Prior to 1886, the boundaries of the Wollongong Mission – and the subsequent St Francis Xavier Parish, Wollongong – were not always clearly defined but gradually changed to meet the new and expanding settlements to the north and south.
In the early 1880s, the northern-most settlements in the Wollongong Parish included Otford, Camp Creek (now Helensburgh) and 26 Mile Camp (Cawley). It is interesting to note that Our Lady of Perpetual Succour Parish at Erskineville seems to have been the neighbouring parish to Wollongong in those days.
The Bulli Years
The Archbishop of the Sydney Diocese, Cardinal Patrick Moran, was anxious to meet the needs of people in the expanding settlements and towns to the north of Wollongong. Consequently, the Bulli Parish under the patronage of St Joseph was established in 1886. The Cardinal Archbishop appointed Dean M. Flanagan as pastoral authority for a growing parish area that included the entire coastal strip from Corrimal to the northern outskirts of the newly named town of Helensburgh.
The Baptismal Register for the new St Joseph’s Parish commenced on 18 July 1886. Of 29 Baptisms recorded for the remaining months of that year, five were performed at Otford (three on the railway station itself), six in Helensburgh and one at 26 Mile Camp. Some of the first recorded baptisms in this register were:
– first at Otford was on 8 August 1886 of an Alfred Gannon by Fr Flanagan. Born 12 March 1886 to John Gannon (Miner) and his wife Julie (nee Walsh), Alfred’s Godparents were Daniel O’Neill and Agnes Bachan.
– first at Helensburgh was on 19 September 1886 by Fr Flanagan of two children of William Emmit (Boat Builder) and his wife Rachel (nee Welsh)
– Patrick Augustine Emmit, born on 1 August 1886 – Godparents were Patrick Sheehy and Eliza Hanley.
– William Emmit, born 6 February 1884 – Godparents were William Burn and Catherine Smith.
It is impossible to believe that there were not any earlier weddings in the town but the earliest we have uncovered thus far was between Matthew Sharples (Miner) and Mary Lewis in Helensburgh on 10 April 1893. Fr Thomas Barlow, PP Bulli officiating. Matthew was from Ireland, his parents were William and Catherine (nee Doolin). Mary’s parents were Ben and Sarah (nee Martin).
A Church is Built
In an old ledger of the Bulli Parish, Fr Barlow, on 13 April 1893 recorded the opening of the Church of Holy Cross at Helensburgh. It would seem that this construction took place in two stages … the first stage commencing in 1890. It is on record that the church cost approximately £150.
By 1896, a Catholic school was operating in the church: a Miss Spellman being the teacher – at least in that year. In 1898, Miss Grace O’Brien was appointed to the school by Fr Dunne, Parish priest of Bulli. For some two years she taught both children and adults in the town. Miss O’Brien’s departure led to the arrival of the Sisters of St Joseph.
The following item from a Catholic newspaper called ‘The Catholic Press’ dated Saturday 5th May, 1900 states:
‘A community of Sisters of Saint Joseph will shortly establish a house of the Order at Helensburgh. Miss O’Brien, the late teacher, is leaving for Ireland. There is a large number of children in Helensburgh and the advent of the sisters will be very welcome indeed. The sisters will open the school on next Monday week in the local church.’
In May 1900, Mother Mary MacKillop (Saint Mary of the Cross MacKillop) personally visited Helensburgh to establish a convent and school. In a letter dated 7 May, 1900 to Sister Annette Henschke, Mary MacKillop said, “On Saturday have to be at Helensburgh to open a convent there.”
Further correspondence to a Sister Benedict read, “Last Monday (14 May 1900) we opened the school at Helensburgh. I went there the previous Saturday, taking with me Sisters Emilian Dempsey, Louis Mary Daly and a Postulant. We opened with 56 pupils.”
The Sisters were warmly welcomed and it appears that the already struggling community raised funds towards the building of a convent through a concert and social function. The function was recorded in ‘The Catholic Press’ dated Saturday 1st September, 1900:
“The concert held in aid of the Saint Joseph Sisters was a decided success… The concert was followed by a social, which was largely attended, and reflects great credit on Mesdames Floyd, Thompson, Hegarty, Gardiner and Scullen. The Sisters are indeed an acquisition, and the residents are showing their appreciation practically.”
Fr J P Dunne, PP at Bulli, reported to Cardinal Moran in a letter dated 9 July 1901, that a convent was ready for use in Helensburgh and had been built at a cost of £240 on land leased from the Metropolitan Coal Company.
St. Patrick’s Day Wedding
The following early Helensburgh wedding was reported in the Sydney Morning Herald on Saturday 27 March 1909
At the Holy Cross Church, Helensburgh, on St. Patrick’s Day, a marriage was solemnised by the Rev. Father Morris between Mr. Daniel Russell, of Charters Towers, Queensland, and Clara Agnes, eldest daughter of Mr. Thomas Welch, of Darke’s Forest, near Helensburgh, The bride, who was attended by her sister (Jessie) as bridesmaid, wore a white silk dress, with wreath and veil and carried a shower bouquet, her presents from the bride-groom being a diamond and ruby crescent brooch and a Nelllie Stewart bangle. Mr. George Watts performed the duties of best man.