Sacred Heart School History | Beagle Bay History

The History of Sacred Heart School

Compiled and written by
Gerard Tonti-Philipini and Sr. Sheila Murphy.

The first Catholic school in the Kimberley was established by the Trappist Fathers at Beagle Bay in 1892. It was a bi-lingual school where instruction was given in French and Nyul Nyul, the language of the traditional owners of the land around Beagle Bay. They also learnt to speak and sing in English and were taught Latin hymns.

The Pallottine fathers and brothers took charge of the mission in 1901. The St John of God sisters arrived in 1907 and taught in the school until the 1970s. Later, Sisters of St Joseph of the Apparition, Infant Jesus Sisters and The Our Lady of the Mission Sisters taught in Sacred Heart School. The Mission ceased to operate in the mid 1970s and the Beagle Bay community has been self determining since then, governed by an elected Community Council. However at that time, the community invited the Church to continue to provide priests and a school. Over the past decade there has been a transfer of leadership from religious orders to that of lay leadership.

Over the years Beagle Bay has provided education for students from the Beagle Bay community, several outlying communities including Bobeiding, Murphy Creek and Red Soil, as well as distant parts of the Kimberley and beyond. The school now provides education for students ranging from Kindergarten to Year 10.

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The History of Beagle Bay


Compiled and Written by Frank Birrell


The public reaction to the collapse of the bell tower of Sacred Heart Church, Beagle Bay, was a very clear indication of the place that this unique church has in the fabric of the Kimberley. On the morning of September 8th 2001, there were phone calls to the Parish Priest, Fr. Eugene San; to the school and to the community office. All were showing great concern for what had happened and were wanting to know when it was to be rebuilt. The Broome office of the ABC were first to broadcast the news and this was then taken up by the ABC in Perth and finally the ABC nationally along with several other media outlets.

The impact of this collapse struck at the very heart of many of the local Aboriginal people of Beagle Bay and environs. This was a part of themselves, of their blood, sweat and tears. Many of them had helped to build this church and here was a large part of it nothing more than a pile of rubble. Almost immediately the drive was on to rebuild the tower and eventually to completely restore the whole church to its original glory.

Over the years many, many people, both tourists and locals alike have shown a great interest in the history of the church and the community of Beagle Bay. How did such a stunning piece of architecture come to be built in such a remote location? What place does this church play in the life of the present Beagle Bay community?

For the last eight years I have been a teacher at Sacred Heart School in Beagle Bay. On the night of Thursday September 7th 2001, I was awakened by a sudden thud, which I dismissed at the time. However, when I woke up at about 6.00am, I walked out on a scene of a collapsed tower and a pile of rubble. Over these eight years, tourists and others have asked me many questions about the Beagle Bay Church. This is the reason for this short book, as an attempt to answer briefly many of those questions.


Part 1: Setting The Scene.

There are several oral stories and brief records about the Aboriginal people ( the Nyul Nyul), when the first missionaries came to the Kimberley in 1884. Captain George Grey described the Northwest as “a most beautiful country that must be as well watered as any region in the world!”

Her Majesty’s ship, “The Beagle” was used to make a survey of the North West coast of Australia. On January 24th, 1838, J.C.Wickham, the surveyor, named a bay on the north west coast, hence Beagle Bay was named.

A few years after these events, Fr. Matthew Gibney was consecrated bishop. This was in 1887 and he took up his jurisdiction, which covered all of Western Australia. In 1888, Pope Leo XIII was able to obtain some missionaries from the Sept Fons Abbey in Lyons, France. These Trappists traveled off to Australia. It was Bishop Gibney’s wish that the Government would permit the Trappists to use the Aboriginal reserve at Beagle Bay as a place where a mission could be founded. The effect of the government’s agreement for the mission’s access to 600,000 acres set aside as an Aboriginal Reserve was very negative. The media picked this and there was a great deal of negativity about the papacy gaining control of this land.

Dom Ambrose and his Trappist companions had only a few words of English between them, while Bishop Gibney had even less French. People were amazed at how they communicated through Latin. Bishop Gibney, via his Latin, was able to convey something of the vast empty hectares of the colony with the 500,000 people being a part of this vast area.

