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  • Writer's pictureRoger Button

John Hawes - architect of St Christopher's church, Gunnerton

Monsignor John Hawes (1876 – 1956), architect of St Christopher’s church, Gunnerton

Geraldton Roman Catholic Cathedral has been in the news because it has acquired the old ring of bells from the church of SS Peter and Paul Godalming to form the basis of a new carillon. The cathedral’s architect was John Hawes. He is not well known in England, where he designed just the one church mentioned above and described in the book. He is celebrated in Western Australia where there is a heritage trail that takes in the churches he designed. It was while he was working at Gunnerton, supervising the construction of the church in 1899, that he knew his vocation was to be a priest rather than an architect.

As an Anglican priest he spent three years as a curate at the church of the Holy Redeemer in Clerkenwell and then joined the new, but short lived, Anglican monastic order on Caldey Island where he also worked as architect and builder. He was extremely capable in practical matters, also, one suspects, inclined to want his own way. He was probably not suited to community life. After a year there he set out to follow ‘in the footsteps of St Francis of Assisi’ and spent some months walking round England preaching and ministering wherever he was welcomed. He had settled in Birmingham when he was invited by the new Bishop of the Bahamas, who had commissioned the church at Gunnerton, to become the rector of Long Island, Bahamas, where the churches had been damaged or destroyed in a hurricane in 1908.

He took with him, or was able to acquire, a comprehensive set of instruments for preparing architectural drawings, and tools for building. He bought a small locally-built sailing boat and used it to travel around the Bahama islands and transport barrels of cement for building work.

He set to work to rebuild the church at Clarence Town as well working as the parish priest. He espoused the Arts and Crafts philosophy of craftsmanship, the use of appropriate local materials and the adoption of a design uniquely adapted to the environment rather than using a conventional ecclesiastical style. He described rebuilding the church at Clarence Town in his journal:

‘I started on the chancel- 35 feet long and 15 feet wide - I laid nearly every stone in the pointed arch-vault because there wasn't any man there I could really trust to help do it. I let them build the walls but an arch is a different matter. I completed it but removed the centering too soon - a tremendous 3 hours rain storm came – the arch had not properly set. Some hours after the rain had stopped – about midnight the whole roof collapsed and fell in! I was reading up in the attic of the Rectory - a perfectly still night - you could still smell the rain. Then suddenly a loud rumbling and mighty crash - cries of people running out of their houses up the street -- "The church is fallen -- the church is fallen" Next day we cleared the debris - the walls were pushed out too. This time I made them a foot thicker: 4 feet thick at the bottom and 3 feet at the top. Since then several bad hurricanes have devasted Clarence Town but a crowd of people found safety under the stone vault of the chancel and they tell me never a drop of water has leaked through it’. The roof at the best known ‘Arts and Crafts’ church in Britain, All Saints Brockhampton, was built in a similar way.

He provided the church with two square western towers, as at Geraldton Cathedral, and this feature was something of a trademark of his. As a schoolboy at King’s School Canterbury he won first prize for a drawing of ‘The Old Gatehouse’, presumably the Christchurch Gate into the cathedral precincts with its twin towers either side of the arch. Are these the source of this feature?

He was incredibly active, and always searching. Whatever he was searching for, this lonely Church of England outpost was not able to provide it for long. He was strongly attracted to the Roman Catholic church with its traditions extending back to the time of St Francis and beyond. He resigned his position and spend some time working in the ‘wild west’ of Canada.

A friend of Hawes’, the Revd C.S. Selby Hall, had converted to Roman Catholicism but being married could not train as a priest. He offered to finance Hawes’ studies for the priesthood at Rome. After two years Hawes was ordained there in 1915. He had hoped to go back to the Americas but instead was offered a post in Western Australia by Dr Kelly, bishop of Geraldton. Hawes wrote ‘His diocese was the biggest, poorest and wildest on the continent. “well!" he said, "if you want real apostolic missionary work I can offer you that, and not much more". I replied that would suit me to a T. He spoke of the cathedral he hoped to begin in Geraldton. He wanted it round, with seats converging on the altar. Next day I brought along some sketches to him. He was delighted “Why you understand exactly what I want”’.

For the next twenty-four years Hawes worked as parish priest travelling over a vast area of Western Australia and designing five more churches. While there he was awarded the title Monsignor for his services to the Catholic church. Although he found fulfilment in his work in Australia he longed for a more solitary life and was drawn back to the Bahamas. He obtained leave of absence from his bishop and made his way back there. The next chain of events isn’t clear from Hawes’ journal, but it ended with him buying a plot of land that included the top of Mount Alvernia, the hill on Cat Island, next to Long Island where he had worked before. Here he proceeded to build himself a hermitage, based on the model of the Celtic Christian sites around the coasts of Cornwall, Wales, Ireland and Brittany.

He doesn’t appear to have had any official role, and I have found no record of his formal acceptance into the Franciscan order. He adopted the name Jerome and simply ministered to the rather impoverished population on the islands, living an extremely ascetic life in the hermitage he built. His work included building a catholic church in Port Clarence on Long Island, similar to the Anglican one he had built earlier but with round instead of square towers.

To finish, as we started, on bells, in 1942 Hawes notes that he has been to Port Howe, at the south end of Cat Island, and that ‘The church bell is the cracked one from Freetown, hurricane casualty, 26 inches diameter. It sounds much better here, really not bad at all, a miraculous recovery - St. Cecilia must have laid a finger on it’.

In Yachting Magazine of March 18, 2010 Peter Swanson wrote: ‘The Hermitage, as it is called, is the crown atop Mount Alvernia on Cat Island, the highest peak in the Bahamas archipelago, though it rises a mere 206 feet above sea level. This one-man monastery was the work of its sole resident, a brilliant and eccentric Roman Catholic clergyman who called himself Father Jerome. Anyone can visit The Hermitage, which is unlocked and unsupervised and may well be one of the greatest picnic spots on earth. “A proper church” (wrote Hawes) "should breathe forth an atmosphere of prayer of religious awe and supernatural mystery". Even in the Hermitage's tiny chapel with its single pew, Father Jerome succeeded in creating that atmosphere. A few yards away, his tiny sleeping quarters feature his simple planked bed, no bigger than a ship's berth. In the stone tower a big bell still hangs, now rusted and silent.’

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