The construction of this website represents the culmination of many years of research by the Hopetoun Catholic Cemetery Preservation Group [St. Bernard’s Parish, Bacchus Marsh] assisted by the Bacchus Marsh Historical Society and interested descendants of pioneer families associated with this historic cemetery.

It is the wish of the committee to make this aggregated information available to those who are interested in family history and those who wish to research and record Bacchus Marsh history. Whilst much of the information has been verified a substantial amount of interesting oral history has been included.

The committee is grateful for the information and photos already provided to it and will welcome continued support in this area. Should you wish to provide corrections, additional information or photos for inclusion, please refer to our Contact page attention Bernice Clarke or Margaret Love.

From: The Hopetoun Catholic Cemetery Conservation Management Plan
The Hopetoun Catholic Cemetery, chapel and school were established before the Victorian gold rushes that dramatically changed the rural, and indeed urban, face of the state.

John Leahy, born in Tipperary, Ireland, migrated to Australia in 1841, and in 1844 leased land on the Lerderderg River, east of the present town of Bacchus Marsh. In 1846, in partnership with his brothers-in-law, John and Michael Egan, he purchased 160 acres of land at Bacchus Marsh, Portion 9, Parish of Merrimu. Together they built a house ‘Springfield’, and a barn/stables, which still stand today. They were strong supporters of the Catholic faith, but the Catholic church in Victoria in the 1840’s suffered grievously from a lack of priests, and visits to the far-flung settlements of rural Victoria were rare events. Bacchus Marsh is not mentioned in the St Francis’ Melbourne registers until August 1849, when Father John Kavanagh performed a marriage there. He returned a year later and performed a baptism.

In 1850, Leahy, Egan and Egan set aside an acre of their land at Bacchus Marsh for the Catholic Church for use as a church, school and cemetery. Leahy also donated £400, half the cost of a chapel/schoolhouse to be erected on the land.  Under Bourke’s Church Act of 1836, the government would match £ for £ subscriptions raised for the building of churches, so Leahy’s donation would have been sufficient for the erection of the chapel. Given that the area was so rarely visited by clergy, and it would be about two years before Bacchus Marsh became a separate Parish within the Melbourne Diocese and had a resident priest appointed, it is not difficult to imagine that the Church Act was used to subsidise the building of a Catholic schoolhouse at Hopetoun.

Bishop Goold laid the foundation stone of the chapel on 16th October, 1850 and later celebrated the first Mass recorded in Bacchus Marsh. It was believed to have been held in Leahy’s barn. It is no surprise that the chapel was dedicated to an Irish saint, St Laurence O’Toole, Archbishop of Dublin from 1162 until his death in 1180. The brick chapel, reported as 35 feet long by 15 feet wide by 14 feet high, and generously claimed to hold 150 people, was completed before the end of 1850, and was ready to start operation as the Hopetoun Catholic Denominational School on 1st January, 1851. Conveyance of the title on the Hopetoun cemetery to the Right Reverend James Alipius Goold for the nominal sum of ten pounds was effected in August, 1855. The foundation stone has been much travelled and is now housed at the Catholic Convent Museum beside St Bernard’s Catholic Primary School.

The Hopetoun school had a chequered history, which was heavily influenced by the changes wrought in rural Victoria by the gold rushes. The Advocate published the names of the children attending the Hopetoun Denominational School on 25th January, 1854. They were: Ellen, Margaret, May and Patrick Leahy; Margaret Egan; Margaret, Judy and Mary O’Shea; Michael, Mary Honorah and Annie Callanan; Thomas, John and Catherine Connell; John, George, Elizabeth and Samuel Hopgood; Patrick, Denis, John and Thomas McNamara; Thomas Hogan; John and James Walsh/Welsh; Catherine and Thomas Kane/Cain; Elizabeth, Joseph and Bridget Stewart; Patrick and James Devereux; Catherine Wright; James, Edmond, Ellen Mary and John Toomey; John, Hugh, Bridget and Annie Duggan; John, Ellen, Mary and Judy Kennedy. There were also three Edwards, two Fields and three Byrne children. Teachers known to be at the school were Michael Callanan, John Barry, Adelaide Chadwicke, Denis Ryan, Nicolas Brennen, J Doyle, Patrick Bourke and J O’Halloran. It closed in March 1860. The chapel building had deteriorated following a very wet year in 1859.  Some time later in 1860, James Spellman re-opened the school and moved it to another location about three quarters of a mile north of its old site.