With their arrival at Derby, the main settlement in the West Kimberley, Dom Ambrose and the French monks came on a town of only 100 men and 14 women. Malaria attacked Fr. Alphonse upon his arrival. Dom Ambrose became faint from the effects of the heat. However, they were given positive encouragement by the locals due to the great work done by Fr. McNab on the peninsula.
A police trooper and property worker, John Daly, obtained horses and a indigenous guide. The party consisted of Bishop Gibney, Dom Ambrose, John Daly and the guide set out to explore Dampierland. The abbot was wearing the brown working habit of his Order, its pointed cowl protected his tonsured head. He rode on quietly through the rugged grasslands, patiently coping with the heat and the insects. However, he finally came down with an attack of malaria.

Having finally crossed the Fitzroy River, which was flooded due to unseasonable rain, the party moved up the eastern coast of the peninsula. They were traveling through a tangled pindan wilderness of pandanus palms, wattle, eucalypt and tea-tree scrub, near Goodenough Bay, about 80 km. North of the Fitzroy River, they came upon a small group of local indigenous men. These men fled into hiding but being followed and spoken to by the guide, it emerged that these locals had known Fr. McNab and knew of his log house. The party was shown where Fr. McNab had lived on the log house. There were only scattered remains of a cart, buggy, ploughs, harness and other equipment.

Word traveled before the party from tribe to tribe and Bishop Gibney’s party were received with goodwill. The Nyul Nyul people of the Beagle Bay area led Bishop Gibney, Dom Ambrose and John Daly through the pindan to an area of white gums and paperbarks. Springs and lily-covered ponds fed all, with an abundance of bird life. For Dom Ambrose this was a beautiful place which had a powerful impact on him. Even to the point where he fell on his knees and gave thanks to God. Here, in a very isolated place, was at least a place of fertility, a site where they might one day build an abbey. Upon returning to Derby, the abbot and Bishop Gibney gathered up supplies and set off to Goodenough Bay to re-establish a settlement there, and then onto Beagle Bay. Here Don Ambrose and his fellow monks set about establishing themselves in a Trappist routine of work and prayer in the wilderness.



The trials and frustrations of the Trappist community had been conveyed to the Abbey at Sept Fons and included the death of Brother Francois d’Assise from drowning, when he was rescuing sheep in a flood. Dom Ambrose had spelt out the difficulties of trying to civilize the Aborigines and how local customs had been at odds to Christian values. The community were in great need of vocations if their work was to continue.

In the middle of 1893, Abbot Ambrose was summoned to attend the General Chapter at Sept Fons. Sailing to France, Father Anselm Lenegre was left in charge. Dom Ambrose left Australia disappointed by his failure to attract Australian postulants and in worse health than before. The abbot was to find it hard to give an encouraging picture of the Australian scene.

Even though Dom Ambrose viewed the future negatively, there was some positive things taking place. Father Alphonse had worked painstakingly to develop some knowledge of the Nyul Nyul language. He had translated the Sermon on the Mount, which the local Aboriginals understood very well and found completely in accordance with their own law. Fr. Alphonse had also begun a small school and drawn up a limited French/Nyul Nyul dictionary.

In August 1893, Bishop Gibney received a letter from the Abbot-General, Father Sebastian Wyart. (Pg. 87, “ The Rock and The Sand”, Mary Durack)
He was shocked and hurt that the monks he revered should have adopted an attitude as defeatist as that of the Aborigines’ Protection Board, that he despised. He prevailed upon Cardinal Moran to join him in urging the Trappists to carry on. It was pointed out to the powers-that-be in France that there had been some success of the Spanish Benedictines at New Norcia; the Jesuits at Daly Diver in the Northern Territory and other missionaries in Papua New Guinea.

Up to August 1896 the only name in the baptismal register was that of Felix’s baby, Maria Norengbor, but from this time on baptisms and marriages were recorded regularly at both Beagle bay and Disaster Bay (near Lombadina) missions. In October, Brother Xavier wrote to Bishop Gibney on the occasion of the first twelve members of the Nyul Nyul tribe being received into the Church by Abbot Ambrose. Father Alphonse had instructed them all.

The final decision by the Trappist superiors was made in September 1899 following the arriving Fathers Bernard Le Louarn and Ermenfroy Nachin. So Abbot-General Sebastian, having financial problems with the number of communities, was very keen to close down the Australian foundation as quickly as possible.

