From a Little Wooden Chapel ……..

St Mary’s Parish records reveal a great spiritual strength and determination of both clergy and pioneers during early settlement. Through their efforts in laying the foundations of religion and the Catholic Church in the Hamilton district, it is the subsequent generations who reap the harvest of past wisdom and perseverance.

The acquisition of land and erection of the first building of worship, were undertaken by former priests and local settlers in the 1850s.  However it was the remarkable energy and dedication of Rev Fr Michael Shanahan – the “Grand Old Patriarch of the Western District” who secured the parish’s foundations. On arrival in 1886, the untiring work of the distant past was in ruins.  The parish which once housed “the little wooden chapel on She Oak Hill” was in much need of attention.  The establishment of a school was to follow immediately, along with several churches and schools in country areas.

So it reads that during those last 150 odd years, countless clergy have ministered to all within the church and school communities. Just like the immeasurable work of Fr Shanahan and many others, may the ongoing commitment of our clergy and teaching staff continue to be welcomed by the St Mary’s Parish community of today.

–  Anne Slattery


The original Parish of Portland, which has been divided six times, was initially part of the Melbourne Diocese 250 miles away.

If we were to look at a map of today, it would convey the immensity of the difficulties which confronted the early priests as they sought to plant the faith in this isolated region. It was an area seventy miles from east to west and one hundred and twenty miles from north to south, enclosing the whole of the area within the Glenelg and Wannon Rivers system. Dense forest spread over much of this terrain. There were no roads, nor were there any bridges in a climate of heavy and consistent rainfall. They rode – for that was the only means of transport available to them, through the trackless bush in search of lonely souls thirsting for spiritual support in the many scattered shepherd’s huts and work gangs. They also had the constant problem of working for the time when they might be able to build churches, however modest. So the pioneer priest laboured on to hand on the Christian heritage.

