Contributed by Meg Helyar, Parish Historian.
Busselton is one of the oldest parishes in Western Australia. Priests from Perth, especially members of the Benedictine Order, visited Vasse (as Busselton was called) from the 1830's onwards, enabling the few Catholic families to hear Mass and receive the Sacraments. The first recorded Baptism was in 1848; the officiating clergyman was Bishop John Brady. The first Marriage was in 1851 between John Hurford and Brigid Larkins. It was a "notable" event as, four years later, Brigid became the first woman hanged in the new gaol in Perth. Her crime?.....the murder of her husband!
The building of the first church commenced in 1866 and was completed in 1868. Christopher Wheatman (great grandfather of Fr Evan Penberthy) supervised the work which was done by voluntary labour. Sadly, he did not see the finished church: he was drowned in the Blackwood River near Nannup while taking a Priest to visit a sick parishioner.
The little band of Catholics now had a place of worship, but there was still no regular celebration of Mass. Priests from Bunbury visited three or four times a year at the most, but the congregation, being such good Catholics that they were, would gather in the Church and say the rosary on the Sundays when there was no Mass. After considerable lobbying, Bishop Martin Griver agreed to their request to appoint a resident priest. On the 26th February 1885, Fr Anselm Bourke arrived to become the first Parish Priest of Busselton Parish.
His duties took him from the Vasse through Margaret River to Augusta, Yallingup, Nannup, Bridgetown, Donnybrook and other settlements along the way. Before he was transfered in 1887, Fr Bourke built a presbytery which remained in use until the present parish house was built in 1953.
Over the years, priests came and went; In fact, since 1885 there have been 32 parish priests and assistants all together. The longest serving of these was Fr Joseph MacCormack (1917 - 1932), the driving force behind the building of the present St Joseph Church. By the 1930's the little stone church had become too small for the growing congregation and on the 3rd of September 1933, a new church was blessed and opened by Archbishop Clune. A report in The Record of that week says.....
"...a large congregation, representative of all parts of the South-West, gathered in the new building for a solemn High Mass..."
In the afternoon, 122 children and 6 adults received the Sacrament of Confirmation. The total cost of the church and furnishings was 3000 pounds. The exterior of the church has changed little since 1933, but in 1971, sweeping renovations were made to the interior and, in 1994, stained glass windows were installed.
Fr Charles Cunningham was appointed Parish Priest in 1937. He enlisted in the A.I.F. in 1942 as a chaplain and saw Service in New Guinea and the islands. He was awarded the M.B.E. (Military Division) for "conspicuous gallantry" in a jungle battle where he was untiring in his efforts to help the wounded and dying. Fr (later Monsignor) Cunningham became closely associated with the Villa Maria Home for the Aged established in Busselton in 1962 by his sister and brother-in-law, Maud and Jack Ray. The Cunningham Nursing Home in the comlpex (Ray Village) is named in his honour.
Just after the turn of the century, one incident had a dramatic effect on the parish. A young priest, Fr Patrick Clune, (who later became the first Archbishop of Perth) conducted a Mission in the Vasse area. Apparently the attendance was poor, so on his return to Perth, Fr Clune reported to his bishop that "the faith in the little corner of the Lord's vineyard is at a decidedly low ebb. The only way to rectify this is to place an order of Nuns in the district," and he insisted that they be the Sisters of Notre Dame des Missiones (Our Lady of the Missions).
In March 1903, three sisters arrived in Vasse and within a few days they had opened a school and commenced teaching. The establishment of a private school at that stage in the development of the State of Western Australia was a great achievement, and highlighted the tremendous work done by the Sisters in educating country children. Although the Sisters of Our Lady of the Missions withdrew from Busselton in 1922, their place was taken by the the Sisters of Saint Joseph of the Sacret Heart , whowere still present in the Parish until a few years ago.
In 1985, St Joseph’s School relocated to its present site in Cloisters and Sr Mary Kirrane rsj was appointed Principal. Nine years later MacKillop Catholic College, Busselton’s first Catholic High School, was built and Peter Glasson was appointed as Principal. Early in 2016, St Joseph's School was officially amalgamated with MacKillop Catholic College under it's new name of St Mary MacKillop College. Both primary and secondary campuses flourish and have proven to be exceptional educational institutions. Mr Frank Norton is currently the Principal of St Mary MacKillop College. All appointed Principals ensure that the Catholic ethos is maintained and are ably supported by Fr Jaybee and his associate Fr Gerome Dalipe.
Seven vocations to the priesthood or religious life have come from St Joseph's Parish and this meritorious effort can be attributed in no small way to the presence of the Catholic Schools in the parish. The year 1998 marked the 150 years of Catholic life in Busselton. From Bishop's Salvado's list of 73 Catholics in 1854, there are now around 850 Catholic families living in the area. The past has been fruitful and we are certain that the future will even be better with St Joseph as our patron saint, guiding and protecting us, the hope is that this parish will continue to prosper through God's providence and love.