By Cathy Jones
In the early history of Strathfield, Catholics were few in number. By 1891 only 14% of the population of Strathfield was Catholic, compared with over 30% recorded in the 2001 Census. While there were some prominent and wealthy Catholics who resided in Strathfield such as John and James Toohey [of Toohey’s Brewery], most were of Irish origin and worked as servants and domestics in the wealthy homes of the district.
Until the opening of the first St Martha’s Catholic Church in 1904, Catholics living in Strathfield attended Church at St Mary’s Concord. Strathfield was declared a separate parish in 1916.
With the sale of land from the ‘Railway Station Estate’, blocks were bought in the name of His Eminence Patrick Francis Cardinal Moran, Catholic Archbishop of Sydney with the intention of building a Church. This became the site of the first St Martha’s Church built in 1904 to a design by architects Sheerin & Hennessy costing £2275. The choice of the name of the Church, St Martha’s, is thought to reflect the occupation of many of the Church’s first parishioners. St Martha is the patron saint of servants and domestics.
This Church, which now serves as a Hall and Classrooms for the School, celebrated its 100th anniversary in 2004. The foundation stone of the first Church is dated 20 November 2004 and was laid by Cardinal Moran. The following article was published in the Sydney Morning Herald, Monday 21 November 1904:
ST. MARTHA’S CHURCH, STRATHFIELD. BLESSING THE NEW BUILDING.
Cardinal Moran, accompanied by Monsignor O’Haran, paid a visit to Strathfield yesterday and solemnly blessed the corner-stone of St. Martha’s Church, Homebush-road. The church is about 10 minutes walk from Strathfield station. After the ceremony of blessing addresses were delivered to a large gathering of residents, amongst whom were Messrs. J. Baxter. J. V. Casey, F. B. Freehill, J. F. Hennessy, E. J. Hollingdale, J. Toohey, Dr. O. Maher, and Gaxieu.
The Rev. F. Byrne, parish priest, said that considerable difficulties had to be overcome before a site for a much-needed church could be obtained. At first service was held at the Dominican Convent, and recently the council chambers had been utilised. Both, however, were too small, and the new church, which would cost £2275, was necessary.
Cardinal Moran congratulated the Roman Catholics of the district upon their determination to secure a church of their own, suitable for parochial purposes.
Mr. F. B. Freehlll moved, and Mr. W. Edmunds seconded, – “That a subscription list be opened to defray the cost of the new building”.- Offerings totalling nearly £700 were handed in.
The church is a handsome building in Gothic design. It is being erected in sections, the first portion consisting, of a nave 60 x 29, with a temporary sanctuary 18ft x 12ft 6in, and vestry 12ft 6in x 9ft, also of brick. The completed building will comprise an extension of the nave, transepts, sanctuary, and vestries. The building will accommodate about 350 people. Mr. Henry J. Thompson, of Waverley, is the contractor, and Messrs. Sheerin and Hennessy, of the City-chambers, 243 Pitt-street, Sydney, are the architects.
After the opening of the new Church, the old church was used as a school and later a parish hall. In the 1970’s, classrooms were built on the newly built mezzanine floor in the hall. The Church features Flemish bond brickwork, brick buttresses, steeply pitched slate roof, pointed arch windows with stone labels, stone copping and sandstone bracery.
The new St Martha’s Church was built in 1924 to a design by prominent architect, John Bede Barlow. Barlow, like Sheerin & Hennessey before him, was noted for his design of Catholic Churches. The church was erected by builder Dan O’Curry of Bankstown. Archbishop Michael Kelly laid the foundation stone in 1923. It was intended to have spires on the Church but they were reduced to the existing turrets. The church features colonial brickwork, brick portico, steeply pitched tile roof and brick towers to both sides of the Churchill Avenue façade.
St Martha’s has many interesting features. The interior walls are brick faced, when many Churches in this period were plaster-rendered. Apparently, brick work was a particular characteristic of Barlow’s designs. Of particular importance are the gold mosiac Stations of the Cross, a 1927 gift from Miss Nellie O’Brien in memory of her mother Ellen. The O’Brien family lived in Churchill Avenue Strathfield. The Stations of the Cross were made in Italy and created from hundreds of minute pieces of glass and stone, in various colours, joined together to form a picture. Being a mosaic, they have not faded. They are extremely rare and considered a very special feature of St Marthas.
St Martha’s Confessional Boxes were built in 1941-42, when construction of St Martha’s School was also commenced. The architect for both projects was Ernest Scott & Green. Ernest Scott & Green were prominent Sydney architects. Other works in Strathfield include the Horse & Jockey Hotel, Parramatta Road Homebush.
Bill Watson, a stonemason from Homebush, built the sandstone altar in the 1960s. The erection of new altar followed a direction from Cardinal Gilroy that church sanctuaries should be redesigned to face the people at Mass, in line with liturgical thought. A small altar was built for the tabernacle and the whole sanctuary was panelled in sandstone with the words of Jesus: ‘I am the Way, the Truth and the Life’. There was an exchange between the tabernacles on the main altar and the Lady Chapel, so the finer of the two occupied the position of greater importance.
Father Geoff Davey, who prior to becoming a priest, was a civil engineer, added the Church foyer and portico in the 1970s.
St Martha’s School
St Martha’s School is built on the site of the former home ‘Glencairn’, Churchill Avenue, which was acquired by St Martha’s Church in 1922. In July 1940 St Martha’s Parish Priest Monsignor Martin wrote to Archbishop to demolish the cottage and build a new school with permission granted in August 1940. An application was lodged with Strathfield Council to build a new school building with five classrooms with an estimated value of the building £4400. The architects engaged were prominent Sydney architectural firm Ernest A. Scott, Green & Scott.
The St Martha’s complex of buildings, including the Churches and School, are heritage listed on Strathfield Council’s Local Environment Plan. The heritage inventory sheet states that this group of buildings are of local significance for their architectural qualities, as representative of the Catholic community in Strathfield and for their contribution to the streetscape.
Fox & Associates, Strathfield Heritage Study, 1986.
Glass, G., The Stations of the Cross, c.2004.
St Martha’s Strathfield, 1916-1991 [Booklet]
Strathfield Council Building Application Records.
Strathfield Council Building Register Vol.6 [1940-48] and Building Plans 46/1941.
Vella, G., ‘A brief history of St Martha’s Church Strathfield’, St Martha’s Church Strathfield Centenary Mass, 28 November 2004.
© Cathy Jones 2006. This article is subject to copyright and may not be reproduced without permission of the author.