A daughter of John Leahy recalled that on rare occasions when Mass was celebrated in the Church of St Laurence O’Toole, Catholics came from right across the district to the little chapel. She remembered a motley collection of painted drays, and a crowd of worshippers sitting on bags of straw, gathered around the chapel. Service from priests was intermittent until Fr Eugene O’Connell replaced Fr William Shinnick in 1856 and remained in the parish until 1871. A residence was built for Fr O’Connell at Darley in 1857 and still stands today (2016) as a private home.  When the new timber schoolhouse was opened on November 2nd November, 1863 in Fisken St, this became the temporary church until St Bernard’s was completed in 1874.

The church of St Laurence O’Toole was left to deteriorate in the midst of the little pioneer Catholic cemetery. In 1864, major flooding damaged the chapel, and the locally made bricks started to crumble. Remedial works were undertaken prior to the building being used as the Merrimu Common School. It operated from 1869 until 1874. The chapel was then demolished.  Patrick McDonnell, Michael Leonard, J E Wyndham and Mr Kearns taught at Merrimu Common School.

The Hopetoun Catholic Cemetery was operated by the Catholic Church from 1850 until 1950. Operation was haphazard and no written records were kept hence the history is poorly documented. It could be assumed that burials took place from the time the land was donated, but the first known one was of four year old Jeremiah Connell. The last known burial was that of Mrs Honora Shea in 1941. It is now known there are in excess of 250 burials and quite possibly as many as 300. When John Leahy was buried at the cemetery in 1870 the Bacchus Marsh Express was lavish in its praise of the generous man who had fallen on hard times.

Stories and yarns have been handed down of ‘midnight transfers’, Mary Nutt’s coffin catching fire at her rowdy wake, the coffin that was forgotten when drinking took over, the unlicensed burial of Edward Finnin and the late night removal of Thomas Hanson from Maddingley Cemetery to Hopetoun Cemetery. Because the cemetery did not comply with the requirements of the Cemeteries Act, the Public Health Department recommended the cemetery be closed.  This happened in 1894, with existing rights of interment allowed provided the holder of the right lodged the required registration.

When the Western Freeway, by-passing Bacchus Marsh, was planned in about 1970, the original route took it through the sacred ground.  Bill Griffith, volunteer caretaker, led community action and had the plan altered. At that time the Bacchus Marsh Jaycees supported by the local historical society held several working bees. Much of the post and rail fence was replaced. In 1983 the Shire Council installed the front stile entrance. Members of the Griffith family have continued their caretaker role.

In 1999, under the authority of Father Brian Glasheen, the Hopetoun Catholic Cemetery Preservation Group was formed. It operates as a St Bernard’s Parish group. The group has undertaken fencing works, path construction, signage, headstone stabilisation and cleaning, tree clearing and pruning and some rabbit proofing. Its major project has been to ascertain as accurate a listing as possible of burials in the cemetery. This project had its culmination in the erection of two granite stones containing 257 names. The stones were dedicated at 2.30pm on Saturday, 22nd October, 2016. Several descendants of those whose names were dedicated were in attendance. A gathering to acknowledge the 150th anniversary of the cemetery, held in 2000, was well attended. It was an eloquent reminder of the community regard for the place, and the special personal links that had been carried down through 150 years of Victorian history. The same high regard has continued and was evident at the 2016 ceremony, some 166 years after the first known burial.

Family history researchers may find family members in the main Bacchus Marsh burial ground – the Maddingley Cemetery which opened in 1858 and catered for all denominations as well as in the Hopetoun Cemetery.

The Hopetoun Catholic Cemetery is on the Heritage Inventory (No H7722-0024) and has legislative protection under Part 6 of the Heritage Act 1995 (Vic).

The Hopetoun Catholic Cemetery has protection under the Moorabool Shire Planning Scheme, and is included in the Heritage Overlay, 15 June 2000. Planning Scheme Map Reference HO16.

The Hopetoun Catholic Cemetery is listed with the National Trust of Australia (Victoria), File No B2854, but is not classified.

As a closed private cemetery, only Section 48 of Part 1 of the Cemeteries Act 1958 (Vic) applies to the property, in respect of exhumations.