The early days
The first Catholic church in the Gully was completed in 1890. The simple wooden building was erected on the south side of Main Road (now Burwood Highway, where Woolworth’s service station now stands). The land was donated by John Buckley and the building was erected by Thomas Jones at a cost of 200 pounds.
For the next twenty years there was no resident priest and the area remained part of the far-flung parish of St Mary’s Dandenong.
It seems that, at the request of friends, the O’Connors of Paradise (Emerald), Fr T Lynch, then parish priest of St Mary’s East St Kilda, obtained permission some time about 1910 to conduct missionary work in the hills. Fr Lynch’s pioneer missionary work was apparently crowned with success for in 1911 the parish of Ferntree Gully was erected under the patronage of St John the Baptist. The flyleaf of the original parish baptismal Register is endorsed: ‘Paradise (Clematis) April, 1911’ with the first baptism, that of Walter Raymond Wembridge, administered on 30 April 1911, by Fr Lynch.
The next priest was Fr T U O’Sullivan, whose first baptism was administered on 7 February 1912, and his last on 20 April 1913.
In 1913, about June of that year, a new parish priest appeared on the horizon of the Ferntree Gully district. This was Father John A O’Brien. Known as a fearless horseman and ‘filled with an abundance of love not only for man and beast, but, more to the point, a devotion to his vocation, he was a Father to his flock in every sense of the word. Mrs Ellie Stevens recounts that she, with her friends, as children, used to watch him jump the gate of the presbytery on horseback when he arrived at Ferntree Gully in time to say the late Mass after having celebrated an earlier Mass at some far distant part of the parish.
It was during his pastorship that the presbytery was built. Great were the comings and goings along dray tracks, back roads and the few passable roadways arranging bazaars, hunts, balls, concerts and sporting functions. The pioneer Catholics were few, but their enthusiasm great.’. (From Gerry Gannon’s parish history written for the 50th anniversary in 1961.)
How well Catholicism flourished in the Dandenongs is a tribute to the work of these early priests and the loyal pioneers. Fr O’Brien was transferred to another parish in 1919, his last baptism being on 5 October of that year. St John the Baptist parish was also well served in the appointment of its next parish priest, in the person of Fr T J Little. He administered his first baptism in his new parish on 20th December 1919,
In 1925, the six-acre block, including five acres given to the parish by the generous family of John Buckley, with frontages on Main Road (Burwood Highway), Forest Road and Selman Avenue, became a hive of activity. In that year great events took place in efforts to raise money for the erection a new church of St John the Baptist.
So successful were all the functions for the raising of funds that the blessing and laying of the foundation stone of the new church-hall was effected by the end of that year. On 27 December 1925, the ceremony was performed by His Grace, Archbishop Mannix. The building was completed and officially opened by His Grace on Easter Sunday, 1926. In September 1926, Fr Little was transferred to Dandenong, and in his stead His Grace appointed Fr T McCarthy.