When Spanish Benedictine Rosendo Salvado arrived in the small Avon Valley town of York in May 1854, accompanied by his compatriot Raphael Martelli, he set about a task that has proved of great significance for the history of Catholicism in Western Australia.
Salvado’s task was to take a census of all the Catholics living in the district. He had already done the same in the south west of the colony at Dardanup and Bunbury and also at Toodyay and Northam.
Salvado’s census showed that the Catholic population of the town of York was 136.
There were a small number of families and a large number of single men and women. It was the third largest population of Catholics in the colony after Perth and Fremantle. Many of the men on Salvado’s list were convicts transported from Ireland and many of the women and girls were indentured immigrants, also from Ireland, escaping the Potato Famine that had decimated large areas of rural Ireland and whose future lay as servants to the English settlers of York and as the wives of convicts who had served their time.
A Catholic congregation had been formed in York by the middle of 1852, led by Irish Pensioner Guard James Whitely, his wife Johanna and Irish catechist William Fowler. The first Masses were held in Whitely’s small cottage in Pool Street.
Priests from Perth and New Norcia came regularly to carry out baptisms and marriages and officiate at burial services, but naturally enough, the members of the Church desperately wanted a priest to be permanently based in York – and also for a church to be built. But the severe shortage of active priests in the Swan River Colony meant that it would be a number of years before any action could be taken in this direction.
The first priest appointed to the Eastern Districts, as the Avon Valley was known, was Canon Raphael Martelli. With no church to hold services and no house to live in, Martelli’s task was not easy. He was to begin the process of getting a church built both in York and Toodyay; but in York, even after two years of struggling to raise funds from the poverty-stricken congregation, a church had still not been erected.
It was not until the appointment of another Benedictine priest, Fr Francisco Salvadó, that the building of a church in York proceeded, but only after severe hardship both for the priest and the congregation.
On St Patrick’s Day, March 17, 1859, the Apostolic administrator of the Perth Diocese, Joseph Serra, came to York to lay the foundation stone for the first church of St Patrick. It was a day of high emotion for York Catholics who, after years of expectations, saw the beginnings of a physical and permanent presence in which they could express their faith. Exactly one year later on March 17, 1860, St Patrick’s Church was opened and dedicated for services by the man who was later to become Bishop of Perth, Fr Martin Griver.
On March 15, 2009, the Catholic congregation of York will celebrate the 150th anniversary of the laying of the foundation stone of the first Church of St Patrick by Joseph Serra and they will remember those early Irish Catholics and the selfless labours of the early Benedictine priests. It will also be an occasion to remember the long history and development of the Church since 1852.
While the first Church of St Patrick in York took a number of years to bring to fruition it was nothing compared to the construction of the new Church of St Patrick which took more than 10 years to complete from 1874 to 1886. In 1868, an Irish priest, newly arrived from Dublin was appointed parish priest to York – Patrick Joseph Gibney, brother to the then Vicar General Matthew Gibney. Fr Patrick Gibney was a visionary and a builder, in the same mould as Fr John Hawes. He embarked on a development program that was to thrust York to the forefront of the country parishes. A convent, school and presbytery were built, and over a period of 10 years a new church – a new St Patrick’s.
The construction of the new Church of St Patrick at York coincided with a blossoming of the Catholic faith in Western Australia. Catholics in York and elsewhere began to see themselves not as an impoverished and persecuted minority but as a vibrant and progressive community that took their place in the wider society, expressing their desire for representative government and gaining acceptance in their need for an exclusive Catholic education.
Since those early days, successive congregations in York have seen a steady development of their church. The present generation of York Catholics have inherited a noble history, a history of struggle and fine achievements brought about through the efforts of the men and women who, more than anything, sought to plant their faith firmly in the society in which they lived.