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Beagle Bay celebrates Centenary Year of ‘Mother of Pearl’ Church


Bishop of Broome and Kimberley Christopher Saunders (right) and Assistant Priest Fr Christopher Knapman of Dampier Peninsula Parish during Sacred Heart Church Centenary Mass on Sunday 12 August. Photo: Dioceses of Broome and Kimberley.

By Theresia Titus

Inlaid with mother of pearl, cowries, volutes and olive shells, Sacred Heart Church in Beagle Bay Parish in the Diocese of Broome turns 100 this month.

Speaking to The eRecord recently, Dampier Peninsula Parish Assistant Priest Fr Christopher Knapman said the Church is “the pride and joy” of Beagle Bay Community.

“It has been a beloved place of worship for generations, and its presence in the community links the past with the modern age,” Fr Knapman said.

“The story of Beagle Bay Community and the building of its beautiful Church is central to the larger story of the growth of Catholic faith in Kimberley, and the community is proud that the faith was first nurtured and accepted here among its own people.”

Fr Knapman said the Church was precious to the Stolen Generations, who are part of Beagle Bay’s history and community, and that valuing their perspectives was an essential component of the centenary ceremonies.


Bishop of Broome and Kimberley Christopher Saunders during Beagle Bay community celebration of 100th anniversary of Sacred Heart Church on Saturday 11 August. Photo: Dioceses of Broome and Kimberley.

Held over two days, 11 to 12 August, the merriment of the Church’s centenary year started on Saturday evening with an outdoor Second Rite of Reconciliation ceremony, blending Catholic Sacramental tradition with local Aboriginal culture.

The community then joined together in a celebration that included local bands, dancing, storytelling, speeches and awards.

On Sunday 12 August, visitors joined hundreds from communities across the Kimberley in attending the centenary Mass.

The community cooked for locals and visitors in traditional style and enjoyed an outdoor photo and art exhibition of featured works from the centenary art competition.

“We were so happy to see the community united together to celebrate their beautiful and historic Church, and we were encouraged by the positive response we have received from the people who attended,” Fr Knapman said.

“It is clear that the church, indeed treasured for 100 years, still has a significant role to play in the faith development of future generations.”

The lasting presence of the Church in the region began in 1890, when Trappist Monks sailed from France to Disaster Bay in King Sound, Northwest of Derby, where they discovered the abandoned settlement of Fr Duncan McNab.

The Trappist Monks then moved to Beagle Bay – where the Aboriginal community lived – and began to build their monastery from local materials.


Bishop of Broome and Kimberley Christopher Saunders (right) and Assistant Priest Fr Christopher Knapman of Dampier Peninsula Parish during Sacred Heart Church Centenary Mass on Sunday 12 August. Photo: Dioceses of Broome and Kimberley.

In 1901, the Pallottine Missionaries from Germany replaced the Monks in Beagle Bay, remaining there for the next 100 years.

In 1914, with the advent of World War I, German priests and brothers were placed under house arrest, where they remained for the duration of the conflict.

Responding to the situation, Fr Thomas Bachmair SAC began to build the present church in 1915 as a statement of faith and unity.

The church was officially opened on 15 August 1918 for the Feast of the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary, with major construction being completed in 1917.

Fr Wilhelm Droste SAC worked with a team of local women to make shell decorations for the church, using mother of pearl, cowries, volutes and olive shells, resulting in a fusion of traditional Nyul, Nimanboor and Bardi Symbols with Christian symbols and European mosaic technique as an expression of art and faith.


The altar of the Church inlaid with pearls, cowries, volutes and olive shells. Photo: Dioceses of Broome and Kimberley

The construction of the bell tower was completed in 1920, but it collapsed in 2000 after almost 90 years of cyclonic winds and rains, as well as the Kimberley’s heat.

Speaking to ABC News Kimberley, Broome Bishop Christopher Saunders remembered receiving shocking news from the Parish Priest at Beagle Bay in September 2000.

"I said, ‘Say that again.’ He said, ‘The tower of the Church has fallen’,” Bishop Saunders recounted.

"People remember that this Church didn't just happen. People built it, and their hearts and their love went into it.

"So, when it collapsed there was huge disappointment and an overwhelming feeling of loss.”

The church was rebuilt in 2002, and Bishop Saunders celebrated a thanksgiving Mass there on 3 November 2002.

During his homily, Bishop Saunders said that Sacred Heart Church was “not a museum but the centre of a living and vibrant parish”.

“The great, great grandchildren of the Indigenous people, who welcomed the first missionaries, as well as the members of the Stolen Generation continue to worship in and serve this holy place,” Bishop Saunders said.

“The Sacred Heart, representing the love of God for humanity, has been focused on prayer and devotion for centuries.

“However, the Devotion became most popular during World War I as a prayer for peace. And so it is today; the Church retains its name, Sacred Heart.

“As you tour Sacred Heart Church and appreciate its unique beauty, please also take the opportunity to pray for peace,” he concluded.