“The Longest Church in Australia”
In the early 1930’s Tennant Creek was granted approval for the establishment of a Catholic Mission Station. Father Maloney M.S.C. came from Alice Springs at irregular occasions to celebrate mass.
The Reverend Father Wilfred J. Dew, Missionaries of the Sacred Heart (M.S.C.) of the Darwin Parish, was asked by Bishop Francis Xavier Gsell to assess the needs of the Tennant Creek parishioners, who numbered approximately 300.
Father Dew later wrote:
“I was appointed to Tennant Creek in 1935. I went to Darwin in 1936 and discussed the whole situation with Monsignor Gsell. He suggested me taking the Pine Creek church to Tennant Creek. So there and then I arranged for Brother Andrew Smith M.S.C. to come with me to Pine Creek for a fortnight and managed in that time to dismantle the Church that was there.”
St Patrick’s Roman Catholic Church, Pine Creek
Northern Territory Times and Gazette (Darwin)- Friday 26th May 1911
The opening of the first country church in the Northern Territory has attracted the majority of visitors, and our Roman Catholic fellow-citizens are to be congratulated on the fact that they have secured this pioneer honour in the face of that greatest of obstacles-hard times. The site of the church is at the northern edge of the township, on a ridge which overlooks the whole Pine Creek basin, and no better position could have been selected.
1936 .. Photo taken prior to its removal to Tennant Creek, the old and long disused St Patrick’s Roman Catholic Church at Pine Creek, was erected 1904 by Father Cross and Timothy O’Shea (father of Mrs Ulyatt, Muckaty Station) and opened in 1911 by Monsignor Gsell.
Father Cross M.S.C. was given a collection of iron and girders from a disused mine by a Mr William Byrne owner of Tipperary Station and with these he designed and constructed a church showing considerable ingenuity and foresight, because being aware of the fickleness of gold seams, he bolted the edifice together without using a single nail. Thus, if Pine Creek fell on bad times, the church had only to be unbolted piece by piece and put together again elsewhere.
The stout iron poles which form the uprights of the church came to the Territory from England and served as telegraph poles carrying the line to Howley goldfields close to Pine Creek. When the mines closed down, the poles were bought by W Byrne of Burnside. When the Pine Creek church was erected (1911) Byrnes donated the poles as piles for the building.
Northern Standard (Darwin NT 1921:1955) – Tuesday 29th September 1936
The Reverend Father Dew cleared the town this morning in his motor van for his headquarters at Tennant Creek. Brother A. A. Smith of the mission staff is making the journey with the Reverend gentleman to Pine Creek, where the Catholic Church at the mining township is to be pulled down and removed to Tennant Creek. The materials will be trucked by rail to Birdum and then by motor truck to the site of re-erection.
So from an the abandoned mining centre of Pine Creek, no less than four hundred and fifty miles distant, Father Dew brought a church whose iron framework was dismantled in two weeks.
It was then railed from Pine Creek to Birdum (Larrimah) and the Tennant Creek trucking firm of Baldocks carried out the move the remaining distance, in conjunction with Snowy Renfrey.
The trucks carrying the dismantled church were caught in floods at Daly Waters and parts of the load were unloaded when the trucks became bogged and left by the roadside, some being washed away.
Because the building was spread out along the route between Pine Creek and Tennant Creek, some four hundred and fifty miles for quite some time, it became affectionately known by locals as the:-
“longest church in Australia”.
Northern Standard (Darwin NT 1921:1955) – Friday 13th August 1937
The re-erection of the Pine Creek Catholic Church at Tennant Creek is just about completed and after painting is carried out will be put into use for the adherents of the church at the central mining town ship
Rev. Father Wilfred Dew had been a science master and was very fond of books. This young man was appointed to Tennant Creek in 1935, after only ten years of teaching, and evangelised the mining community. He had abandoned the comfort of a professor’s chair to plunge into the bush with neither church nor presbytery and only a car for his home, and his ministry to support his spirit. He did a lot of travelling, built himself a nice library, and his presbytery-cum-church had all the latest scientific devices which he was able to design. Father Dew stayed in Tennant Creek throughout the war and was Chaplain to the 55 Australian Camp Hospital, Tennant Creek in 1944.
