble table topping the altar, adjacent to the relic, there is embedded an authentic segment of “Mass rock” from County Kerry.  It is a memorial of the grim times of the Penal Laws in Ireland, when Mass had to be celebrated in secret. The last celebrant of Mass on this rock, Fr. Thaddeus Moriarty, was captured and hanged, drawn and quartered. 

The large stained-glass windows at the front of the church were designed and installed by distinguished artist Leonard French. French proposed his geometrical design as a complement to Clark’s traditional representations.

The mosaics were designed and installed by Dominican Priest, Fr. Maurice Keating. The design of the gold framing of Our Lady of Perpetual Succour derives from a home holy water font. The representation of the Holy Spirit was inspired by a work of Leonard French in one of the ANU Colleges.

In 1977 ill-health forced Fr. O’Shea’s retirement. He was succeeded by Fr. John Bartley. Among notable developments in Fr. Bartley’s time was the addition of the stained-glass work at the base of the tower. It provides a stylised representation of the Holy Trinity – the Burning Bush, The Crown of Thorns and the Dove. It may be that parish records will disclose the name of the artist.

Fr. Bartley oversaw the construction of a substantial building, known as the Parish Centre. It was clad in Canberra bluestone to match the church. It was located between the church and Boronia Drive. This centre was the focal point of many parish activities for over two decades until it was destroyed in the 2007 fires. 

In February 1986 Jim Monaghan, a resident of South Australia but a native of O’Connor, was ordained to the priesthood in St. Joseph’s Church by the then Bishop of Port Pirie, Peter de Campo. 

Later in 1986 the parish was able to take a significant part in the celebration of the visit of Pope John Paul VI.

Due to his ill health, Fr. Bartley retired in 1987. Fr. Vince Pierce was then appointed as Parish Priest

During the time Fr. Pierce was here, the frames of the stained-glass windows were replaced, as the original frames were beginning to bulge. The Clark windows were of such historical significance that they needed to be protected. At around this time the parish Pastoral Council approved assistance in resettling Vietnam refugees. A number of these people still reside in the parish and have been involved in Parish affairs.

During this time a number of Catholic men from the Parish were trained as Acolytes. Also readers were recruited to read at Mass.

When Fr. Vince Pierce retired, Fr William Kennedy was appointed as Parish Priest. It was with the understanding the Parish would be his until he decided to retire. 

Fr. Kennedy was very quick to recruit people to assist him as Extraordinary Ministers of the Eucharist. He also called a Parish Meeting to form Family Groups in the Parish. There were three groups, each comprised between twenty and thirty people. Fr. Kennedy was first in forming Parish based Family groups in parishes. The aim of these groups was not just to foster friendship among parishioners, but also to provide safe places of hospitality for the Priest. When he retired, sadly there remained only a remnant of the original groups, merged into one, death having taken most of the original members.

On the Feast of Mary McKillop In in August 2007, the Parish was devastated by fires which had been deliberately lit which totally destroyed the Parish Centre, and did an extraordinary amount of damage to the roof and interior of the Church. Remarkably the stained-glass windows were unscathed, while the altar and the wood-worK behind it sustained barely perceptible damage.

Fr. Kennedy was devastated by the fires. Particularly as he had suffered a brutal attack on his person outside the Church only a few years before. He could have died, only for the vigilance of members of the St. Vincent de Paul Conference, who found him and with two doctors present were able to administer first aid, and get him to the hospital.

Sadly, in the first week following the fire, the Church was not secured. So while Fr. Kennedy was able to enter and remove the Sacred Vessels including the Blessed Sacrament to a safe place, thieves also entered and took all the brass vases and candle sticks and the beautiful hand crafted sanctuary light fitting. They also commenced to remove brass fittings from the windows.

Once the site had been secured but before any demolition work began, it became obvious that within the debris of the Parish Centre a low corner kitchen cupboard which had two brick walls around it was not burnt.

A workman on the site was persuaded to go in and he was able to remove, a blackened menorah, which was able to be cleaned and is still in use today (A menorah is a type of candelabra, a symbol of Jewish faith or religion. Christianity has its roots in the Jewish faith). He also retrieved a bottle of altar wine and a bottle of olive oil. More astonishing still, a very black but heavy plastic bag was removed. It contained one dozen new table cloths, which were removed untouched by the fire. They too are still in use today.

After about 18 months of reconstruction work, the Church was finally reopened and blessed by Archbishop Coleridge on the Feast Day of St. Joseph in 2009. Fr, Kennedy went on to serve as Parish Priest until his retirement in September 2016.

Fr. Paul Nulley was the appointed as Parish Priest. However, he did not take up this appointment until January 2017. During the intervening few months, the Parish was administrated by the Vicar General, Fr. Tony Percy. He commissioned a full refurbishment of the sixty odd year old presbytery residence.  At the same time that this was taking place, due to an agreement reached with Fr. Kennedy while still in the Parish and with approval of what remained of the Parish Pastoral Council, The Syro-Malabar Community was to share our Church buildings. Fr. Matthew was their Parish Priest, and both he and Fr. Nulley lived in the Archbishop’s house until the presbytery refurbishment was completed in August 2016. Fr, Matthew has rooms of his own, but shares kitchen and living areas. Fr. Nulley is now able to offer hospitality to priests and seminarians who might be visiting or passing through. St. Joseph’s Parish continues to thrive under Fr. Paul Nulley’s supervision. A new and very enthusiastic Parish Pastoral Council has been formed with separate Finance Committee. A number of new initiatives has been introduced, along with faith-based groups who meet regularly.

July 2018


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