The beautiful white wooden Catholic church wasn’t always situated in Wallan although for 50 years there, she made her mark on our landscape.
Catholics have had a presence in Wallan since St Patrick’s Parish was founded in Kilmore in 1849[i] although they had to attend services in neighbouring towns. During the 1920s,[ii] masses were held in the hall attached to the Railway Hotel in Wallan East. Eventually, in 1955, the Catholic services were moved to the Wallan Wallan Hall.
Discovery of the church
Wallan’s population had begun to grow and by 1969, Monsignor Morrison, the Parish Priest, suggested it was time for Wallan to have its own Catholic Church. A church was found, and available for removal from Graytown, formerly known as Spring Creek, which is between Nagambie and Heathcote.
Where the church came from
Graytown had been a thriving town after gold was discovered there in October 1868. There seems to have been a Catholic church there in those early days but in 1869 a huge flood swamped the town and the mines, destroying many of the buildings. [iii]
By the turn of the century, there was only a small population left in Graytown, however there must have been enough to warrant the building of a new Catholic church, known as Saint Augustine’s. The traditionally designed wooden building was completed in 1917 and on 23rd December was officially blessed by the Bishop of Sandhurst (Bendigo), remaining in use for decades to come.
By the 1940s, few people remained at Graytown and from around 1942 – 1947, a POW camp was established there, housing 266 Italian, German and Finnish POWs.[iv] The Catholics among them would probably have attended church in the little building. The POWs had relative freedom within the town.
Soon after the war, most public buildings in Graytown became derelict or were moved elsewhere. The Catholic church was the last major building still left standing.
Wallan needs a Catholic church
By now the need for a church in Wallan was more important than ever, after the loss of the Catholic Church in Darraweit Guim (and much of the township) during the 1969 fires.
Monsignor Morrison, Parish Priest, suggested that the Graytown church might be a solution to the problem.
Mr and Mrs Bernie Laffan, of Laffan’s Garage fame, spearheaded the negotiations which led to the purchase and relocation of the church.
“The weatherboard building was 50 feet long and eighteen feet wide and the walls were 12 feet high. The overall height was 22 feet.”[v]
During late 1969 the church was moved to the location on Bentinck Street. She arrived much as she left – in pieces on the back of some impressively long trucks. She was reassembled surprisingly quickly. The building was extensively renovated and an extension of sixteen feet was added to add space for the growing population. ( The article below mentions “Costerfield” but it is a neighbouring town to Graytown where our church came from.)
Life in Wallan
The church was named Our Lady of the Way because Wallan was on the Hume Highway ( pre-freeway days) which was the main road to Sydney and carried a lot of traffic. The idea was that she should bless and protect those who travelled through the town.
She was officially blessed and opened on 14 December 1969. By 1970, the church was fully operational, and, in that year, it celebrated its first wedding. Fittingly, it was Bernie Laffan’s son Des who married Barbara Bull, another long-term Wallan resident.
The church had a lovely feel to her, warm and welcoming. The rich, deep red carpet added some elegance to the simple tongue-and-groove timber interior. Green and frosted leadlight glass windows let light shine onto the altar and down the length of the church. On the wall, she held a carved wood figure of Our Lady of the Way, which you can see on the right wall in the image below. She held her cape wide for figures of tiny cars and a motor bike to drive safely under her care. The motor bike represented Monsignor Morrison, known for riding his huge Harley until quite late in his life. Outside, she had a brown corrugated iron roof which let the sound of the rain fill the church on wet days.
She was cold and slightly draughty, but she was genteel. She creaked in a strong wind but, as Leigh Allen said, “I was in that church and a storm came through. It stood and only the powers to be could of helped.”[vi]
Many baptisms and First Communions were held in the church, along with the little party teas afterwards. Veronica Laffan ( Mrs J A Laffan, known to many local kids as “Nana Laffan”) and her daughter, Joan Robson, taught R.E. at the local primary school. They helped guide young people through these special events and also organised the party. The whole congregation would stop to celebrate after these special masses. It wasn’t unusual to see adults as well as children munching on fairy bread or dribbling cream down their chins from the little cakes they ate. It was a proper country affair.
At one stage the church was broken into. Some of the stained glass window panes were damaged, along with a chalice and other objects. Some of the religious statues were stolen, only to be found later, dumped in Wallan’s cemetery. She was lovingly repaired and damaged items were replaced. To this day a couple of the little green stained glass panes are a slightly different colour because they couldn’t be exactly matched.
Our Lady of the Way survived storms, break-ins, and the threat of fire. Her carpet may have faded and some of her pews become rickety, but she held Wallan’s Catholics safe for over 50 years. Finally, she became too small to hold them all.
The church was in use consistently until the new church and Catholic primary school, also named Our Lady of the Way, were built in Wallan East and officially opened in 2019.
End of an era
The little white church was not original to Wallan and, as a building, had been modified when moved. It was therefore not deemed significant to the heritage of the area and there was no requirement to retain the church.[vii] It was beginning to need more maintenance, the cost of which outweighed the building’s value. The church had been well maintained, largely thanks to Marjorie Cornfoot, Bernie Laffan’s daughter, but its time was up.
The church was sitting on 9817m2 of prime commercial land divided into six allotments over two titles[viii]. With frontage to both High Street and Bentinck Street, the location was hard to beat and so the place was sold. The sale realised enough money to help fund the building of the new school and church at Wallan East.
The little church had done her job in Wallan and fortunately, rather than being demolished, the building was sold off.
On 15th January 2021 , the roof of the church was removed in preperation for transportation.
On 17th January 2021 , the last part of the little white church left Wallan for her new home.
Start of a new era
It has now been moved to Newstead where she is undergoing renovations and will become a private residence. As I write, the building is being reassembled. The roof is on and all parts are back together. She sits on new concrete stumps and her damaged roof tiles are being replaced.
The little white church is becoming a home. She still has her Mass Times board at the front entrance but that is no longer needed. Still, what a lovely welcome it would give to her visitors.
Let’s hope she has another 100 years of life in her, looked after by her new owners.
[ii] Payne, J. W., Pretty Sally’s Hill: A History or Wallan, Wandong and Bylands. Lowden Publishing, 1981.
[iii]Hutchinson, Garrie, In memoriam: A Guide to the History and Heritage of Victoria’s Cemeteries. Hardie Grant Books (Australia), 2014
[v] Payne, J. W., Pretty Sally’s Hill: A History or Wallan, Wandong and Bylands. Lowden Publishing, 1981.
[vii] Alberto, W., et al. Wallan Structure Plan and Infrastructure Coordination Plan, Victoria: Historical Heritage Assessment. HV Number: 4437, Ecology and Heritage Partners Pty Ltd., 2014