ST. PETER CHANEL CHURCH
St. Peter Chanel, first Marist martyr and first martyr of Oceania, was born in Cuet, France on 12th July 1803. He joined the Marist Society at the age of 28. In 1836 he was sent as a missionary to the island of Futuna, a very small island (15 kms. X 10 kms.) in the Pacific Ocean, east of New Caledonia, between Samoa and Fiji. The journey took 11 months arriving in November 1837. In his naivety, he offered advice which was in complete contradiction of the island culture. This caused the chief to order his death and in 1841, in his 38th year, he was clubbed to death by the chief’s son. His life was not in vain. Within three years of his death, the whole of Futuna, a population of almost 900, was Catholic, the natives having requested another missionary be sent. His body was brought back to Hunter’s Hill, a suburb of Sydney, but eventually was returned to France for burial. In 1977, his body was taken back to Futuna and permanently buried there. He was canonised in 1954. The church in Hunter’s Hill was the first in the world to be named after the saint, having been called the Church of Blessed Peter Chanel up until 1954.
The land for the church was purchased by Father Claude Joly, S.M. in August 1890, from W. Cope and G.S. Arthur. It had been acquired previously from C.E. Jeanneret in 1882. It is situated at 5 Crescent Street with a frontage to Futuna Street. The property of just under 1 ½ acres cost 17,500 French Francs (£700) which was well under market price. £ Sterling was used in Australia until 1909.
The Gothic style church was built in two stages. The first stage of the programme was to build the Sanctuary and Sacristy at a cost of about £1000, the foundation stone being laid on 26th October 1890. This stone cannot be located. In the sacristy was a fireplace for the comfort of the priest who came by horse the night before Mass was to be celebrated. The walls of this first stage are plastered on the inside and a temporary wall on the western side and roof over this section were erected. This small area of Sanctuary and Sacristy accommodated up to 150 people for Mass. They possibly came by boat from Lane Cove, Longueville, Northwood and Greenwich to Garrick’s Wharf (photos available) at the bottom of Crescent Street, as well as from Hunter’s Hill and Woolwich. It was opened on 11th December, 1892. The architects were Tappin, R. J. Dennehy and Smart. Their proposal was to build the church as it now exists except that the nave would be 120 ft. long. The two transepts were to be retained at 15 ft. wide by 25 ft. long. The Parish Priest, Father Zephirin Muraire, S.M. decided, after writing to his Marist superiors in France in July 1899, to alter the plans and reduce the length of the nave to 55ft. with the western wall as a temporary end, to allow for future expansion. Father Joly, the Provincial, had written to Father Denier in France on 13th December 1891 requesting the purchase of a temporary wooden altar to be made in France.
The next stage of the building was overseen by Sheerin and Hennessy, Architects, the second foundation stone being laid by Cardinal Patrick Moran in December 1899. The nave is much shorter than the usual church length and this gives a much more intimate experience. It resulted in the shape of a Maltese Cross rather than a Latin Cross as is the Church of the Holy Name of Mary at Villa Maria. The wall height of 25 ft. and the high roof, give very good acoustics for choral singers. The acoustics have been affected by the exposure of the floor boards with the removal of the carpet beneath the seats. The builders of the second stage were Dakin and Park of Gladesville at a cost of £2600. The walls are in dressed stonework except for the western end which consists of plastered brickwork. Special efforts were made to ventilate the church. Beneath each window on the external walls, is a cast iron ventilator leading within the wall to an internal ventilator on the splay beneath the window. In the ceiling are a series of triangular ventilators with similar shaped protrusions above, in the slate roof. The completed church was blessed and opened on 2nd June 1901.
By 1899, a timber school building had been erected on the site and was free of debt due to fund-raising by the Parish Priest. Until 1907, the school was staffed by the Sisters of St. Joseph who walked from Mary Street each day. In 1908, the Marist Sisters of Woolwich took over the school, which burnt down in 1916. It was replaced by a brick building at a cost of £636, with tw0 classrooms, a stage, teachers’ rooms and a 12ft wide verandah. It was opened in November 1916 by Archbishop Kelly. There were 42 pupils at the time.
The children of the Gallagher, Murphy, Bell and Doran families, among others, attended the school which closed in 1936. The 60 pupils transferred to Marist Convent and Marist Brothers. Later the Catholic Youth Organisation used the building for meetings, dances, and dramatic productions under the direction of the Misses Clark. A tennis court had been built on the site of the present gravel parking area and this was used by the members of the C.Y.O. The school building was burnt down in May 1968.
Compiler: Arthur Boyd
Contributors: Fr. Peter McMurrich; State Library of N.S.W.; Ryde Local History Library;. Sr. Joan McBride; Dr. John Keneally; Mrs. Suzanne McGirr; Ronda Boyd.