The Order was founded by Fr. Jules Chevalier (1824-1907) in 1854 at Issoudun, France. Fr. Chevalier was convinced that the Jesus he found in the Gospels was a person of deep compassion and understanding. This open-hearted Jesus is the one who wants to bring hope and healing to all human beings wherever and however they are in suffering. Missionaries of the Sacred Heart, like their Founder Jules Chevalier, are committed to touching the hearts of people with the love of God that they themselves have experienced. For Fr.Chevalier, the Heart of Christ was the core of his spirituality and was the answer to the evils of his time. The MSC’s were introduced to Australia in 1884 and came to Randwick in 1885. Within a few years a mission seminary was established at Kensington to accept local vocations and in 1905, a separate MSC Australian Province was accepted by the Catholic Church in Australia
Our Founding Priests
In 1911 Cardinal Patrick Francis Moran, Archbishop of Sydney, established Coogee as a Parish under Randwick with its own Priest. Fr. Edward McGrath MSC was appointed as first Priest in charge by Provincial Fr. Peter Treand MSC and performed the first baptism at the Mount and Berwick Street Church on 28th May 1911.
Fr. McGrath was ordained at St. Mary’s Cathedral in November 1909 and posted to Coogee (Randwick Parish) in 1910. Soon after his arrival, Fr. McGrath met Eileen O’Connor and between them they formed Our Lady’s Nurses for the Poor (Brown Nurses). In 1914 Fr. McGrath was posted overseas and in 1917 joined the British Army as a chaplain serving in France and Belgium in World War I. Fr. McGrath was awarded the Military Cross for rescuing a wounded officer from no-man’s land while under enemy fire.
Fr. James Gilbert MSC replaced Fr. McGrath in 1914. At this time Coogee was designated as a separate Parish, and so the first official Parish Priest of Coogee was Fr. Gilbert. In July 1915 Fr. Gilbert became a chaplain for the Australian Army and he too left for overseas to help the war effort became a chaplain for the Australian Army and he too left for overseas to help the war effort. Fr. Arthur Perkins took over for four years until Fr. Gilbert returned in 1919 from the war and took up his position again as Coogee Parish Priest. Fr. Gilbert was awarded the Military Medal for bravery under fire. Fr.Perkins was appointed provincial of the MSC’s in 1919 and moved to the Monastery in Kensington. Fr. Perkins returned to St. Brigids in 1939, being appointed the second Parish Priest of Coogee.
In the early 1900’s there were about 100 Catholic families living in the Coogee area and so a small combined school/Church was built on the corner of Mount and Berwick Streets in 1911. The building served as a school Monday to Friday and was converted to a Church on weekends. Until 1914 this Church was part of the Randwick Parish. By 1919 the Catholic population of Coogee had grown to some 1500 and more in the summer months. The small school/Church could no longer cope with the growth, and the noise of the tram going past the door of the building was a a distraction to the students on weekdays and the congregation on weekends a larger church was needed.
On 30th November 1919 Frs. Gilbert and Perkins negotiated the purchase of the property where St. Brigids now stands. The purchase price was 8,387 pounds and on this property a Church and school would be built and the existing home would be used as a presbytery and residence for the Parish Priest. Fr. Gilbert engaged Albert Bates as architect who would design the Church to Fr. Gilbert’s specifications. The builder was Albert Travis. During his war service as chaplain, Fr. Gilbert visited London and was impressed by Westminster Cathedral. Fr. Gilbert asked the architect to reproduce a smaller version of Westminster Cathedral in Sydney.
In 1992, The Shrine of Our Lady of the Sacred Heart, a glass engraving by Anna Dybka, was commissioned. It is now positioned in the north-west alcove of the Church.The foundation stone of the new church was laid in March 1921 by the then Archbishop of Sydney, the Reverend Michael Kelly, who said on the occasion, “they have in Coogee, big ideas and generous hearts”. Its position was unrivalled at the time on one of Coogee’s most picturesque eminences. St. Brigids was an important design of architect Albert Edmund Bates. It was the biggest project in the career of builder Albert Travis. The Church was modelled on the design of Westminster Cathedral in London. It’s a fine example of the Romanesque (or Byzantine period) revival designs of the late nineteenth and early twentieth century, featuring polychromatic (light and dark bands) brickwork and a curved vaulted ceiling under a traditional cruciform roof. Small arched windows and simple buttresses are another feature. Fr. Gilbert specified that the interior be vast and spacious. Six main pillars on each side support the roof.
