The Catholic Precinct

by Margaret Giumelli
Updated: 9 August 2022

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1950s – Procession celebrating the parish feast day on 8 December, the Immaculate Conception of Mary the Mother of God.

“There is no fear of ill-feeling in the village. The processions here have called for the attention and curiosity of both the Catholics and the Protestants. It is certainly a new thing for the Irish and the English”.

Father Garrido’s letter June 13 1858
from the archives of the Benedictine Community of New Norcia

Catholic Pioneer Cemetery

Pioneer Cemetery – Dardanup Photo: Fiftyfourimages

This historic cemetery contains many excellent examples of 19th and early 20th Century tombstones that display the full range of burial symbolism and craftwork in carving stone. The cemetery was established in the 1850s and contains the graves of many local pioneers including Thomas Little. The cemetery closed in the 1950s due to water- logging. However burials continued into the 1960s when immediate descendants of the early pioneers continued to be buried there.

Sometime in the 1850s with the chapel now being opened and in use, the establishment of the cemetery was the next priority.  Carved out of the 50 acres and set at the northern end of the property, it was initially unfenced, but circumstances mostly related to its security and maintenance caused a fence to be erected in the 1990s. We know that fires raged through the area at times and this meant that many of the grave markers which were made of wood were destroyed leaving later generations unable to identify exact burial sites – some of these it is thought are probably outside the fence. Among the unknown grave sites are those of Eliza Little, Thomas’ wife, and their son William and some of William’s and Helena’s children who died in early childhood. Thomas Little junior, who was the eldest son and who died in Perth in 1900 and who never married, was buried at Karrakatta.  

Thomas’ funeral in 1877 was the largest ever seen in the area at that time. It has always been assumed that Thomas himself is buried here too, but his was a grave that lacked adequate marking. To rectify this, the community erected a memorial stone acknowledging his burial here.

This little cemetery is a storybook and testament to the lives of Dardanup’s founding settlers and is invaluable for its connections to the first and earliest of the European settlers to the area, many of whom have become well-known names within the local community.

Pioneer Cemetery – Dardanup Photo: Fiftyfourimages

The cemetery can be accessed by arrangement. Information about the graves can be found by linking to any of the web sites below:

  1. (this one requires you to register and login)

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Church of the Immaculate Conception and Presbytery

With the ever-growing Catholic population in the Dardanup area, Father James O’Grady saw the need to build a new and larger church as the old chapel was no longer adequate for their needs. At the same time a new presbytery was also needed for the housing of the parish priest.

The foundation stone was laid on 12 December 1937 by Archbishop Redmond Prendiville, Archbishop of Perth. Dardanup was part of the Perth Archdiocese until 1954 when the Diocese of Bunbury was established with Bishop Launcelot Goody as the first Bishop of Bunbury. The building is an inter-War Romanesque style constructed of concrete blocks with terracotta roof tiles. The blocks were hand-made on site.

1938 – Opening of the Church of the Immaculate Conception

The church was completed and opened by Archbishop Prendiville on 1 May, 1938.   Originally it had the pews of the old church for quite some time but when Father Charles Cunningham (who arrived in 1948 after his term as an army chaplain in World War II in New Guinea) decided that the men of the parish would build new pews under the direction of Mr Bob Hewison a fine carpenter and woodworker. 

Sheoak was chosen as the timber which was milled at the mill run by the Piacentini family in Ferguson. The church still features these pews today, sometimes to complaints of ‘Who decided what shape these should be?”, indications that some find them none too comfortable.

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The Grotto

Father Cunningham was also the priest responsible for the building of the little shrine which is colloquially called ‘the Grotto’. It has been through some architectural changes over the years. Originally, it was built to commemorate the celebration of the Marian Year in 1954

The Grotto at the Church of the Immaculate Conception, Dardanup. View along Charlotte St and the railway

Every Christmas, with the church being too small for gathering for Mass, it is usual to celebrate under the stars in the grotto on Christmas Eve.

The stone fence encompassing the Catholic Precinct was built during this time, using the expertise of a local stone mason.

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Catholic Education in Dardanup

Seeing the growing number of children of Irish Catholic settlers in the little hamlet of Dardanup, Mr Little opened his home “Dardanup Park” in 1854 and employed a ticket-of-leave man, Mr Tom Clancey, to teach them. When Father Aragon was appointed he visited the school to assist Mr Clancey occasionally.  

When the church was completed, the school transferred there. The first school examination was held in 1857 and in that year Mr Tom Clancey left Dardanup for Perth, his place being taken by Miss Anne McKinley. 

Father Garrido was responsible for helping establish the first school in the district. He introduced a system where each Catholic farmer in the district gave a portion of grain per harvest to support the church and the pastor. 