Taken from “St Patrick’s Church Dunkeld – Parish Centenary Booklet


  • 1847 May – Fr Patrick Geoghegan, the Vicar of Port Phillip visits the Western District.
  • 1848 May – Fr John Kavanagh appointed Clergyman to the Portland Bay District, was widely known as “the clerical tramp”. He was a remarkable pioneer priest travelling vast distances to settlers in the district. Hamilton was part of Portland Mission. First Mass celebrated at Hamilton 22 May 1848
  • 1849 Fr John Roe – regular visitor to the Grange and surrounding districts over next 4 years, which included administering the Sacraments as far away as Casterton and Harrow.
  • 1853 Bishop Goold travelled the Western District on horseback. His diary notes read “I selected a site in the township most picturesquely situated in the heart of a magnificent country. At present there are but few Catholics, but many Catholics families employed on neighbouring stations and lots of children to baptise”. Hamilton Catholics wrote a letter to the Bishop dated 22 December, requesting a resident Priest.
  • 1854 Land allotments were acquired by the Bishop (temporary reservation) between Dinwoodie, Clarendon and Lonsdale Streets Hamilton, previously known as “She-Oak Hill”. Now to be the site for Hamilton’s first Catholic Church/School. History records Hamilton’s faith denomination at this time as being: Roman Catholic – 51 Church of England – 150 Church of Scotland – 30 Presbyterian – 17 and a few Protestants.
  • 1856 Commencement of a wooden Church/School building under the guidance of Fr John Bernard Cronin.
  • 1857 Fr Shinnick becomes a regular visitor to Hamilton. Completion of building works. “The Roman Catholics of Hamilton have a wooden chapel on a hill, but no services, unless upon the chance visit of a clergyman”. Quote by Hamilton Writer J F Bonwick. The Church/School wooden structure measured 32’ x 20’ x 10’ (feet) at a cost of ₤487 – 5 shillings – 6 pence totally donated by local contributors. First teachers at Common School No. 314 were Mr & Mrs Nicholas Flynn 1858 – 1865. First presbytery built – small four roomed stone house. Fr J Moloney and Fr E McCarthy took charge of Hamilton district up to 1860.
  • 1858 School opened for use in June of this year. A School bell hung from a gum tree at the rear of the building. 1860 Brick Chapel/School completed at Coleraine which then became an independent Mission.
  • 1861 Two – acre grants were secured at Branxholme and Cavendish for Churches but never used.
  • 1862 September – Fr John O’Connell of Portland appointed 1st Pastor/Parish Priest of Hamilton 1863 Planning underway for building of new Hamilton Church designed by Architect William Wardell. Early English style architecture, incorporating Mt Sturgeon stone arches, columns and altar steps.
  • 1864 Fr O’Connell oversaw planning & construction of small Chapel at Merino ₤300. Hamilton Presbytery built of granite for ₤1,000. October – Rev Michael Farrelly – 2nd Parish Priest collects funds for the proposed St Mary’s Church costing almost ₤4,000. Architect James Fox.
  •  1866 August 12th – Opening of first section of Hamilton’s Gothic Style bluestone Catholic Church with Mt Sturgeon columns, arches and windows. Whole of Church plan only partly completed at this time, due to its members’ limited ability to increase financial support.
  •  1867 Commencement of bluestone Church at Penshurst by the energetic and good humoured Fr Farrelly. Opening ceremony 20 May 1869. Land permanently reserved 13 December of this year.
  • 1870 Macarthur officially opened its first Church, however by 1885 Fr Shanahan was urging locals to build a more substantial sized place of worship, to accommodate the population growth. 1871 Fr Fennelly – 3rd Parish Priest took charge at Hamilton in February of this year. On Christmas Eve he opened a newly constructed wooden church at Strathmore – between Dunkeld and Glenthompson.
  •  1874 Wooden School building completed at Penshurst. 1875 – 1886 Fr Hoyne – 4th Parish Priest from County Kilkenny, Ireland is recorded as completing a ten year term during this period.
  • 1886 Fr Michael J Shanahan – 5th Parish Priest began his 45 years of service to the St Mary’s Parish. The “Grand Old Man of Hamilton” earned great respect from all, with much involvement in the Hamilton Public Hospital. Fr Shanahan held a position on the hospital committee from 1886 – 1930. A new brick and bluestone school (front portion of St Mary’s Hall) replaced the 30 year old wooden school/church. The old building was raffled and relocated to Mt Baimbridge Road where it was later destroyed by fire. The former Hamilton Academy was later purchased for use as a Primary School.
  • 1887 Macarthur’s tiny bluestone Church 40 feet by 21 feet was built at a cost of ₤538 and officially opened on 9 October. Coleraine’s 25 year old School/Chapel was also in need of replacement to cater for a growing congregation over 150. The years to follow under Fr Shanahan’s guidance saw churches built at Condah, Penshurst, Dunkeld, Glenthompson Wallacedale and Glen Isla. Convents were constructed at Hamilton and Coleraine and three other schools in the western district.
  • 1900 Fr Shanahan completed his original plan to build a larger church, with the population now growing to 900 Catholics in the Hamilton area and 350 in surrounding districts. Memorial stone laid on 13 May.
  • 1900 December 1st – Blessing and formal opening of the 17 metre extension to St Mary’s Hamilton by Bishop Moore of Ballarat.  A 20 metre tower was added some time later. However in 1914 plans to erect a church spire were delayed by the Great War.
  • 1903 Coleraine School rebuilt and reopened after closure of years.
  • 1905 Loreto Nuns began a Secondary School for girls in the newly established Convent at the former Hamilton Academy. A Primary School for boys and girls followed at the same site.
  • 1906 Coleraine made a separate parish.
  • 1914 Fr Shanahan celebrated his Golden Jubilee of ordination. St Mary’s Church spire, designed by Architect Frank Hammond and erected to commemorate Fr Shanahan’s Golden Jubilee. The spire and other additions were blessed by the Bishop of Ballarat on 15th October 1916.
  • 1929 Supper rooms added to St Mary’s Hall building.
  • 1931 Death of Fr Shanahan on 6 December at age of 94. Fr John Kerin – 6th Parish Priest
  • 1935 Fr McGloin – 7th Parish Priest
  •  1942 Fr W N Close – 8th Parish Priest
  • 1949 Fr E V Ryan – 9th Parish Priest
  • 1952 Fr Robert Dunworth – 10th Parish Priest
  • 1954 Catholic Boys’ School at Monivae Homestead Port Fairy Rd – temporary site for “Sacred Heart College Monivae”. With exception of 65 acres around the homestead it was exchanged in 1971 for a 120 acre Ballarat Road site. Initial intake at the homestead was 38 students in Forms 1 and 2.
  • 1956 The relocated College to be named “Monivae” opened in February, staffed by Seven Priests and Four Brothers of Missionaries of Sacred Heart. The first intake of students totalled 65 boarders and 50 day students. Western District boys were earlier educated at privately run schools.
  • 1962 Fr Patrick Flanagan from February 1962 – May 1964
  •  1968 Maryknoll College, located on Clarendon Street was a girls’ secondary school run by the Good Samaritans. Fr Patrick Flanagan May 1968 to January 1973
  • 1970 Maryknoll College matriculation students attended some classes at Monivae.
  • 1973 Fr Tom Russell – 11th Parish Priest
  • 1974 Monivae began co-education for senior students with full intake by 1977. As no boarding facilities were available to girls, private boarding places were initially sought.
  • 1977 Maryknoll College became Junior Monivae campus for Year 7 and 8 until 1998.
  • 1984 Fr Patrick Flanagan – 12th Parish Priest until January 1992.
  • 1987 Further extensions and renovations undertaken to St Mary’s Church. Design by local Architect, Francis Punch.
  • 1992 Fr Peter Hudson – 13th Parish Priest
  • 1998 Junior Monivae returned to Ballarat Road.
  • 2001 December 9th – Centenary Belltower erected between old and new church for 1889 bell 250 kgs – original property of a Fire Brigade at Eastern Hill, Melbourne. There is no knowledge in our parish history records of how the bell was attained by Fr Shanahan. Naming of Maryknoll Centre also took place this year.
  • 2003 Fr Patrick Mugavin – 14th Parish Priest
  • 2011 Completion of new St Mary’s Primary School at Hilliers Lane, Hamilton.
  • The last member of the Good Samaritan Order farewelled by St Mary’s community.

Information sourced from St Mary’s Parish Archival Records and a book titled “Pioneer Catholic Victoria” by Rev W Ebsworth