Late in 1900, Bishop William Kelly from Geraldton was in Rome to report to the Pope on the state of his diocese. While there, he heard a rumor that the French Trappist monks who had been working in his diocese at the Beagle Bay and Broome missions were leaving. In his concern that the people in North West Australia would be left without pastors, he asked Fr William Whitmee, the English General of the Pallottines, to send him missionaries. The Church authorities supported this request and officially committed the Kimberley Mission to the Pallottines 12 January 1901. (The Rector General made all appointments at that time. It was only in 1909 that the Pallottine Congregation was divided into Provinces).
16 January, the Pallottine pioneers, with Bishop Kelly, steamed out of Naples in Italy, heading for Australia. After a four-week voyage, on 11 February, they arrived in Fremantle where Bishop Gibney of Perth and Daisy Bates welcomed them. 11 March, exactly eight weeks after the departure from Naples, they arrived at Beagle Bay, the place of their future activities.
The leader of the expedition was Fr George Walter, a German priest who had helped to establish the Cameroon Mission in Africa, 10 years earlier. His companions were Fr Patrick White, a young Irish priest, just two years ordained, and two German Brothers, namely the Silesian, Matthias Kasparek, a skilled tailor, and the Bavarian, Augustine Sixt, a keen gardener and cook.
At the Beagle Bay mission a great deal of work awaited the new team. Food and clothing were needed for the children. Some of them lived in dormitories. The garden had to be maintained so that it produced the necessary vegetables. Makeshift bark huts had to be replaced by more solid structures. The water supply had to be kept up to the needs of the group. Windmills were built for the big herd of cattle.
The school opened on the second day after the group’s arrival. It had about thirty children anxious to be taught by Fr White who held their attention with his happy manner and gave the lessons in English. After school the children played and practiced bush-crafts.
The Pallottines continued to send German priests and Brothers to staff Beagle Bay and Broome till the war put a stop to it. These men became links in a chain of service. Some could not tolerate the extreme climatic conditions for more than a few years and had to return to Europe, others stayed on for a lifetime.
In 1902 Father General Whitmee appointed Fr Rensmann to Beagle Bay. The new priest was a Rhinelander, a gifted young man, full of humour, who was able to preach and give lessons in Nyul Nyul after only a few months. He had a special love for singing in Nyul Nyul with children and adults. But tragedy struck. 31 January 1904, he drowned whilst swimming in a creek. He was only 27 years old. Fr Bachmaier was sent in 1906 to fill the vacancy. Also in 1902, Brothers Bernhard Hoffmann, Johann Graf and Rudolf Zach arrived.
In 1903, Brothers Albert Labonte (known for his medicinal skills with herbs), Raimund Wesely and Matthias Wollseifer came.
In 1904 Brothers Franz Stutting, Alfons Herrmann, Anton Helmprecht and Heinrich Krallmann arrived. Brother Helmprecht took charge of the donkey teams for carting cargo. Brother Krallmann, who spent 20 years as stockman at Beagle Bay, laid the foundation of the cattle industry, the main source of mission income.
In 1905 Fr Joseph Bischofs arrived and became a very popular teacher. He started important anthropological work.
In 1909, Fr Wilhelm Droste, Fr Theodore Traub and Brother Matthias Bringmann arrived together with the Acting German Provincial Vinzenz W Kopf on his Canonical Visitation. Fr Droste led the community through the difficult war years.
With regard to the work of evangelization, the Trappists had laid a solid foundation. Adults had been baptised, and children had been instructed in the faith in their Nyul Nyul language into which hymns and prayers had been translated. From Beagle Bay the faith had spread to Broome and Lombadina.
Two Trappists stayed behind when their community returned to France and worked along with the Pallottines. Fr Jean Marie Janny stayed until 1906, and Fr Nicholas died in Lombadina in 1915.
In the anti-German climate of the war years, the building of the Beagle Bay Church was a striking symbol of the daring faith of the early missionaries. A community united in faith built their House of God.
Brother Graf, a carpenter by trade, led the project. His Aboriginal apprentices helped with the construction of the Church. Brother Wollseifer also played a leading role. He had originally trained to be a carpenter but later became an electrician, an ironworker and a bricklayer. The Church building was made with locally made bricks.
It was only in 1928 that the Pallottines officially established places outside the West Kimberley (although Fr White by his own choice and Fr Bishops by force of the Government had spent years in other parts of Australia).
In 1928 a group of Beagle Bay Missionaries, together with Beagle Bay Aborigines, established the Tardun farm.
In 1937 Bishop Raible founded a missionary college in Kew.
In 1939 Fr Alphonse Bleischwitz led a team of missionaries from a temporary station at Rockhole, into the desert to found Balgo Mission.
Fr Gerhard Christoph
With grateful thanks to Sr Brigida Nailon CSB and Brother Wim van Veen for correcting and supplementing this article.