Parish History

Our parish history

Nowra Parish, founded 1863

When the Illawarra Mission was established in 1838, Fr John Rigney made monthly visits to the Shoalhaven, to celebrate Mass and the sacraments. In the 1840s a wooden building was constructed in Nowra to serve as a Mass chapel and as the first school. This wooden building was in the paddock opposite the present presbytery. The 1841 Catholic Directory noted that there were an estimated 150 Catholics in the Shoalhaven district and that an average of 80 attended the monthly Mass. It is recorded that there were people from the Shoalhaven in Wollongong on 13.10.1840 for the laying of the foundation stone for St Francis Xavier’s. From 1846, a Belgian priest, Fr Peter Young OSB had the care of the Illawarra Mission, until becoming the first parish priest of Kiama in 1852.


The original Presbytery at Numbaa via Nowra (1860's).

Yhe parish of Shoalhaven-Ulladulla was established in 1863 with Fr David D’Arcy being the first resident priest. Two years later, it is recorded that the Mass centre at Nowra was rebuilt and it was to remain the Mass centre for Nowra for another twelve years. At this stage, however, it was still thought that Numbaa would be the centre for the Shoalhaven parish; but the Shoalhaven River floods of the 1860s and 1870s caused the main settlement to move to Nowra. Because of that, the building of the church at Numbaa, for which a foundation stone had been laid in 1869, did not proceed. The original presbytery at Numbaa, given to the Church by David Berry, still stands. There were, besides, Catholic schools at Brundee, Terara, Pyree and Ulladulla, each being a small denominational school.

Meanwhile, the other centres also constructed their own church buildings. The original Kangaroo Valley church, with accommodation for only 30, was built in 1874. Broughton Creek also had a Mass chapel, with a monthly Mass,but only in a fair state of repair in 1872. Then, in November, 1875, Archbishop Vaughan laid the foundation stone of St. Michael’s Church Nowra. He later blessed and opened it on 30th of September, 1877, its cost having been 1,200 pounds. Two years later, land was purchased at Berry, and 21.3.84 saw the opening of the new church there. The first Nowra presbytery was to cost 295 pounds. It was later to serve as the first convent from 1893-1905.

A Catholic Year Book of 1882 records that the churches in the Shoalhaven parish were: St Michael’s, Nowra; St Patrick’s, Broughton Creek; St Mary’s, Ulladulla and St Joseph’s, Kangaroo Valley. There were also Mass stations at Greenwell Point, Coolangatta, Milton and Woodburn. Weekday Mass was in the church at 9am and sometimes in the presbytery (which was still at Numbaa). The Catholic population was estimated to be about 1,200. Tragedy, however, was to strike, with the drowning of both Nowra’s priests at Kendall’s Beach, Kiama, in 1883. The following is an extract from an article in the Australasian Catholic Record of 1968 by Fr Roger Wynne:

‘Although the Illawarra was kind to Archbishop Vaughan it did provide him with some of the saddest moments of his ten years sojourn in Australia. Early in 1883, taking with him as a travelling companion Father Riordan of Kiama, he had set out on a long visitation of the southern portion of the diocese that was to take him as far afield as Cooma. News of his impending departure for Europe in April had gone before him, turning the visitation in many centres into what the papers called remarkable demon­strations of affection and loyalty. At Kiama, which was being looked after temporarily by the young assistant priest from Shoalhaven, Father Patrick Clarke, a particularly warm welcome had been arranged. When His Grace arrived, accompanied by Father Riordan and Father Ryan of Albion Park, he was received by Father Clarke and Father Clarke’s pastor, Michael McGrath, who had ridden up from Nowra to pay his respects and escort the Archbishop on the next stage of his journey. For the Archbishop, wearied by years of unremit­ting labours and bitter controversies and already showing signs of the heart condition that was so soon to cut short his brilliant career, the prospect of a few days’ relaxation in the salubrious environment of the South Coast’s prettiest little township must have been eagerly anticipated. But, alas, such hopes were not to be realised. For the weary wayfarer there was to be no rest, no relaxation.

The following day was Friday, January 12, 1883. About eleven o’clock on that fateful morning, taking advantage of a brief lull in visitation activities, Fathers McGrath, Clarke and Ryan decided to seek relief from the oppressive humidity in the cool refreshing surf that so invitingly lapped the presbytery grounds. Strangers, all of them, to the locality, with only one objective in mind, a quiet spot away from the public gaze, they little realised as they strolled light-heartedly over the historic headland that old Andy Byrne of Appin had sold to Henry Kendall’s grandfather nearly sixty years before, that the spot they were selecting was, in fact, long notorious for its treacherous rips and undercurrents.