Only one Trappist monk was left, Father Nicholas Emo, had been carrying on his work as parish priest in Broome. Father Nicholas, from an influential Spanish family, was eager to spend his life with the Aboriginal people. He wrote that it was “the secret attraction I felt for this unfortunate race” (A.C.A.P. Letter to the Aborigines Protection Board with 27 signatures, August 1897). This was his intention upon entering Sept Fons as a novice in 1894.

Before long Father Nicholas established a small school for the Aboriginal children and a hostel for mixed race girls. He had obtained help from a Filipino, Caprio Anabia, and his mixed race wife. Father Nicholas carved a stone cross in the sandhill near his new school and, with the help of Filipinos, put up beside it a church and small presbytery.

After much heartache and many trials, the French Trappists could no longer offer support to the mission at Beagle Bay. It was then that Bishop Kelly, of the newly formed diocese of Geraldton, invited the Pallottine Priests and brothers to take over from the French Trappists. So it was on 12th June 1901 that the Propaganda Fide in Rome, officially transferred the Beagle bay mission from the French Trappists to the society of Catholic Apostolate, or as it was known then, the Pious Society of the Missions.This order was founded by St. Vincent Pallotti.



Under the guidance of the Society of Catholic Apostolate ( the Pallottines), Beagle Bay mission began to develop. However, on 31st January 1904, the mission suffered its first great loss. Fr. Henry Rensmann, a gifted linguist, who preached in the local Nyul Nyul language, died at the age of 27 years. He became the first priest to be buried in the Beagle Bay cemetery.
The replacement for Fr. Rensmann arrived later in 1904 and set about establishing himself at the Beagle Bay mission. Fr. Thomas Bachmair was the main driving force behind the building of a new mission church. So from the unfortunate drowning of Fr. Rensmann, came the beautiful church we have today.

With the rapid growth taking place at Beagle Bay, Bishop Gibney approached the Sisters of St. John of God to establish a school, this became a reality in 1907. So by 1910 the school run by the St. john of God Sisters had 44 girls and 40 boys attending classes.
Up till his death in 2002, Rudolph Newman, was the oldest resident in the Beagle Bay community. He arrived at the mission as a 10-year-old boy in 1910. He was able to recall the old original mission church constructed from rough iron sheets. It was located in front of the present church’s main entrance and the school was on the site of the present church. Following a cyclone, these buildings were destroyed which gave Fr. Bachmair an ideal location for the new church.

All supplies for the mission were carried on luggers from Broome. These luggers were met on the shore of Beagle Bay by a bullock or donkey cart and were taken back to the mission. The road to Broome was not completed until 1921 and was built under the direction of Father Droste. This then enabled goods to be brought up by car or truck.

With the destruction of the old church by a cyclone, the practical German missionaries wanted to build a solid church made of brick. To achieve this goal, the missionaries experimented with different clay mixtures before achieving the correct proportion of white clay and black mud that had the right consistency for baking. A kiln was constructed to bake the bricks and burn shells for the lime mortar. This kiln was located at the back of the blacksmith’s building.

To develop the mortar, lime was extracted from seashells. To gather large quantities of shells, the people in the community went out along the beaches gathering shells in bullock carts. All these shells were brought back and fired up in the kiln. Oyster shells were knocked off the rocks with mattocks, loaded onto carts drawn by teams of bullocks. The shells were placed in the kiln along with layers of wood in alternative layers. It was this method that was used to produce lime from burnt lime. The missionaries were unable to obtain cement, so lime was used both for mortar and for plastering the walls. The brickwork was the responsibility of Brothers Matthias and Anton. The grand total of 60,000 bricks went into the construction of the church. The arrival of 1918 saw the end of World War I, but it also saw the completion of Sacred Heart Church, Beagle Bay. This church was the result of the combined efforts of brothers, priests and the local Aboriginal people who worked each day regardless of the weather conditions.

Once the roof had been completed, the church was white washed and decorated. Fr. Droste decorated the main brick altar with mother-of-pearl shells and coloured shells embedded into the plaster. He cut letters from the shining mother-of-pearl for an inspiration around the tabernacle:’ Dominus Deus et Deus Meus’, (My Lord and My God). Cowrie shells were used to frame the tabernacle. Three insert mosaics were placed in the front of the altar. The central mosaic is the Lamb off God; a Greek cross with a snake is on the right. This mosaic represents the story from the Book of Numbers in the Old Testament:’ The Lord said to Moses:” Make a fiery serpent, and set it on a pole; and if a serpent bits anyone they would look at the bronze serpent and live.” (Numbers 21:8). On the left side is a roman cross.

