History of Our Parish
The first Mass celebrated in this district was on Sunday, 20 January, 1907, when the Bunnerong school-church of Our Lady of the Rosary was blessed and opened by Archbishop Kelly on donated land now known as 45 Perry St, Matraville. At that time, Bunnerong village (the name of the suburb changed to Matraville in 1936) was part of the Randwick Parish District with only a small, scattered Catholic population. It was believed that if a church was built it would not only ease the difficulty of families attending Mass but should assist in attracting more settlers to the area. The wooden school-church was described in The Freeman’s Journal as unpretentious but “serviceable and ample enough to meet present needs.”
School began on 29 January, 1907 with about forty-six pupils taught by two nuns from the North Botany community of the Daughters of Our Lady of the Sacred Heart.
Just a few weeks later, on 1 March, 1907, a new parish of Botany was declared and Bunnerong village was included within the new Botany boundary. The Botany-Bunnerong area at that time was an isolated outer reach of Sydney. Forced by economic circumstances beyond the established suburbs, these new Bunnerong residents set up their tents or humble make-shift homes in the empty areas of open sandhills.
In The History of the Australian Province, circa 1911, mention is made of the Bunnerong School: “No mission could have been harder than this teaching at Bunnerong in the early days of the wooden church-school. How all the children were fitted into the accommodation is one of the mysteries of the apostolate. There was a class in a derelict shed with no glass in the windows; another class in the tiny sacristy; still another class on the verandah; and the rest of the pupils in the main body of the church. When the cold winter winds from the bay swept around the exposed building, the Stations of the Cross swayed on the walls and the statues threatened to fall from their precarious niches. Nevertheless, over the years, the families scattered amid the sand and scrub of Bunnerong did what they could to support both the church and the school.”
In 1936, the name of the church-school in Perry St changed from Our Lady of the Rosary to St Agnes to avoid confusion with Our Lady of the Rosary School in Kensington.
In 1939, the Archbishop informed that St Agnes church-school would come under the control of Malabar Parish. By this time, there was an urgent need for a new church-school in Matraville but various circumstances and World War Two delayed this necessary project. The potentially dangerous safety issues and inadequate size of the church-school building fronting the tram lines in Perry St were causing immense concern to parishioners and the school’s pupils and their parents.
Finally, on 6 November, 1949, Cardinal Gilroy blessed the foundation stone of a new brick church-school building in Perry St. It was to open in May, 1951: a happy occasion for Our Lady of the Sacred Heart nuns who had taught with dedication for forty-four years under difficult conditions. They now had a modern, large building designed, first and foremost for school purposes and secondly for church purposes. This long-awaited brick church-school building, right next to the old timber school-church, was planned to serve the Matraville parishioners well into the next century but was to be abandoned within ten years.
In 1954, Father Maurice Roche (distinct from Fr John Roche, the Parish Priest from 1973 to 1990) was appointed the new Parish Priest of Malabar Parish. He decided to move the site of the Catholic community building to a more central position, if possible, into the heart of the shopping centre. He believed that the Perry St location was becoming isolated by the encroaching industrial spread. Also, it was an inconvenient location for pupils and parishioners as access by public transport was limited.
Father Maurice Roche, pictured, secured a large site in the shopping centre in Bunnerong Rd. In 1955 it was part of an old, disused quarry and not in a sought-after commercial section, yet he believed that being central to the shops, once improved, in time, would serve the Catholic community well. Parishioners later described the land as a “swamp / quarry, forty feet deep, full of water, slush, mud, dirt and rubbish; land that couldn’t be given away.”
In 1956, approval was given to”dispose of the present parish buildings and site in Perry St, Matraville and to establish similar buildings on a new site in Bunnerong Rd, near the shopping centre, where four blocks of land are already owned by the Parish of Malabar and where an adjoining block can be bought.” Fr Maurice Roche was keen to improve the standard of the schools under his control but retained a vision of a distinct church as separate from a school-church.
Generous parishioners raised the estimated ten thousand pounds and in October, 1958 the Vicar-General blessed the new St Agnes Catholic School in Bunnerong Rd, Matraville. Completion of the school was a great achievement, done without resorting to the sale of the Perry St buildings. The next priority was a church but an opportunity arose to purchase a home alongside the proposed church site. Fr Roche purchased the home to meet the future needs of a presbytery.
Matraville parishioners were in the final phase in achieving their goal of a new church but before sufficient funds to commence building had been accumulated, the Archbishop in January, 1959, informed Fr Maurice Roche that the Matraville area would be removed from the control of Malabar and made a separate parish. Fr James Munday was appointed the first Parish Priest of the newly independent Matraville Parish.
Fr Munday, pictured, consulted with Fr Maurice Roche and both priests agreed that construction of the main church building on Bunnerong Rd must be deferred in order to expand the school to meet the growing school population and enable all pupils to be at the one location. Enrolment at St Agnes School in 1960 had increased to 239 pupils: Perry St had 77 and Bunnerong Rd had the other 162.
