Please note: St Mary’s by the Sea is not a Catholic church. We consider it a non-denominational chapel. We prefer to use our own churches for weddings and other rituals, that is, St Mary (Port Douglas), and St Augustine (Mossman). Follow the links above.

The “history” of St Mary’s by the Sea found in most publications before 2012 and at the site itself contains factual errors. The information in the Queensland Heritage Register has since been corrected. The detailed history, along with newly discovered photos, was published in October 2012 in St Mary’s of Port Douglas: As it came to pass. The following gives the basic facts.

Last revision, 14 October 2015

The three Saint Marys of Port Douglas

The Three St Mary’s Churches, Port Douglas

Click photos to view full size. See also historic albums for 1881-1911 and 1914-1988.


Port Douglas was founded in June 1877, and the first chapel was opened there on Sunday 01 September 1878 by Fr Cherubino de Romanis. The land itself was not bought until the Crown Land sale on 18 November 1879 when Rev Dr John Cani was Pro-Vicar of the Vicariate. See the historical map for the original location. Various priests visited until 1880, including Fr Julian Tenison Woods in 1879.


First St Mary’s Church

The first church (photo left) was built under the care of Fr Peter Bucas, beginning in October 1880; it was opened late February or early March 1881, measuring 60 by 28 feet (c. 156m2), and was said to accommodate 300 people. Bucas returned to Cooktown, but left the region in mid-1882, soon after the arrival of the new Pro-Vicar, Paul Fortini. Fr Joachim Guerrini 5  arrived as resident priest on 29 September 1883, and by the end of the year he had the original chapel moved to beside the church and renovated as the presbytery (priest’s house). It is seen to the left of the church in the 1888 photo, above.


Presbytery in 1914, and beginning of second St Mary’s

On 16-17 March 1911 the church and presbytery were completely destroyed by cyclone. The small Catholic community was unable to replace its church immediately. A replacement presbytery (see photo right, to the left of the church frame) was built within two months using salvaged timber. It also served as a chapel until August 1914 when the new church was built. Mossman had also lost its church, but within 11 months the parishioners there had a new one designed and built by Mr James Sargent of Mareeba.


Second St Mary’s Church in about 1916.

The laying of the “foundation block” of a new church was celebrated on Sunday, 07 December 1913, and in March it was reported that “Mr Nielsen is engaged on the erection of the new church, construction of which has been delayed through the non-arrival of timber” (Northern Herald, 13 Mar 1914, page 41). This new church (pictured left between 1914 and 1932), only about half the size of the 1881 church, was opened and blessed on 30 August 1914. The earliest known photo inside was taken on 10 November 1914 (pictured right).

Sanctuary in the 2nd St Mary’s Church, on 10 Nov 1914.
Northern Herald, 04 Sep 1914, page 42:
“The ceremony of blessing the new R.C. Church in Port Douglas is to be performed by the Rev. Father Dempsey, of Cairns, on Sunday, August 30th, 1914. The building, which is the work of Mr H. A. Nielsen, of Port Douglas, is a handsome structure, and a stable one. The dimensions are 40ft. long and 32ft. wide, and speaks well for the energy of the Parish Priest, Father Crotty.”

The reported measurements mistakenly includes the side sacristy in the width. No mention was of the architect, but photos reveal that the building was a reduced copy of James Sargent’s 1911 church in Mossman, being about 1 meter narrower and at least one section shorter.


In 1932 Fr Vignoles was appointed first parish priest since 1917, and the first to reside in Mossman. He petitioned the Douglas Shire Council for permission to move the 1911 presbytery to Mossman, but soon decided to build a new one instead. The old one was sold as a home, and is still to be seen in Owen Street, Mossman.


In 1975 the Parish foresaw that a larger church would soon be needed, perhaps also a school, and that the Murphy/Grant Streets site would not be suitable. It was soon discovered that due to historical accidents the titles of the two lots on which the church actually stood were still in the names of the long deceased James [O’]Quinn (in Brisbane) and Dr John Cani. It took until 1983 to resolve the situation and allow the Parish to sell the land. The local developer John Morris proposed moving and preserving Old St Mary’s in a planned historical village near the cemetery. The Parish accepted this proposal. Morris renewed his offer on 24 January 1985, and confirmed it in a letter the same day to Bishop John Torpie.

The plan was announced in mid-December, but some people objected strongly to the old church moving from the town centre, and Morris eventually relinquished his claim on the building. Rumour soon claimed that the church was going to be demolished (Port Douglas & Mossman Gazette, 21 May 1987), though there was no such plan. Why let facts get in the way of a panic? The Save the Church Group formed and via a letter from their solicitors asked the parish priest for the church on behalf of the group. Since the earlier and preferred option was no longer possible the Parish donated the building to them for historical preservation.