The original ceiling over the sanctuary was constructed from local bush timber. Strips of mangrove wood were nailed and then plastered. Sets of shells were placed on the ceiling to represent the sky. Unfortunately the white ants common to this area attacked this ceiling, and it eventually collapsed. Ever inventive, the German missionaries flattened kerosene tins and used them to replace the wooden ceiling.

The archway, which frames the sanctuary, is decorated by two angels holding a large scroll, which announces: ‘ Christus Vincit, Christus Regnat, Christus Triumphat’- ‘Christ Conquers or Overcomes, Christ Reigns, Christ triumphs’.
The simple but decorative altar rail was designed and made by Br. Frank Hanke using pearl shells inset into local wood.
The altar in honour of Our Lady is made of pearl shells and a variety of other shells from local beaches. The statue is surrounded by the words: ‘Tota pulchra es Maria, et macula non est in te’- ‘Mary is totally pure and stain is not in thee’.
On the right side is the altar in honour of St. Joseph. Below this altar is a mosaic of a boat which symbolises the Church and the statue is surrounded by an inscription: ‘St. Joseph, Patron of the Church, pray for us’.

On 15th August, 1918, the Feast of the Assumption of Our Lady into Heaven, Fr. Creagh, a Redemptorist priest and the Apostolic Administrator of the Kimberley, placed a plaque on the inside wall of the sanctuary. It can be seen near the ceiling on the left side of the archway. This great day was short lived with the unexpected death of Fr. Thomas Bachmair. He had been the guiding force behind the construction of the church. Only ten days after its official opening and blessing, Fr. Bachmair died from septicaemia. His funeral was the first funeral in this new church.

Fr. Droste undertook the completion of the bell tower. He used 15,000 double bricks, which is the equivalent of 30,000 normal house bricks, in the construction of the 12 metre tower. The base of the wall was 1.2 metres thick. There are three bells in the tower, the smallest is the original French bell which came out with the French Trappists. The other two bells were a gift from a parish in Germany where Fr. Otto Raible was before coming to Australia in May 1928. Fr. Otto was later to become bishop of the Kimberley.
The unique Stations of the Cross were painted by a sister of Fr. G> Hermes. Each of the Station were framed with pearl shell as were each of the church doors and windows. Bishop Raible installed the stain glass windows in 1940. Brs. Joseph Tautz and Frank Hanke made all the doors and windows from local timber.

In 1923 the Italian Salesian Priests and Brothers arrived to assist the depleted Pallottines. One of their achievements is to replace the white-ant plagued timber ceiling in the church with a metal one, made from flattened kerosene tins.
Following the relaxation on immigration restrictions in 1927, the German missionaries were able to move back to Beagle Bay. The Salesians then withdrew.

In 1929, the last of several documented and undocumented massacres of Aboriginal people in the Kimberley occurred at Forrest Creek.

With the increased occurrence of leprosy, the Sisters of St. john of God established the first leprosy hospital in 1932. This hospital was to deal with ‘the big sick’ in the Kimberley. It operated at the Old Police Station on the outskirts of Beagle bay. This particular Police Station was established to watch the German priests for signs of treason in the First World War. Eighteen months after the establishment of the hospital, the Department of Aboriginal Affairs had still not sent any supplies to support the hospital. Later on this hospital was moved to the outskirts of Derby.

During the 1930’s there were a number of memorable events that had a marked influence on the community at Beagle Bay. In April 1935, a cyclone devastated Beagle Bay. There was 559mm (26 inches) of rain in 26 hours. Every house but one were destroyed, gardens were ruined, fences washed away and a large number of stock were killed.

As the 1930’s decade came to an end, the biggest impact on Beagle Bay came from events happening on the other side of the world. In 1939, Adolf Hitler invaded Poland which meant that the world moved into a world war, which lasted till 1945.
With Australia now at war with Germany, seven German priests and eight brothers were gaoled in 1940. Initially in Broome and then in Melbourne, then, following an inquiry, two priests and the brothers were paroled back to Beagle Bay. There were five priests who were placed in the custody of the Catholic church in Melbourne for the duration of the war. The Missionaries of the Sacred Heart stepped in to ensure the Beagle Bay mission survived. The indigenous order of sisters, Queen of the Apostle Sisters, was the school monitors.

