One hundred years of history reflected in extraordinary community-built Kimberley ‘mother of pearl’ church


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August 12, 2018 13:50:37

With its stunning inlaid pearl shell altar making it arguably one of the most beautiful churches in Australia, the Sacred Heart Church at Beagle Bay on the Kimberley coast is celebrating 100 years of extraordinary history.

Located in the centre of the majority Aboriginal community on the Dampier Peninsula, the church has stood witness to world wars, the Stolen Generations, and Indigenous self-determination.

Gleaming white and often described as a slice of Germany in Australia’s far north-west, the church can seem incongruous to those who do not appreciate the long history of connection between Kimberley Aboriginal people and Catholicism.

The spectacular mother of pearl altar combines Catholic iconography with symbols of traditional Indigenous life, created in mosaic from gleaming pearl shell.

Visitors make trek up dirt track to see church

Assistant priest Christopher Knapman said the church always attracted a lot of attention from visitors who made the 150-kilometre drive north of Broome up a notoriously rough dirt track.

“We have so many people coming to visit Beagle Bay church,” Father Knapman said.

“I think that they’re most struck by the fact that we have this extraordinary church in what seems like the middle of nowhere.

“It came through a local community coming together, using their own local materials. They were dirt-poor, they had nothing to help them, and they built it with their own hands.”

Local parish priest Hilary Roti said the church was always busy, as a tourist attraction and a place of worship.

“On the weekends of course it’s full-on because we celebrate mass at 5 o’clock on Saturday. Sunday morning we have mass at 8 o’clock, and pretty much all of the people here have always been around the church,” Father Hilary said.

Monument to peace at a time of war

The church was built during WWI on the Dampier Peninsula, north of the pearling town of Broome.

The Catholic clergy had arrived in the Kimberley nearly three decades earlier, following pearl shell luggers and pastoralists.

Bishop of Broome and the Kimberley Christopher Saunders said the then-bishop of Perth sent priests and nuns to protect Aboriginal people from these frontier industries.

“The protectorate being to protect Aboriginal people on the land against the marauding pearlers, who were notorious in this neck of the woods for what is euphemistically called ‘blackbirding’,” Bishop Saunders said.

“It’s basically slavery.”

But the war with Germany brought intense pressure on the Beagle Bay mission, with the mostly German priests placed under house arrest and many working-age men leaving for Europe.

“In a moment of desperation Father Bachmair suggested to the community there, ‘We should build a church’,” Bishop Saunders said.

“So they began to build a church in 1915.”

The role of the German Father Bachmair instigating the building of an Australian church while under house arrest, as his native and adopted homes were at war, is the first of many dramatic stories behind the building.

“The church, as suggested by Bachmair, was to be a monument to peace,” Bishop Saunders said.

What Father Bachmair could not have known was that he had also instigated his own final resting place.

Four years later with the final touches being made, Father Bachmair became sick and died, making his funeral the first to be held in the church he had conceived.

Home for Stolen Generations

The Beagle Bay mission is well-known in the Kimberley as a place where children came to live after they were taken from their families across the region.

The policy of removing Indigenous children from their families brought people from up to 1,000km away into the country of the Nyul Nyul and Jabirr Jabirr people, who have lived in the Beagle Bay area for thousands of years.

“It was a simple extension in the minds of the missionaries to offer refuge to those children who were being herded up as a result of government policy,” Bishop Saunders said.

“In the middle of all that trial and all the tribulations, there forged a relationship between the missionaries and the people that was extraordinary.”

Sisters Leonie Kelly and Celine Howard reconcile some of the sadness of their families being split by forced removals with the connections that formed with nuns, priests and the traditional owners of the Beagle Bay area.

“We did not belong to this country, but they accepted us and took care of us,” Ms Kelly said.

The church was central to life on the mission, and the daily rituals helped connect people who had widely varied cultural backgrounds.

“They used to ring the bell and we used to say grace before lunch. We would stop what we were doing and say our prayers,” Ms Howard said.

“We loved that because we loved God and everyone else who was with the church.”

Overwhelming feeling of loss

In September 2000 Bishop Saunders took a phone call from the parish priest at Beagle Bay that he could not immediately comprehend.

“I said, ‘Say that again.’ And he said, ‘The tower of the church has fallen down’.”

The church, made from local clay and lime from crushed shells, had weathered 82 years of storms and cyclones.

“People remember that this church didn’t just happen. People built it and their hearts and their love went into it,” Bishop Saunders said.

“So when it collapsed there was a huge disappointment and an overwhelming feeling of loss.”

But in the midst of the devastation, people gathered around the Sacred Heart Church and the feeling of loss began to change into something else.

Community events raised funds, the rubble was cleared, and the belltower was rebuilt.

“We found all the bells to be intact, which was terrific,” Bishop Saunders said.

“To put them back into the tower and to have them peal as they once did, and to ring out across those plains that surround Beagle Bay was a very sweet sound.”

Celebrating history and the future

The Sacred Heart Church is central to the history of the Beagle Bay community, and the celebration of this history highlights the ongoing importance of the church, according to Bishop Saunders.

“If you were looking for an emblem, an icon that represented Beagle Bay, you can’t go past the church,” he said.

“There’s nothing like it in Australia, and I think it means a lot to the people living there, and I know the enthusiasm that is engendered at the moment for this 100th anniversary is good testimony to that.”

Topics:

reconciliation,

catholic,

stolen-generations,

indigenous-culture,

dampier-peninsula-6725,

broome-6725



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