Picture: Monsignor John Purcell (Nowra) - greeting the new Bishop, William Murray - July 1975, watched by Mgr E. Downey.

Arrived at Kendalls beach, Father Ryan took one look at its angry mood and decided to continue his stroll along the headland while his companions entered the surf. Returning a little later, he sensed at once that something very serious was the matter; the younger priest appeared to be drowning despite the frantic efforts of his companion to keep him afloat. Immediately the alarm was raised and Dr John Caird, whose house was nearby, was one of the first on the scene. With remarkable courage for which he was afterwards publicly commended, the doctor removed his outer clothing and dived in to the rescue, only to be beaten back again and again on to the sharp rocks. Meanwhile word had been rushed to the presbytery and Dr Vaughan had come hurrying down, a lonely figure as he took his stand among the ever increasing number of spec­tators and raised his arms to impart an absolution and blessing to the drowning priests.

Eventually a rope was procured and with its help Dr Caird and Father Riordan succeeded in recovering the bodies. That night they rested side by side in the little church of Ss Peter and Paul while their sorrowing parishioners of Kiama and Shoalhaven contended in friendly rivalry for their permanent possession. As neither party was willing to yield to the claims of the other, his Grace diplomatically settled the argument by suggesting a most acceptable compromise.

“And when at last with plumes reversed and horses stepping slow, they followed on behind their dead the way all men must go."

The funeral procession to the Gerringong cemetery, stretched for half a mile and included, as well as hundreds of men on foot and on horseback, every type of vehicle from stately coach to humble farm cart. In the crowded graveyard the air was hot and stifling and it was observed that the Archbishop looked pale and very tired as he read the burial prayers and spoke feelingly of the tragic loss the diocese had sustained in the deaths of two such excellent priests, one aged 35, the other 26. One sentence he used was remembered and quoted with poignant aptness some seven months later when news of his own sudden death flashed across the world: “Called away when, as it seemed, their life-work was but beginning, they did not live their lives in vain."

On the 8 October 1887, the present presbytery was opened, having cost 900 pounds. In 1888 the Sisters of St Joseph arrived in Berry and commenced their school the following year, for 48 children. The same year saw the opening of the present St Joseph’s Church, Kangaroo Valley, at a cost of 849 pounds. It replaced the small wooden building in the same grounds. There is a small cemetery near to the church.

There are few major events between that opening and the building of the new convent in 1905. The brick school-hall was opened on 21 April 1918, having cost 3,076 pounds. On the 6th of November 1921, two events took place. The first was the blessing and opening of the extensions of St Michael’s Church, Nowra. Twenty feet were added to the length of the church, the gallery was constructed and the shingles on the roof were replaced by tiles. The extensions were in harmony with the fabric of the church. The cost had been 1,660 pounds. Later that day, there was the blessing of the foundation stone of the new convent at Berry. The new church at Berry was opened in 1936.

The next parish priest, Rev. Mgr John Purcell arrived in December 1956. He immediately embarked on an extensive programme of school building, then church extensions and renovations: in 1959, the building of Sacred Heart Church, Bomaderry; in 1963, further liturgical renovations to St Michael’s in 1969; the building of Our Lady, Help of Christians’ Church, Culburra in 1978; Holy Spirit Church, Vincentia, in 1983 and then (at 86 years of age) the re-establishment of a Catholic High School in Nowra, with St John the Evangelist High School. With the introduction of the Wyndham System which broadened the Secondary Curriculum and with little Government financial assistance then, the 60’s proved a decade of pressure. St Michael’s High School closed in 1967. With over 9,000 Catholics, six churches, three other Mass centres and over 600 children in St Michael’s School (now 21 classrooms), much has been achieved in this very extensive parish in 125 years. Some sadnesses have also been experienced. The Sisters of St Joseph left Berry in 1978, and St Patrick’s School closed the following year. One comment alone could perhaps say all that is needed regarding the Parish of Nowra. Virtually every priest who has served in Nowra, especially among the many “Curates" of Mgr. Purcell, would call the parish “unique". Unique in the commitment of the faithful, unique in the numbers who attend Mass, unique in the personality and humour of its longest serving pastor, Mgr. John Purcell.

The current parish priest, Rev Patrick J. Faherty replaced “the Mons" in 1993.