This also was made possible by the generosity of Thomas Little, who donated extra land and a small school was built in front to the east side of the church. This opened on 15 September 1857 with 25 children. The school building doubled as a dwelling place for the schoolmaster. 

In 1860 there were 40 pupils enrolled in the school but by 1870, due to lack of numbers, the school was closed for several months. 

Miss Ellen Costello, who was born of Irish Catholic parents in Bunbury in 1855, having obtained her Teaching Certificate, came to Dardanup to teach in 1871.  Another school examination was held in 1877 with a very favourable report being received. Miss Costello remained there until the end of 1877, when she became a Sister of Mercy known as Sister Mary Angela. Later as Mother Angela, she was the first Australian-born superior of the Sisters of Mercy in Bunbury in 1897. 

In 1880 the little Catholic school of approximately 15 pupils was taken over by the Government and run as a State school under the guidance of Mr J Maguire, and later in 1885 by Miss Mary Anne Cleary. 

By 1891 the classrooms were reported to be in a state of disrepair, poorly equipped and with very few facilities. 1897 saw the withdrawal of the pupils from the Catholic owned building to a more modern structure built opposite the church and run as a State school.

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Sisters of Mercy

In 1883 the Sisters of Mercy came to Bunbury and established a convent and school.  They visited Dardanup to instruct the children in their catechism and visit the people — no doubt travelling by horse and cart.

In 1920 three Sisters of Mercy leased the local residence known as “Prinsep Park” in Dardanup to establish a Catholic school. Sisters Columba, Finian and Berchmans were the first Sisters. The people were very receptive to the Sisters and set about raising funds to build a convent and school. 

School began at “Prinsep Park” on 12 April 1920 with 21 pupils. 

On taking charge, Father Finnegan decided that the most pressing need was a Catholic school. To meet that need he set immediately to work, and by the time he left the parish in 1922, a new convent school had been built and opened, and a goodly portion of the sum incurred in its erection paid. 

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Convent of Mercy

The building of the convent building commenced on 22 May 1921 and was completed on 6 February 1922. The new two storey convent and school was officially blessed and opened by Archbishop Clune on 2nd April 1922 as the Convent of Mercy.  This building accommodated living quarters (Convent) and a chapel for the Sisters with some rooms set aside for classrooms.

Opening of the Convent of Mercy at Dardanup in 1922

When Father Charles Cunningham arrived on 22nd February 1948, so great were the numbers of children attending the Catholic school (60) and so small the accommodation, that the parishioners were asked to face the burden of building a new school.  A “busy bee” was called and the foundation of the school was laid by the good number who so willingly gave their labour.

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Carmelite Monastery — 1977 — 1984

It was then occupied by the Carmelite Nuns as an enclosed monastery until March 1984 when the nuns moved to their new monastery in Gelorup. it was then that the verandahs were enclosed and adaptations made to

accommodate an enclosed order.  Bishop Miles Mckeon had invited these nuns from Thailand to make a foundation here in the Bunbury Diocese. Today they are a well-loved part of the Catholic community.

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Hosea House of Prayer

Following the departure of the Carmelite nuns, the convent was returned to Parish use. Later that year the Diocese of Bunbury took it over for use as a Retreat House. It was renamed “Hosea House of Prayer”. 

The school used some of the rooms for staff and administration. This situation continued until 1992 when the new school was constructed. 

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Our Lady of Lourdes School

On Sunday 10th July 1949 the first two classrooms were officially blessed and opened by Archbishop Prendiville of Perth. The school was then officially named Our Lady of Lourdes. A third classroom was completed in February 1952.  School numbers had now grown to 86 pupils. 

Here, the young people of the parish were given excellence in education and enrichment in music and elocution.

A Bushie School was held annually at Dardanup making use of the existing school rooms and spacious verandahs. Children came from outlying areas to live-in at the Convent for one or two weeks where they were instructed in the truths of their Faith and prepared for the Sacraments. The Sisters, together with extra sisters from Perth, gave up their holidays either in May or August to carry out this work. The last Bushie Schools were held in the late 1960s.

The Sisters of Mercy continued to teach and occupy the convent building until 1972, having celebrated their fiftieth Jubilee of their work in the school. In December 1974, the Sisters of Mercy withdrew from the school.

In 1975 Our Lady of Lourdes School commenced being entirely staffed by lay-teachers. In 1979 for the 125 year celebration of the foundation of the Immaculate Conception Church in memory of the devout Catholic man who gave the church its Birthplace, the church was renamed the “Thomas Little Memorial Hall”.

The convent building was used in many ways by the parish and school until 1977. 

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  • Pioneer Cemetery – Dardanup by Fiftyfourimages
  • Catholic Procession at Dardanup from Pauline Payne
  • Other photos from Gwen and Brian Wells.