The old church was decommissioned in October 1988. The group, by then called the Port Douglas Restoration Society, relocated it in November 1988, renovated it, and opened it in November 1989 as St Mary’s by the Sea. This name has ever since caused much confusion with the actual parish church, and the Society has never even acknowledged the Parish as the donor. The old church’s original character was notably changed by inserting the window in the sanctuary wall, and the arches in the replacement wall dividing the nave from the sanctuary differ from the original equilateral arches.


The current St Mary Church was built at 2 Endeavour Street. Unlike the original chapel and the first two churches it was consecrated by a bishop, which took place on 20 October 1991 by Bishop John Bathersby.

Map and directions to St Mary Church, Port Douglas | Views of St Mary Church, Port Douglas


Fuller biographies of these people can be read in the parish book, St Mary’s of Port Douglas: As it came to pass.

1 Dr Giovanni (John) Cani came from Italy in 1861 to serve with Bishop James Quinn in the new Diocese of Brisbane. He was the Pro-Vicar of the Vicariate Apostolic of Northern Queensland in 1878-1881, but returned to Brisbane as Administrator of that Diocese when Bishop Quinn died. In 1882 he was appointed as the first Bishop of the Diocese of Rockhampton, where he died in 1898.

2 Fr Julian Edmund Tenison Woods, born in London and ordained a priest in Australia, both befriended and inspired St Mary MacKillop; they co-founded the Sisters of St Joseph (the Josephites). As a scientist he published in the fields of marine biology and geology, with a particular interest in palaeontology; several fossilized marine species have been named after him. He also published the first detailed popular and geological descriptions of the region from Port Douglas to Cooktown.

3 Fr Pierre (Peter) Bucas (a Breton) began studies in medicine before changing to study for the priesthood, but then became a soldier in the Papal armies in the early stages of Italy’s war for unification. He went to New Zealand in August 1865 to work with Bishop Pompallier, but for health reasons he departed for Australia, arriving in Sydney on the Auckland on 09 August 1867. He was in Mackay 1869-1880, until Cani recruited him to the Vicariate. Soon after the arrival of Fortini (see next note) he went to join Cani in Rockhampton. From 1887 to 1912 he was again the parish priest of Mackay. He died in Rockhampton in October 1930, and was buried there, but in November 1946 his remains were transferred to Mackay, where a suburb was later named in his honour as Bucasia.

4 Monsignor Paolo (Paul) Fortini (an Italian) was Pro-Vicar from June 1882 until his eccentric and deplorable leadership led to his dismissal and recall to Rome when the Vicariate was entrusted to the Irish Augustinians who arrived in May 1884. He did not die in 1884 as many internet sites claim; he returned to Rome and taught modern languages until his death there in March 1913.

5 Fr Gioachino (Joachim) Guerrini (sometimes spelled Guerrinni, Guerinni, or Guerini) was an Italian Franciscan who had worked in the USA from 1859 to 1879. He was the first librarian (1860-1865) at St Bonaventure’s College and Seminary, now St Bonaventure University. Having returned to Italy in the early 1880s he responded to Fortini’s advertisement for volunteers for the Vicariate in 1883, and was appointed to Port Douglas. He was summarily dismissed when the Irish Augustinians took charge in May 1884, but with no priest to replace him he was permitted to stay until mid-1885. He did not leave until some time in 1886 when he joined the Diocese of Armidale. He was parish priest of Bundarra 1889-1918, was held in great affection by his people, and was the seniormost priest in Australia at the time of his death on 07 November 1918.

6 Heinrich August Freisleben Nielsen (sometimes spelled Neilsen, Nilsen, or Nelson), a cabinet maker, was born in Denmark in about 1857. He married Holga Marie Neermann (also Danish) on 05 September 1886 in London. They soon set out for Australia on the Dorunda, disembarking at Brisbane on 13 December 1886. Heinrich and Holga then settled in Cooktown where they had four children; Ingeborg (18 Jun 1887), Maud (18 May 1889), Daisy (25 Feb 1892), and Heinrich Neermann (27 Mar 1895). At some stage Holga returned to Denmark with the children, and she died there in 1911. Heinrich August had moved to Port Douglas in 1909, and so was involved in much of the post-cyclone reconstruction. In his later years he was well known for making inlaid jewellery cases in book form; stamped H.A. Nielsen they can sometimes be found in antique shops and auctions. He died on 09 July 1946 in the Mossman Hospital after a brief illness, and was buried at Port Douglas.

Fuller biographies of these people can be read in the parish book, St Mary’s of Port Douglas: As it came to pass.

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