WAHGUNYAH CATHOLICISM AND THE MASS TREE
(Contributed by Mrs Eileen Brown, Wahgunyah)
We should begin at Beechworth, perhaps, because in the very early days Wahgunyah was part of Beechworth parish. The late Me A E (Bert) Parry, for many years manager of the Wahgunyah flour mill until its closure in 1941, said that Wahgunyah Catholic couples always journeyed to Beechworth for the marriage ceremony.
This brings me to the Wahgunyah Mass Tree – a splendid specimen of red gum still growing at the end of Short Street. The first Mass was said about 1869 in Wahgunyah by Father William Tierney, PP, Beechworth, afterwards Dean of Beechworth. The altar was prepared by Mrs Margaret Mary Burrows in her tent beside the red gum trees on Sunday Creek.
The tent came from Ireland and was pitched on the south side of the tree. Later a bark hut was built for a residence and the tent was reserved as a bush chapel. The tent had been the birthplace of twin sons, John and William, who were altar boys at the first Mass. There were Wahgunyah blacks present as well as whites, all kneeling on the hard ground.
When Mrs Burrows died, Wahgunyah Catholics attended Mass at nearby Corowa across the Murray River. Her husband cherished the tree and protected it with loads of bricks and stones against flood waters from the river. In the early days it was known as the Holy Tree.
The Catholic Women’s Social Guild resolved a plan to preserve the historic tree, mark it with a commemorative tablet, and place a seat around it.
A verse from “A Thousand Sunrises” by Rita F Snowden was chosen for the tablet:
“That Cross is such a simple thing,
But of it man will talk and sing,
It is a signboard on the road,
To cheer man with his weary load,
Such a simple thing,
And yet it touches everything.”
About 300 guests were present in September, 1946, when the tablet was unveiled. Men of the town arranged seating, Guild ladies a picnic afternoon tea, while little Pauline Nagle, a great-granddaughter of the pioneer woman, unveiled the tablet.
Other descendants present were Mrs Patrick Nagle (granddaughter), Miss Mary Nagle, Corowa (great grand-daughter), Mrs W Buckingham, Norang (grand-daughter), Mr John Burrows jnr., Corowa (grand-son), Mr Stanley Bartlett, A.I.F., (great-grandson) Miss Mable Burrows, Melbourne (grand-daughter) Miss Molly Burrows, Melbourne (grand-daughter)
The guest speaker was Father Auburn, Wodonga, and also present were Fr J. Lawless, PP, spiritual director of Wahgunyah Catholic Women’s Social Guild. Monsignor F Haider, DD, representing Fr M F Lane of Corowa, Councillors George Smith, Stanton and Gill (Rutherglen Shire) and ex-councillor George Kilborn.
That morning in the Wahgunyah Sacred Heart church, a Mass of Remembrance was celebrated by Father Lawless.
Mass was not said again in Wahgunyah following the death of Mrs Margaret Mary Burrows until 1925-6. Wahgunyah Catholics looked upon Corowa as the logical place to attend Mass. Their children were baptised there and attended the convent school; many were married in St Mary’s.
At the time the Wahgunyah Hall was hired for a monthly Mass, Father Lawless being the celebrant. When the rent was increased the parishioners decided to move the deserted wooden church from the old mining centre at Chiltern Valley to Wahgunyah and they re-erected it on land in Dennison Street, donated by two non-Catholic brothers, Messrs Arthur and Ted Bayliss, following a deputation to them of Rowland Savage, Wahgunyah, and C B Lethbridge, Corowa solicitor.
In 1929, Mr Reidy and his son of Rutherglen were engaged to move and re-erect the church in Wahgunyah. There was no dearth of voluntary labour provided by Tom Hennessy, Tom Harrison, Claude Fiddes, J Hallam, Phil Dormer, Jack Hallahan, Roland Savage and others. Mr C B Lethbridge did all legal work free of charge. Twelve seats from the early Corowa church were for sale and were purchased – they are still in use in Wahgunyah church.
Father Robert J Smith of Rutherglen offers Mass each Sunday in Wahgunyah’s Sacred heart church, which is always packed. The Catholic children travel to Rutherglen by Government bus to the Presentation Convent School and the Government High School.
Two years ago, in 1976, the Wahgunyah Progress Association erected a chain fence around the historic Mass Tree which is now of interest to passing tourists.