The first altar was made of wood in a light oak colour as were the pews, choir loft and main doors. The stained glass window of the Sacred Heart directly above the main altar is a fitting reminder that the parish is under the care of the Missionaries of the Sacred Heart.
The Church was opened in 1922 and consecrated by the then Archbishop of Sydney, the Rev. J. Kelly. With the Church being completed Fr. Gilbert commenced on the school project, the main portion being completed in 1923, followed by the new presbytery in 1924. During this period the statue of St. Brigid on the north-west exterior corner of the Church was added. It was considered as one of the finest statues in Sydney of the 1920’s, the classical features being used as a model for art students. The parish hall was the final building to be erected and was completed in 1935.In 1945, under the care of Fr. Perkins Parish Priest, it was decided to replace the timber altar, pulpit, altar rails and wall surrounds with marble. The firm of Melocco Bros. carried out the work. Marble from Queanbeyan was used and is of a rich cream colour, veined with ochre tints. It was fortunateat the time that the Melocco Bros. were able to utilise the services of Italian POW’s who were skilled marble workers. The finished altar is a tribute to their skills.
The Church was included in the National Trust Register from 1987. The citation highlighted the impressive Byzantine style, the outstanding tower and the beautiful marble altar.
Particular items of significance include the face brickwork and cement render, stained glass internal plaster work and polished timber joinery. The brickwork, in particular, was a bold design statement by the original architect and is unique in Sydney.
In 2016/2017 St Brigid’s underwent significant restorations and renovations, including work to our magnificent tower.
Our Lady of the Nurses of the Poor
An important part of our parish’s spiritual community are the Sisters of Our Lady’s Nurses for the Poor, located at 35 Dudley Street Coogee which is their Mother House.
The Society of Our Lady’s Nurses for the Poor was founded by Eileen O’Connor and Fr. Timothy Edward McGrath on 15th April 1913.
At this time there was little government funding or facilities that attended to the needs of the poor who were sick. Diseases such as flu and bubonic plague were prevalent, the poor being the most at risk of contracting these diseases.
It was the “sick poor” that the Our Lady’s Nurses for the Poor were helping by visiting them in their own homes and attending to their nursing needs. EILEEN O’CONNOR Eileen O’Connor was born on 19th February 1892 and as the result of a childhood accident when she was four years old, she was crippled leaving her with a broken spine and in constant pain.
In 1911 when Eileen was 19 years old, her mother, with three younger children, was unable to pay the rent on their home at Telopea Street Redfern, following the death of Mr O’Connor from cancer in April 1911 and they were about to be evicted. Mrs O’Connor appealed for help from the Missionaries of the Sacred Heart, Randwick. Provincial Fr. Peter Treand asked Fr. Edward McGrath, who he had put in charge of Coogee, to visit the O’Connors. Fr. McGrath moved the family to 4 Neptune Street Coogee, which was a house more suitable to their finances. THE INSPIRATION It may have been Eileen’s experience of being bed ridden and in need of attention that inspired her to meet a need in the community for home care of the sick, while it is said that Fr. McGrath had wanted to do something special for Our Lady. And so the two formed the mission of nursing the “sick poor” in their homes.
Through discussion and planning Eileen and Fr. McGrath recruited candidates, seven of whom came on the foundation day of Our Lady’s Nurses of the Poor but did not stay so that only Eileen remained with a housekeeper and her daughter to care for her. Eileen was intended to be the inspiration and visionary for the work to be done and Fr. McGrath (while in Coogee) and the nurses would provide the practical care for the “sick poor” that Eileen was unable to do. As it turned out, Eileen was very good at administration. On 26th May Theresa McLaughlin became the first nurse to join Eileen. Others came and some left but when Eileen died in January 1921 there were seven nurses who had persevered.