PARISHIONERS from across the state will descend on an obscure Albany landmark to celebrate the 180th anniversary of Western Australia’s first-known Catholic mass that likely occurred there this week in 1838.
Priest-in-charge of Holy Family Catholic Parish, Christian Saminal, says Mass Rocks, which balance one atop the other off Brunswick Road in front of the CBH grain silos, are “very significant” for Catholics across the state.
“It’s not only a celebration for Albany people, but a celebration for the whole of WA,” Father Saminal says of a mass planned to occur at the rocks on November 4.
That date is significant as the anniversary of the landing in Albany of John Brady, who later became the first Catholic Bishop of Perth.
Not long after his arrival, a mass was conducted at the rocks, marking the establishment of the church in WA.
Earlier at the rocks, in January 1838, a Catholic mass was celebrated for the first time in the state – by a chaplain from a French frigate named L’Heroine that was escorting six French whaling ships.
Anne Smith, secretary of a committee overseeing the November 4 celebrations, says the 1838 mass occurred when Catholicism was all-but banned across the English-speaking world.
She says Albany’s role in the state’s Catholic history was obscured even in its time.
“Looking at the records of the Catholic Church in Western Australia, the fact that Albany was first cab off the rank was not really noticed at all,” she explains.
“If you look into Bishop Brady’s biography, it wasn’t even mentioned that he called into Albany on his way to Perth.”
The exact date of the original mass at the rocks has been lost to the mists of time.
However, Weekender analysis of historical documents, under the generous guidance of City of Albany librarians Sue Lefroy and Jenny Reed, confirms the most likely date to be on or soon after today, 180 years ago.
In a 1979 book titled The History of the Catholic Church in Western Australia, author D.F. Bourke observes that in 1838 Resident Magistrate Sir Richard Spencer wrote to the Colonial Secretary in Perth advising that L’Heroine had arrived in Albany on January 18.
In her Early Memories of Albany, Mrs A.Y. Hassell (1857-1933) writes:
“I am sorry I have not been able to get the exact date the first Roman Catholic priest arrived in Albany, because it was an interesting event. A vessel anchored at Albany and had on board a French priest, who, on landing, found there were members of his flock, so an open air service was held on the side of the hill just above the deepwater jetty, and the first mass was celebrated within the shadow of the two round rocks one on top of the other at the corner of Brunswick Road. This occurred some time towards the end of the ‘30s.”
And in his Memorandum on the “Mass Rocks: Albany, local historian Robert Stephens (1886-1974), notes: “I know of no ship more likely to have had on board the French priest referred to by Mrs A.Y.Hassell than the French frigate Heroine which arrived during January 1838”.
Ms Smith says Catholics from across WA will be invited to attend the mass at the rocks, and a lunch is being planned for afterwards at the nearby Stirling Club.
“We’ve invited the Bishop of Bunbury, Gerard Holohan, who is the bishop of our diocese, to come down and preside,” she says.
Father Saminal will oversee the celebration as a whole.