Turn the light off when you leave

Our hottest summer on record is coming to an end - but spare a thought for the residents of Coober Pedy. Daytime temperatures higher than 48C mean half of the town's inhabitants live underground.

Thanks to the extreme temperatures, the town has created an entire sub-terrestrial world where you’ll find everything from an underground bookstore to a subterranean Catholic Church.

The history of Coober Pedy Catholic Church

Coober Pedy and its Catholic Church have a history as interesting as the vast outback landscape that surrounds it.

From the early years of settlement, Catholic priests visited people living in outback regions. The early Jesuits were the first bush priests and they were followed by local Diocesan Priests who arrived to care for the outback flock. They went as far north as Uluru, south to Port Augusta and east to Peterborough, Hawker and Leigh Creek – until Father Frank Cresp took up residence in Coober Pedy in late 1965.

When St Peters and St Pauls Catholic church opened, Fr Cresp said of the community participation: “the Coober Pedy people, whether of the faith of not, still today abide by the rule of when you work for the church, God pays your wages.”

At the time the church opened, Coober Pedy was a growing opal mining town, while nearby Oodnadatta was the business centre for the bush people. Coober Pedy eventually became the main business hub with the building of the new Ghan Railway line in 1980 and the sealing of the Stuart Highway in 1987.

The Church in the shape of a cross

Australia’s first underground church was dug out of sandstone in the shape of a cross. Once inside, St Paul and St Peter’s Catholic church has a comforting appeal, with its statue-filled nooks and soothing classical music.  A quiet place of meditation and prayer, the church provides a regular Sunday service for about 40 worshippers. The interior of the church is chiselled from natural rock and coated with a special sealant to prevent dust from settling.

The temperature inside the underground church is a pleasant 25C all year long. The church is open 24-hours a day and politely requests you ‘turn the light off when you leave’.

Coober Pedy’s unique underground living, the harshness of the terrain and multicultural mix truly capture the essence of the Australian Outback.

There is however, a sediment of sorrow in the town that younger generations will never get to experience the vibrant, bustling town that Coober Pedy once was during the opal rush days - when, for example, it had  24-hour restaurants and bars.

The peaceful and quiet pace of life in Coober Pedy makes it the perfect spot to reflect on the bigger things in life - such as the size of Fr Matthews ‘bush run’, which has a catchment the same size as the entire country of Tanzania, extending to the WA border in the West and Birdsville in QLD to the East.

Father Brian Matthew

The current Catholic Church was opened in 1967 and the current parish priest is Fr Brian Matthews.

Presiding over the subterranean church, that often has more tourists than parishioners, is a novelty not lost on Fr Matthews who is now in his third year at Coober Pedy.

“It’s vastly, vastly different to anything I’ve done before, but we still get a good crowd here on Saturday nights and Sunday morning. About 70 turn up to the service sometimes.” Fr Matthew said.

One thing is for sure in Coober Pedy, it is no place for those seeking a predictable, regular way of living.

Coober Pedy isn’t the only unique Catholic Church in Australia. Take a look at the “Mother-of-Pearl Church” in Beagle Bay which is celebrating its centenary year in 2018.

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