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Books Etcetera

by Edmund Campion

Between Devotion and Design:

the Architecture of John Cyril Hawes 1876-1956

I don't get round much any more, so I guess I'll never travel to Western Australia to see in actuality some buildings that have haunted my imagination for years. File them away with other unrealised ambitions - making the pilgrimage to Santiago da Compostela and learning to sail and getting my Italian up to scratch.

The WA buildings are the work of an architect called John Cyril Hawes (1876-1956). I seem to remember reading about Hawes in an American magazine more than 30 years ago. That article spoke of his later years as a hermit in the Bahamas who had built his own hermitage on Cat Island there, complete with watchtower and chapel and even his own grave (for later use); but it said little about his nearly 25 years in Australia. Some time later I came across Peter Anson's The Hermit of Cat Island (1957); but it wasn't until A. G. Evans published a biography, The Conscious Stone, in 1984, that I became truly interested in Hawes and his buildings in the west. Then I looked hard at the pictures of his churches in places like Morawa, Mullewa, Yalgoo, Northampton and Geraldton, where the great cathedral is his monument; and I seemed to be seeing for the first time an indigenous Australian church architecture.

Those churches seemed to grow out of the ground, so that they looked at home there. In colour, form, texture and placing they speak of and to their own country.

Hawes himself proved to be as fascinating as his churches. As architect who became an Anglican missionary, he converted to Catholicism at the age of 35, went to Rome, was ordained there and volunteered for the Geraldton diocese (WA), where there were only half a dozen priests. A popular bush priest who bred and raced horses, he led a life of Franciscan simplicity with a fox terrier called Dominie. And he built: Father Hawes took seriously the parable of the talents, not allowing parish duties to impede the exercise of his architectural talents. He not only designed those buildings, but he also worked on them. In the hot sun his skin became leathery and to soften this hands before saying Mass he would anoint them in a mixture of oil and lard. Beating the sun became a hallmark of his architecture: thick stone walls and alim windows.

The priest architect was fortunate in his bishops, especially the third of these, James Patrick O'Collins, later Bishop of Ballarat, who was appointed to Geraldton at the age of 38 as a first fruit of Pius XI's policy of making bishops from the ranks of the native Australian priesthood. Before ordination O'Collins had been a plumber; when he met Hawes he famously said to him, "With you architecture and my plumbing, we'll put churches all over the diocese".

There's a good, short biography of the bishop by his nephew William McCarthy, published in 1996, but it does not answer all the questions posed by the pioneer prelate. Take a look at John N Molony's seminal work of Catholic historiography, The Roman Mould of the Australian Catholic Church (1969) and you may notice a gallery of eight portraits which the author labels "Propaganda Fide in Australia today", each of the eight a current archbishop except for one bishop - O'Collins of Ballarat. What is this bush bishop doing among the archbishops? Molony's text may suggest an answer:

"In 1930 James Patrick O'Collins was appointed Bishop of Geraldton. He was Australian-born and educated in the Propaganda where he became Head Prefect in the 1920s. Ill health prevented him from remaining in Rome as a curial official after ordination, but his nomination to the episcopate was not long delayed on his return to Australia. His appointment set in train a long list of similar nominations to Australian sees, and although he himself has been content to remain since 1941 Bishop of Ballarat his influence has extended throughout Australia with Propagandist after Propagandist filling the Australian sees."

Get the picture? The former Head Prefect at Propaganda - in the Roman college this post was rather more significant than it was in the Australian seminaries - became Rome's point man in selecting and nurturing local candidates for the episcopate. Even though he was only Bishop of Ballarat, his access to power was recognised and acknowledged even by those who outranked him.

Thus Sydney's Norman Cardinal Gilroy observed the antique courtesy of meeting and farewelling at the airport visitors to the archdiocese. He was punctilious in extending this courtesy to visiting archbishops; but he proffered the courtesy to only one bishop - James Patrick O'Collins.

This was the bishop under whom John Cyril Hawes did his best work. On that work we now have a handsome, compendious book, Between Devotion and Design: the Architecture of John Cyril Hawes 1876-1956 by John J Tailor, published by the University of Western Australia Press ($89.95). Here is architecture for the armchair traveller, for the publishers have been generous with plans and photographs, many of them contemporary. So you can see these churches as they were being built, just as you can study the architect's sketches and plans, some of which never got anywhere or were achieved and later demolished. (A particularly brutal set of photographs shows how a little gem was cut in half and given as an appendage a glaring redbrick 'church-in-the-round'.)

The author has found letters and bits of a journal of Hawes and these long quotations are welcome because they allow you to know the inner mind of this talented priest. In the end, however it is the pictures that draw you back again and again to the book; and they make you regret that you have never, and now will never, see these glories with your own eyes.

The Book:

  • Between Devotion and Design
  • Geraldton Cathedral

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