Charting the Ties of St Agatha’s to the Catholic Church Expansion in Brisbane

St Agatha's
Photo Credit: BCC Heritage Places

For more than a century, St Agatha’s Catholic Church has had a strong spiritual, social and cultural impact in the Clayfield community, marking its special ties to the expansion of the Catholic faith in Brisbane. 

During World War I, Clayfield locals expressed to Brisbane Archibishop James Duhig their need to establish a Catholic Church in the area despite the presence of other churches in Wooloowin, Nundah, and Hamilton. 

The influential archbishop proceeded to buy three acres of sloping land along Oriel Road in 1917 from Mr J B Charlton, with the intention of building a mass centre and a school. Mr Ernest Taylor won the tender for the project to build the church, which kickstarted in 1918. The archbishop blessed the foundation stone on the site and by September of that same year, the place of worship, which had a wooden structure, was also blessed and opened to the devoted Catholic community.

Archbishop Duhig chose the name St Agatha’s after the patron saint of the sixth-century church attached to the Irish College in Rome, where he received his education. He tasked Father Richard Walsh to celebrate a regular Sunday mass, and sometimes weekday morning worships, at this church. 

On the other hand, the Sisters of St Joseph from Nundah held catechism classes at St Agatha’s for the children of the Eagle Junction State School.

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By 1924, St Agatha’s Catholic Church received major building improvements as funded by the Clayfield community, where some of the more elite residents of Brisbane lived. Among its important donors were Hennessy and Hennessy and Mrs T.C. Beirne.  

1925: New Building for St Agatha’s Catholic Church under Father O’Connell

Rev. Father Francis O’Connell was officially the first parish priest of St Agatha’s, who arrived in Clayfield in 1921. He was instrumental in the construction of the new Romanesque-style polychromatic brick church, which cost £10,000 and was designed by architect Jack P. Donoghue or J.P. Donoghue.

At the opening of the new church, Father O’Connell exclaimed that he was certain Mr Donohue will long be remembered for his work after seeing the beautiful church, especially among the builders of the future.  The building, with its striking design, has become an iconic visual presence on Oriel Road. 

St Agatha's
Photo Credit: Facebook/StAgatha
St Agatha's indoors
Photo Credit: Bertknot/Flickr

The site of the new church was in the quiet, elevated portion of Oriel Road next to Stanley Hall. Father O’Connell lived in a presbytery built before the church building was completed. 

The old wooden church was transformed into a school with Father O’Connell, along with Archbishop Duhig, convincing the Presentation Sisters to come to Clayfield and run the institution, which would eventually become St Rita’s College. The school officially opened in January 1925 with 120 students. By the next year, the student population doubled but the institution was big enough to accommodate 500 kids.

Father O’Connell served as a parish priest until his sudden death in 1939 at 49 years old. 

St Agatha’s Catholic Church’s Other Notable Priests

Apart from Father O’Connell, St Agatha’s Catholic Church welcomed around six more parish priests in its 100 years, each serving the Clayfield community for more than a decade.

1940-1968: Rev Monsignor John English became the parish priest after Father Frank’s death and was behind the additions to the church building, such as the large domed sanctuary and sacristy, the altar boys’ room, and the side chapels. He was popular with the community but was known to be forthright with his observations and dislikes. 

1968-1989: After Monsignor John English died, Rev Father Vincent Rowan assumed as parish priest and had a challenging time implementing massive changes in the Catholic Church as ordered by the Second Vatican Council. During his time, Father Rowan oversaw the construction of a new school building replacing the wooden structure and formed the Parish Pastoral Council and Clayfield Care. He retired from his duties after suffering a stroke. 

1989-1998: Father Bernard Wilson initiated a number of programs for St Agatha’s Catholic Church, extending beyond the children’s education. He established eucharistic and music ministries, as well as formed the Financial Council. He organised a pilgrimage to the Holy Land but was unable to join the actual trip due to an accident. During his time, renovations and upgrades were done to the aging church building.

1998-2015: Very Rev Dr Adrian Farrelly wasn’t named the parish priest but the administrator of  St Agatha’s Catholic Church. He was revered for his sermons and believed that St Agatha’s must remain a strong community. 

2015-2018: Fr Anthony Mellor was the administrator in several other churches before his assignment in Clayfield. He was in Ashgrove, Bardon, Birkdale, Hendra, Herston, Newmarket, Red Hill, Rosalie and Victoria Point. He also helped in The Gap parish. 

The current parish priest is Fr Biju Thomas who took on his duties in 2020.