About 1939 a small group of Catholic families approached the Bishop (by then James Liston) for a regular Mass, and the sitting room of the Matheson-Curry house was made available for this purpose. Some of the names remembered as regular attenders are; Curry, Nightingale, Harrison, O’Shea, Boyle and Mangan. The Mangans provided two lively and somewhat irreverant altar-boys, Murray and Brian. With the Bishop’s permission, a priest travelled from Puhoi once a month to say Mass for this handful of Parishioners.
Within a year or two, the congregation had outgrown the sitting room, and the Curry family offered the use of an out-building which stood in their yard. It was about the size of a one-car garage, and the men with typical enthusiasm, set about converting it into a chapel. They built an altar step and altar, a confessional which doubled as the sacristy, and painted the whole. Some seats were acquired from St Patrick’s and cut down to make six pews, a strip of lino was laid to form an aisle, and behold, a Catholic chapel!
Mass was celebrated first by Father Rogers, Curate of Puhoi. There are memories of somnolent summer Sundays being enlivened by the presence of a swarm of bees which had once made its home in the shed and kept trying to reinstate itself. Even the holy person of Father Skinner was not immune to the creatures, but he was not to be put off his sermon by a bee or two. A gesture to an altar-boy, and the bee would be flicked away.
It often happens that war stimulates an economy. With the outbreak of the Second World War New Zealand in general and Wellsford in particular threw off the last remnants of the Great Depression and began to prosper. Farming especially was a growth industry, as countries on the other side of the world put their efforts into weapons manufacturing and came calling to New Zealand for food.
The sudden development of the Wellsford district resulted in another increase in numbers for the Catholic community, and the need for a proper church became insistent. Fund-raising began in earnest.
The Manpower Authority, whose function it was to direct the labour force of the country into the most efficient channels, whether military or civilian, ordered Cyril Nightingale to remain at his work in the railway. This meant that, with shift work, he sometimes had free days during the week. So he and Father O’Carroll, who had replaced Father Rogers, went fund-raising. They travelled the whole Wellsford-Maungaturoto district, Father O’Carroll driving with the recklessness for which he was famous. The roads ranged from “diabolical” to “atrocious”, and Father’s Chev did sterling duty. The people were sad, but not surprised when the Chev left the road while descending Schedewy’s Hill and father O’Carroll was badly injured. His old war-cry, “See you in Purgatory” re-echoed around the Parish.
In 1946 anew Presbytery was build next door to the church. The complex stood where the medical centre is now, quite close to the main road. Matheson Raod was not yet formed.
The New Parish
About that time (1946) Warkworth, Wellsford and Maungaturoto were separated from Puhoi and formed into a new Parish, as Bishop Cleary had foreseen. Father O’Neill was appointed Parish Priest and fund-raising continued with all manner of activities. These included fortnightly card evenings in the public hall supper room and a highly successful annual Catholic Ball which entailed a tremendous amount of work.
The first two baptisms in the new Parish were adult converts, and the first infant baptism was of Daniel David Joseph Murdoch, son of Cyril and Rose, on the 12th November 1944. Julia May Donovan was next – she was the daughter of George and Mary, and was baptised on the 15th December 1944. Two days later, a familiar name appears. Marie Theresa Harrison, daughter of Walter and Doris (Dot) was baptised on 17th December 1944, the sponsors being Cyril Nightingale and Olga Sosich. Pauline Sophia Lipanovich, daughter of Agatha and Vincent, was baptised on the 15th April 1945. Her sponsors were Nicholas Krsinick and Rose Franicevich.
The Parish had purchased the house in Batten Street, now occupied by Mr and Mrs Alan Thomas, so that Father O’Neill could be on hand to supervise the building of the new church.
Within a year, all the effort and generosity saw the first sod turned and a start to the building of Wellsford’s first real Catholic Church.
Shortage of money was not the only difficulty. In those wartime years, building materials of all types were in very short supply and often of an inferior quality. This became apparent in the late 50s, when the building, less than 15 years old, had to be re-roofed. But that was in the future.
In the meantime, work proceeded, and by June 1945 it was complete. That month, in the presence of 170 people who came from miles around, Bishop Liston opened and blessed the new Church. The building was designed to seat 120 people and the Bishop commented on the generosity of the Curry family in making a free gift of the land. The new Parish was dedicated to Our Lady of Perpetual Help but is more frequently referred to as St Mary’s.
Within a year Pat Snoswell and Betty Farr had come as brides to the new Parish. Coincidentally, they both came from Wellington, old girls of St Mary’s College there.
Betty and Llew had met at the Wellington Catholic Services Club during the War and the Snoswells met at one of the Wellsford Catholic Balls when Pat and her friend made an overnight stop at Wellsford during a train holiday in the north.
There was talk of starting a Wellsford Branch of the Wellington St Mary’s Old Girls Assn when Mary Casey came to the Parish a few years on, another former pupil of that school.