The ‘Mother-of-Pearl Church’ celebrates its centenary year

Few churches in Australia are more remote, or beautiful, than the Sacred Heart Church in Beagle Bay, part of the Catholic Diocese of Broome.

It takes over an hour from Broome by four-wheel drive along a red dirt track on Western Australia’s Dampier Peninsula to reach the Sacred Heart Church in Beagle Bay.

The rich history of the Beagle Bay community is as fascinating as the landscape.

It is a small Indigenous community founded in 1890 by French Trappist monks, who had come to Australia to work and convert Aborigines to Catholicism. The Trappists established the first Catholic school in the Kimberley in 1892 teaching in French, one of the local languages, Nyul Nyul and Latin.  

The Trappist monks only lasted 10 years in the isolated community and in their place arrived another Catholic order, the German Pallotine Brothers, and shortly afterwards a group of Irish nuns, the Sisters of St John of God.

The Sisters of St John of God dedicated themselves to teaching, nursing and caring for the Stolen Generation children brought to Beagle Bay under Government orders. They stayed and taught at the Sacred Heart School until the 1970s. Later, Sisters of St Joseph of the Apparition, Infant Jesus Sisters and Our Lady of the Mission Sisters taught in the school.

The design of the Sacred Heart Church is an inspiring union of German and Aboriginal culture.

When World War I broke out in 1914, all Germans in the north-west corner of Australia were arrested and incarcerated at Beagle Bay.

They decided to build a durable church and based the design on a photograph of a country parish church in their homeland. Cyclones, white ants and bush fires had destroyed previous wooden churches built in the area. More than 90,000 bricks were fashioned by hand and fired. Mortar was made from the ashes of burnt shells.

Once the outside of the building was completed in 1917, a team of Aboriginal women decorated the interior with mother-of-pearl, cowrie, volute and olive snail shells, still a wonderful sight 100 years later.

Rev Father Hilary Rotich is the current parish priest at the Sacred Heart Church. Fr Rotich, together with Church Elders in Beagle Bay, has agreed that Sunday 12 August 2018 will be a day of significant celebration as the community of the faithful remembers and pays tribute to the opening of this sacred piece of architecture 100 years ago.

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