Made possible by generous support, a brick veneer building was erected at St Agnes School, Bunnerong Rd to contain two classrooms and a hall to seat 350 people. This building became the temporary church and its elevated, covered, front verandah provided space for any overflow crowds. The altar area was arranged at the northern end of the school hall and daily Mass was said at 7.00am before the school children arrived. The new building, which had a total cost of seventeen thousand pounds, enabled the complete transfer of the parish from the industrial area in Perry St to the site in Bunnerong Rd. The foundation stone was removed from the church-school building in Perry St, blessed in 1949, and included in this new building, blessed and opened by Cardinal Gilroy in December, 1961.
In February, 1963, the Parish Program Counselling Committee, comprising ninety-three men, produced a professional publication titled “Church of St Agnes: A Review of the Past – A Plan for the Future”.
On Sunday, 23 January, 1966, on behalf of parishioners, Fr Munday welcomed Bishop James Freeman to open and bless the new St Agnes Church, designed to accommodate six hundred worshippers. It was dedicated as a war memorial church to honour and remember those who had served in both world wars. When Cardinal Gilroy blessed the foundation stone of the brick church-school in Perry St in 1949,he told the attending parishioners, “this building (church-school) will be a stepping stone towards your own church.” That ‘own church’, seventeen years later, had now become a reality. The completion of St Agnes Church permitted all those buildings designed for the school pupils to be exclusively for classrooms.
To summarise the history of the Catholic church or school-church buildings in Matraville:
- Timber school-church at 45 Perry St: blessed and opened 1907
- Brick school –church next to the timber school-church: opened 1951
- School hall-church at St Agnes School, Bunnerong Rd: opened 1961
- St Agnes Church: opened 1966
Enrolments continued to grow and by 1967 there were in excess of three hundred students attending school and more classrooms and other facilities were needed. The school, financed by pupils’ fees and considerable assistance from the parish fund, continued to meet the challenge and expand as needed. The close of the 1981 school year became a sad occasion for students and parishioners when the nuns from Our Lady of the Sacred Heart withdrew completely from St Agnes School after an association of seventy-five years of tireless dedication and service.
By 1991, enrolments at St Agnes School and other schools in the area were on a downward trend and attention turned to some projects that had been put on hold. One such project was the Presbytery which lacked many basic requirements. In 1993, Roy Burton and Fred Galea, who were both parishioners and licensed builders, purpose-built the fine presbytery still in current use.
From December, 2011, with the shortage of priests, Matraville Parish and Malabar Parish share one Parish Priest, currently Fr Laurie Cauchi.
In 2019, Fr Laurie showed parishioners exciting plans for proposed grand new buildings for St Agnes School.
“May God bless the parish of St Agnes, Matraville. May He bless all those who visit us, work with us and pray with us, now and in the future.”
PASTORS RESPONSIBLE FOR BUNNERONG AND LATER MATRAVILLE
1906 Fr Peter Treand and Fr P. Tierney of Randwick Parish
1907 – 1917 Fr Patrick Dowling, P.P. Botany Parish
1917 – 1935 Fr Patrick Walsh, P.P. Mascot
1935 – 1939 Fr Edward Teehan, P.P. Mascot
1939 – 1940 Fr John Deely, P.P. Malabar
1940 – 1946 Fr Sylvester O’Sullivan, P.P. Malabar
1946 – 1953 Fr Jeremiah O’Sullivan, P.P. Malabar
1954 – 1959 Fr Maurice Roche, P.P. Malabar
1959 – 1971 Fr James Munday, first P.P. of the newly separated Parish of Matraville
1971 Fr Michael Hogan, administrator
1972 Fr Noel Molloy, administrator
1973 – 1990 Fr John Roche
1990 – 2009 Fr Anthony Simari
2010 – 2011 Fr Matthew Thekkedath, administrator
2011 – Fr Lawrence Cauchi, P.P. of both Matraville and Malabar
1914 – 1915 Fr J. Foxall
1917 – ? Fr C. Lynch
1931 – ? Fr T. Kennedy
1965 – 1969 Fr Roland Darmenia
1969 – 1970 Fr Joseph Purcell
1971 Fr David Vaughan
1972 – 1973 Fr Robert McGuckin
1974 – 1975 Fr Ken Sargent
1983 – 1985 Fr Harry Payne
1985 – 1986 Fr John DeLuca
1986 – 1987 Fr Dominic Sequiera
2013 – 2016 Fr George Azhakath
PRIEST in RESIDENCE
2016 – Fr Paul O’Donoghue from the Diocese of Wollongong, who is Senior State Chaplain to the police, assists Fr Laurie with Masses and the sacraments.
Over the years, the parish has also been well served by Maltese and Timorese chaplains and Indian priests for their communities within the local area.
Five religious vocations have come or partly come from St Agnes Parish: two priests; two nuns and one Christian Brother while another nine commenced or even finished religious vocation training: two for the priesthood; three to be nuns and four to be Marist Brothers.
In 2009, for the fiftieth anniversary of St Agnes, Matraville being declared a separate parish, a comprehensive, richly-illustrated book of 118 pages was written on the history of the parish. A flash-drive of this history can be obtained by interested readers contacting the Parish office. The cover of the book is shown below.