After the bombing of Broome in 1942, the 200 Aboriginal people were moved to Beagle Bay for the duration of the war. This meant that the population of Broome doubled overnight. This had a huge impact on the health and culture of the local community and the mission’s stock and other resources took years to recover.

The school had its numbers increased in 1946, when the government school at Moola Bulla could not find a teacher. This meant that 25 students were transferred to Beagle Bay and Broome.
With the progress of the 1950’s, life at the Beagle Bay mission moved along confidently. However, in 1957, the mission was severely damaged by a cyclone.

As regards the school, there were four St. John of God sisters teaching there and the children comprised of the mission families, State wards, and children who were sent from various places and circumstances around the Kimberley. The children were housed in dormitories, even when their parents lived on the mission. Parents were not consulted when older students were sent to Perth or elsewhere for secondary schooling ‘in their best interests’.

With the arrival of the 1960’s, there were a number of great changes in the area of society, employment conditions and the Catholic Church. In 1961 Pope John XXIII called all the bishops to Rome for the Second Vatican Council. The changes that were implemented from this Council had a great effect on every member of the Catholic Church over the following years.
In 1960, cattle stations in the Kimberley began to pay wages to Aboriginal people. Families were forced off their land and throughout the next fifteen years children were sent to Beagle Bay for their education.

By 1964, students whose parents lived on the mission, no longer had to live in the dormitories.The dining room is now the community store. There was a new domestic science block built which is now the Women’s Centre. There were 93 children at the school in total, from Year 1 to 6, and there were 5 secondary students in Broome and Derby.

Over the next two years the school grew rapidly, with 103 students in 1965 and the same number of staff. It was recommended by the school inspector that there be an increase in staff. By 1966, there were still only three staff, but 115 students. However, with the start of 1967, the school was upgraded to Year 9 and 5 staff, which included two lay teachers, John Howden and Kevin Slattery. The total number of students had reached 142, with Sr. Marietta as principal.

It should be remembered that 1967 was the year of the referendum in which the Australian people voted to include Aboriginal people for the first time as citizens of Australia.

In 1969, the Pallottines decided to begin to withdraw from their involvement in the Kimberley. This culminated in withdrawal from Beagle Bay in 2002, the mission that was their foundation place in the Kimberley.

With the arrival of the Whitlam Government there were major changes to take place for the people of Beagle Bay and all people who lived on church and independent operated Aboriginal missions. By 1974 the Beagle Bay community decided to begin to manage its own affairs, but they asked the Catholic Church to continue to provide the school. One of the negative aspects of the dismissal of the Whitlam Government was that the reforms introduced were never fully implemented. Despite the Aboriginal people getting back their own land and its management, they were not given the specialized help to manage and set up and run a business. It has taken many years of hardship for local people to begin to set up successful businesses, many of which are tapping into the growing tourism market.

Conservation and Restoration of Sacred Heart Church:

Cyclones, white ants, heart and damp have taken their toll on the building. Over recent years a great deal of work has been done to preserve the building. The roof and guttering has been replaced, there is a new concrete floor and the unique pearl shell inlays to the tiles on the floor of the main aisle.

However, despite all this work taking place, the bell tower collapsed in early September 2000. With the generous support from thousands of individuals and organizations from all around Australia and overseas; also the help from organizations such as Lotterywest, the Heritage Council, the Kimberley Development Commission, the Department of Environment and Infrastructure and Catholic Church Insurance, the bell tower was restored to its former glory. On 3rd November 2002, Bishop Christopher Saunders blessed the completely restored bell tower.

The significance of the event on the community of Beagle Bay is best captured by the following article, which appeared in ‘The Australian’:
“Emily Charles had decided against going to church last Sunday after her nephew rang and invited her out fishing. But when she heard the Beagle Bay, Sacred Heart bells ringing for the first time in two years, the 66-year-old wept with joy, put on her Sunday best and headed straight for the 8am Mass……
Ms. Charles, whose grandmother was one of the NyulNyul elders who collected the shells, has been involved with the Church since she was a child, and as she looked up at the steeple last weekend tears welled up in her eyes at the sight of the newly restored bell tower.

“When I heard the bells I just started crying”, she said. “I knew God was calling me so I thought ‘bugger going fishing with my nephew, I’m going to church.”
“I would certainly love to see more people practising their faith…but the people of Broome and the Kimberley communities embraced the church when it needed restoration.”
( ‘The Australian’ 28th September 2002.)


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