For the first six months mass was celebrated in the homes of some parishioners. The dining table was pushed to the end of the room, clothes were removed from nails, and the best was made of the circumstances. The small congregation knelt on the ant-bed floor (possibly Weaber’s residence at the Rising Sun Mine). Also Scott’s Hall, next to the Tennant Creek Hotel was made available, but this was unsuitable as the dance which was held there on Saturday nights left the hall in confusion.
Father Dew designed the building which was re-built differently then had been at Pine Creek, which he described as virtually a 60 foot by 20 foot hay shed. The building comprised of the Church and Sacristy, which was the office and Confessional, front and inside verandahs with a bathroom and windmills, one to pump rain water to the overhead tank. There were three water tanks on site providing a total of 5,400 gallons. Wooden louvres were imported from Queensland whilst all church and residence furniture was brought up from Adelaide. Father Dew designed the church seats and alter which were made to order. Windows, wall and ceiling lining, guttering and all plumbing was also purchased interstate. A wind driven generator provided electricity by charging batteries. The majority of the costs for the building were borne by promoters from the southern states plus locally by the Dwyer and Weaber families and also T Kelley. The overall cost was £3,000.
The relocation of the church was expensive, and by the time it was opened it had cost “many hundreds of pounds”. The church was reconstructed in a different layout then that of its original location. A verandah was built on two sides to serve as accommodation for the priest, the church was lined, a sacristy which will serve as an office built and the whole church equipped throughout on permanent lines.
The Opening of the Church of Christ the King – Sunday 21st November 1937
The West Australian (Perth WA:1879-1954 – Wednesday 24th November 1937
INLAND CHURCH. Blessed by Bishop of Kimberleys, The Vicar-Apostolic of the Kimberleys, Most Rev. Otto Raible, who left Melbourne on Friday last by A.N.A. plane for Adelaide where he joined a Guinea Airways plane for Tennant Creek, Central Australia. On Sunday (21st November 1937) he blessed and opened the new Church of Christ the King, at Tennant Creek. Four years ago Tennant Creek was a very lonely outpost on the overland telegraph line which joins Adelaide to Darwin, right across the centre of Australia. Gold had been found in Tennant Creek ten years ago or more at a spot about six miles from the telegraph station but it was only four years ago that the possibilities of the district were brought to the notice of the public
Attending the opening were Father Maloney MSC (Alice Springs), Father Dew MSC (resident Parish Priest), Dr Rupert Catalano, Rev. Ken Beckett of Australian Inland Mission, Constable Jim Mannion, the Warden Mr H Owen, Jock Cameron of the ES&A Bank, Mr Nicholls of the PMG, Mrs Bill Weaber, Mrs Jim Maloney and her daughters, Mr and Mrs Tom McMahon of the Goldfield Hotel, Bluey Sullivan and many others. The little church which had the presbytery of one room and an L-shaped verandah attached, was packed.
The parish covers a large area, extending from the Western Australian border to the Queensland border To maintain contact with the people in his parish the priest, Rev. Father Dew spent a great deal of his time in travelling. To visit every mine in the district entailed a journey of 500 miles; the alluvial field is 40 miles away and other mines are 20 and 30 miles from the church. But he has also to visit two wolfram mines (Hatches Creek) at distances of 80 and 150 miles from Tennant Creek and three stations at which there are Catholics, Elkedra is 250 miles away, Alexandria 200 miles and Austral Downs 300 miles. Then the north road has to be traversed as far as Birdum and Mataranka, including Daly Waters and Newcastle Waters distances of over 300 miles being again involved.
Prior to the official proclamation of the town in 1954 it was mandatory for all those who wished to hold land in Tennant Creek to hold a miner’s right. This posed difficulties for the church, but it managed to obtained a miner’s right in June 1941.
During World War II the church became a social centre for troops traveling the north-south road.
A Sidney Williams hut adjacent to the church was erected, for the purpose as a hall sometime after August 1948 during Father Cosgrove’s time. The building had a very large evaporative air cooler, apparently among the largest in the town at the time.
