The History of Saint Martha’s Parish

Settlement along the Parramatta Road arose during the nineteenth century, and Concord became a centre for Catholic settlers. A chapel was built about 1845, and a parish with a resident priest, Fr Callaghan McCarthy, declared in 1870. Where Strathfield now stands was part of the Liberty Plains. A railway station was built on the Sydney-Parramatta line in 1877. Grand houses on large blocks of land rose around Redmyre Road, some still standing today. The district was decidedly Anglo-Saxon, Catholics in 1891 being 13.7% of its population.

Strathfield was a part of the parish of Concord, and Catholics went to mass at St Mary’s on Parramatta Road. When the Dominican Nuns came to Santa Sabina in 1894, there was some relief as mass was available at Rosary Lodge. But the people were anxious to have their own Church, and it was Fr Peter Byrne, parish priest at Concord and subsequently the first at Strathfield, who built the first St Martha’s. When the Railway Estate was broken up in 1896, Cardinal Moran had bought some of the first blocks sold, and they became today’s parish complex. The foundation stone, still easily seen, was laid in 1904 by Cardinal Moran, and six months later he returned for the ceremony of blessing and opening. Site and building had costs 2,250 pounds.

Tradition has it that because there were a number of Irish girls in service in the grand houses of the district, it was given the name of St Martha who served the Lord when he came to visit. It is the only church in Australia with that title. At that time there were about a dozen Catholic families in Strathfield, and the church was built largely by the people of Concord.

St Martha’s was served from Concord till 1916 when it was made a parish, and Fr Byrne came from Concord to take up permanent residence in the newly built presbytery which was blessed by Archbishop (later Cardinal) Ceretti the Apostolic Delegate in December, 1916. He had been eighteen years at St Mary’s, was a fellow of St John’s College University of Sydney, a consulter in the archdiocese and from his years at Cooma sometimes known as the Man From Snowy River. He died in 1922 at the age of sixty four.

Growth in Strathfield rendered the first Church (today the parish hall) too small, and the present building was erected in 1924 by Fr Pat Kerwick, successor to Fr Byrne, and a grand Irish priest. The builder was Mr Dan O’Curry and the architect Mr S Barlow. The foundation stone visible on the right side of the portico was laid by Archbishop Kelly in December 1923.

It was intended to have spires but they were reduced to the existing turrets. An innovation at that time was the natural brick walls of the interior when in almost all churches they were plaster-rendered. A feature of the church is the beautiful mosaic Stations of the Cross high on the walls. They were a gift from Miss Nellie O’Brien who died in 1927.

Fr Kerwick was found to have died in his sleep during the night when one Sunday morning in November 1939 he did not appear for the early mass. His last baptism the previous Sunday had been that of Michael McGloin, today parish priest at Springwood. Fr James Freeman, to become Cardinal Freeman fifty years later, served in the parish from 1933 to 1935.

Fr John Martin, a small elderly man, became parish priest in 1940. Amongst others, he was assisted by Fr Denis O’Rourke who as a layman had been a devoted member of the St Vincent de Paul Society in Balmain and continued his close association with it after ordination. Fr John Power came as a curate in 1943.

About this time there came a direction from the Apostolic Delegate that parish churches should have a baldachino. So in the sanctuary around the altar there appeared four tall blond wooden pillars carrying a canopy, sign of Christ’s kingship or maybe symbols of the cloud above the tabernacle in the Jewish temple. It could not be said to have been popular with the parishioners.

There was some confusion when Fr Martin died in 1948 as it became known that his successor was Fr Power and many thought it was Fr John who was well-liked in the parish. But it was his elder brother, Fr Bill Power who had studied for the priesthood in Rome in the twenties with Cardinal Gilroy. Mons. John Leonard, the late parish priest at Summer Hill, was assistant priest as well as being chaplain to the very active Catholic Youth Organisation of the fifties. Fr Power did not like the baldachino and had it removed.

Fr Power became seriously ill in 1962 and then Fr Vincent Marley came to the parish to be an assistant priest. He took over as administrator when Fr Power was hospitalised at Lewisham for the last twelve months of his life.

In 1967 Fr Dermot O’Rourke can to St Martha’s as pastor after he arrived in Australia straight after his ordination in 1934. Following an instruction from Cardinal Gilroy that church sanctuaries were to be redesigned in accordance with liturgical thought that the celebrant should face the people at mass, he had a fine new sandstone altar built be Mr Bill Watson for the tabernacle and the whole sanctuary panelled in sandstone. Around and above embossed in bronze are the words of Jesus:

“I am the Way, the Truth and the Life.”

There was an exchange made between the tabernacles on the main altar and the Lady Chapel altar so that the finer of the two occupied the position of greater importance.

The coming of Fr Geoff Davey was like a whirlwind at St Martha’s. He had been a civil engineer and on the death of his wife, his children now being grown up (one a nun), he decided to become a priest. He did not leave his professional skills behind when he came to Strathfield in 1971. The parish is indebted to him for the spacious foyer and the portico that grace the entrance to the church. He had all the pews refurbished, lino laid throughout, lighting and sound greatly improved, garages constructed and a mezzanine floor built in the hall so that school classes could be conducted upstairs. The parish had never experienced such a transformation in building and he poured a similar zeal into his work for schools in the Catholic Education Office. But he died after only four years in February 1975 to great sorrow of the parish. No wonder he was called Davey the Builder!

F Brian Titrmus came to be administrator of the parish from 1977 to 1988. On Anzac Day he would appear in his khaki military dress, being a chaplain to the forces. Following his transfer to Balmain as pastor, Fr Paul Ryan arrived. After ordination in 1958 he studied in Rome to take out his doctorate in philosophy, and in 1963 was assigned to the seminaries at Springwood and Manly where he lectured and was responsible for formation of students. Before coming to St Martha’s in 1988, he had been assistant priest at Eastwood from 1981. Fr Paul retired in July 2011 after many years as a kind and zealous pastor.

Fr Christopher Slattery was appointed parish priest on 4th July 2012. Fr Chris comes from having served in Penshurst, Gymea, Elizabeth Bay, Caringbah, St Joseph’s College Hunter’s Hill and Croydon where he was parish priest for 12 years. He is also appointed to Burwood Local Area Command as a regional police chaplain.