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Nanango’s Little Cathedral in the Bush turning 100

House of God: The Our Lady Help of Christians Church, Nanango centenary will be celebrated this weekend.

By Michael Crutcher

THIS weekend, the Nanango Catholic community will mark 100 years to the minute when the foundation stone was laid for their “little cathedral in the bush”.

It was a wet, spring afternoon on September 23, 1917 when the stone for the Fr James Bergin Memorial Church was blessed and laid.

The blessing was supposed to happen in the morning until rain kept the official party indoors.

But unseasonal weather was not a major issue for a community that was dealing with the upheaval of the Great War.

Four days after the foundation stone was laid for Our Lady Help of Christians Church, the Nanango community lost William McMonagle in the slaughter that was Flanders Fields.

William was just shy of his 22nd birthday.

His military record paints the only impression of William that exists – this farmer from west of Nanango’s town centre stood 166cm and weighed 61kg. He had a “ruddy” complexion with light brown hair.

And he was one of 5770 Australian casualties in the Battle of Polygon Wood near Ypres.

Eight months later, his father would receive William’s belongings – two brushes, a leather name holder and a copy of the New Testament.

Another South Burnett soldier, Eddie Newman, was killed in Flanders Fields during the Battle of Passchendaele, six weeks after William McMonagle.

This weekend, Eddie Newman’s wider family members will be in Nanango to celebrate the centenary of the start of construction on a church that emerged during the toughest times.

“The fortitude and the endurance of the people – and to find the finances to build the church in the midst of war – have amazed me,” Liz Caffery, an historian and Nanango parishioner, said.

“Lots of these folk had their own sons and brothers and uncles who had gone away to fight. Yet they were still able to do what was needed to get this church underway.”

The War dominated discussion on that September afternoon in 1917.

The Brisbane Courier published a story on the blessing of the foundation stone, noting the tension sparked by a recent column in the Anglican Diocese of Rockhampton’s Church Gazette.

The column claimed “the Catholics were not so anxious to win the war as were the people of other religions”.

The crowd at Nanango heard from speakers that “the majority of those fighting in the cause of the Allies were Roman Catholics and … if they were to withdraw from the war tomorrow the cause of the Allies would be ruined”.

Mrs Caffery has documented the story of the church in her excellent book The Little Cathedral in the Bush.

She sought out the tales of the community instead of focusing on the bricks and mortar of a church that is in good condition 100 years later, boosted by a renovation and a sharp paint job.

One of the obvious questions for Mrs Caffery’s research was the nickname – how did Our Lady Help of Christians Church become known as the little cathedral in the bush?

“The word ‘cathedral’ … first appeared in a local news article from 1917 when Nanango Shire vice-chairman John Darley opened a bazaar to raise funds for the construction of the church,” Mrs Caffery wrote.

“He stated that the magnificent new church would become the ‘Cathedral of the South Burnett’. Later, The Catholic Leader of 26 May 1918 reported the opening of the church with the headline ‘Memorial to Father Bergin – The Cathedral of the South Burnett’. At the 75th anniversary in 1992, Bishop John Gerry used the expression ‘little country cathedral’. The similar phrase ‘little cathedral in the bush’ is now in popular use.”

The plaque to the left of the church’s main door describes this as the Fr Bergin Memorial Church. It wasn’t planned this way.

Fr James Bergin had chosen this site for a third church for the Nanango region.

The second St George’s Church, built in 1899 in Alfred St to replace the original 1870 church, was becoming too small for the growing region.

So Fr Bergin chose the site within a short walk to Nanango’s main street.

But he died suddenly in 1914.

The community that was relying on their popular priest to deliver a new church decided to dedicate the building to him.

It was a prolific time for Catholicism in the South Burnett.

Mrs Caffery’s book lists new churches at Kingaroy, Cooyar and Moore between 1908 and 1909 followed by St Patrick’s Convent in Nanango (1912) and churches at Blackbutt, Wooroolin and Wondai (all 1913), Murgon (1918), Kumbia (1919), Goomeri (1920) and Yarraman (1921).

The Nanango church, which cost £3500 to build, has had only minor additions since it was officially opened in 1918.

“It’s been a magnificent structure in our community and it’s now referred to as an iconic piece of architecture,” Mrs Caffery said.

“But it’s not the building itself that we treasure. It’s all of the church functions. All of the weddings, the funerals, the Masses, the celebrations, Confirmations.

“It’s got a history with thousands upon thousands of gatherings of people in this church. That is the thing we treasure and what we really want to honour in the centenary.”

More than 3000 baptisms and 700 weddings have been held in the church.

Parish priest Fr Stephen Camiolo said the community would this weekend welcome back familiar faces for the centenary celebrations.

Fr Camiolo will concelebrate the centenary Mass with Brisbane Archbishop Mark Coleridge, who will launch Mrs Caffery’s book.

Fr Camiolo recalls the first time he said Mass at Our Lady Help of Christians, looking up to see the back of the statue of Our Lady through the church’s windows.

“It’s a very comforting feeling knowing the Mother of God is here protecting us and the community,” Fr Camiolo said.

But the statue and the church weren’t an easy fit.

“When the statue arrived, the niche that had been made for it in the building was too small. It couldn’t fit the statue,” Mrs Caffery said.

“So they had to reconstruct that part of the church.

“That’s one of many stories from the last 100 years.”

The next 100 years begins this weekend when Archbishop Coleridge unveils a centenary plaque on the right of the church’s main entrance.

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