A wind-driven generator was used to light up the the cross at night in 1953 during the tenure of Father Dallas Cox.
The longest-serving priest was Father George Vincent Taylor who held the post from 1957 to 1970, thirteen years.
He was of retiring age when he came to Tennant Creek. A man of Imposing stature and unbending moral rectitude, Father Taylor showed such kindness and care, not only to his parishioners, but to all residents whether of other denominations, or avowed non believers, that his leaving was a severe blow to the community. Father Taylor retired to the Missionaries of the Sacred Heart (M.S.C.) House of Studies, Croydon, Victoria to enjoy a well earned retirement, until his death on 28th August 1983, just a few hours short of his 90th birthday.
Hilda Tuxworth M.B.E.
The church played a role in assisting evacuees from Darwin after Cyclone Tracy, Christmas 1974.
A new brick Parish House was erected in 1975 at the rear of the church, designed by Leith & Bartlett of Turner, ACT and the building was opened by Bishop McLaughlin in 1976.
During Father Balding’s tenure, the old presbytery, composing of a kitchen, living room and verandahs on the southern side of the church, was renovated to accommodate seating for a growing congregation within the church.
On representation by the Tennant Creek National Trust Northern Territory, the Church of Christ the King was placed on the National Register.
The church’s fame grew in 1984 when the Blessed Mother Teresa of Calcutta, now Saint Teresa of Calcutta, paid a visit to Tennant Creek on her Australian tour.
“Mother Teresa gets her wish granted.”
Chief Minister Mr. Ian Tuxworth was delighted to meet Mother Teresa in Tennant Creek last Friday to discuss several ways of assisting her work supporting extremely disadvantaged people. Mother Teresa asked if a block of land, in Thompson Street, currently owned by the Commonwealth, could be transferred to her Missionary Sisters for use as a facility.
Tennant & District Times – 22 February 1984
Mother Teresa attended a Virgil Mass at the Church of Christ the King, and a shrine to Saint Teresa remains in the church.
The work of renovating the church began in 1986. The architects, Shanahan, Keeler and Faehse, gave their services free of charge to restore this much loved church which has held so many sentimental memories. Bishop Edmund Collins blessed the renovated Church of Christ the King.
The Church of Christ the King and adjacent Sidney Williams hut/hall were heritage-listed in August 2007.
1935 – 45 … Rev. Fr. Wilfred J Dew MSC
1945-46 … Rev. Fr. A Guest MSC
1947-51 … Rev. Fr. John Cosgrove MSC
1951-54 … Rev. Fr. Dallas J Cox MSC
1954-55 … Rev Fr. A.J. Collins (relief)
1955-56 … Rev. Fr. Dallas J Cox MSC
1956-57 … Rev. Fr. Fred Mordaunt MSC
1957-70 … Rev. Fr. George Vincent Taylor MSC
1970-71 … Rev. Fr. Maurice McPhillamy MSC
1972-73 … Rev. Fr. John Fallon MSC
1973-74 … Rev. Fr. John O’Corrigan MSC
1974-79 … Rev. Fr. Tom McGrail
1979 – 84 … Rev. Fr. Herbert Balding SJ
1985- … Rev. Fr. Leon De Souza
Father John Kennedy is the current priest. (2017)
The church continues to have a strong architectural presence and remains an iconic landmark of Tennant Creek.
Newspaper clippings – Northern Standard; The West Australian,
Northern Territory Times and Gazette; Territory Stories
The Heritage of Tennant Creek – Helen J Wilson – Report to the National Trust (NT) 1995
Tennant & District Times Commemorative Issue – May 1984
The History of the Catholic Church in the Northern Territory – John Patrick O’Loughlin, M.S.C. , D.D. , Bishop of Darwin 1949-85 – Ocassional Papers no 2
NT Dreaming – The Story of the Catholic Church in the Northern Territory – 1998 compiled by Ann Thomson
Missions Inside Australia – Our Lady of the Sacred Heart
Church of Christ the King, Tennant Creek; Background Historical Information, Prepared by the Heritage Branch, April 2010 – NT Dept. Natural Resources, Environment, the Arts and Sport, Darwin