The Brighton Mission
Cranbourne, along with many other parts of the current Diocese of Sale, was originally part of the Brighton Mission. It was quite extensive, covering all of the territory south of the Yarra, form Emerald Hill (South Yarra) to the Mornington Peninsula, and the large area east of Port Phillip as far as the Strzelecki Ranges. The priests that were assigned to minister to the people in these areas were quite heroic: travelling great distances by horseback over rough, often uninhabitable country, as well as facing loneliness and dangers, which seem by today’s standards to be almost intolerable. By their sheer presence in these areas they nurtured the faith of the early settlers and promoted the development of Catholicism in the area.
Fr Patrick Niall, a young Irish priest, was the first resident pastor to be appointed. He rode into the bush in 1853 to make contact with the early settlers. He always managed to return to his home station in Brighton for Sunday, the rest of the time was spent ministering to the people in their homes, stations and Mass centres. Fr Niall did not see the immediate needs for churches to be built, but rather, the need for catholic schools for children to be educated in. The urgent need was to obtain Crown grants to provide permanent sites for both Catholic schools and churches.
The Dandenong Parish
In April 1883 came the birth of the Dandenong parish, with which Cranbourne was associated.
On 26th April 1887, Sale was made a diocese, whilst on 13th May 1887, James Francis Corbett, Parish Priest of St Kilda and Chancellor of the Archdiocese of Melbourne, was appointed the first Bishop. The Diocese took on a vast part of Gippsland, including Walhalla, and as well as the country around Omeo, and the gold mining settlements of Jericho and Red Jacket on the slopes of the Divide near Woods Point.
The Developing Years
Over the next few years the parish would grow and develop, with quite a few changes in missionary priests. Fr J P O’Sullivan succeeded Fr Niall, who was then followed by Fr J Martin (1872), Fr P McCarthy (1876) and the much loved Fr M Carey in 1883. Fr Thomas Egan, originally from Ireland, was transferred from Wangaratta (where he had developed a serious disease) to take over the parish; it was thought that the areas cooler climate would assist him. Sadly, he passed away in 1884. From that time Fr William Quilter (1884-1891) ably ministered in the Parish until he was transferred and replaced by Fr John Daly (1891-1898). Fr M Carroll was the new rector but was plagued by ill health and was appointed to Flemington in 1899. Fr J Gleeson who took over from Fr Carroll in 1899, presided over a meeting of Cranbourne Catholics at St Agatha’s and pointed out the necessity for repairs to the old church as well as new seating. Though a Catholic Ball was held in response, and 30 to 40 coupes attended, only £8 was cleared. Fr Gleeson would serve the area well for 19 years with significant achievements, progress and dedicated spiritual leadership. He was replaced by Fr F Merner in 1918 who was thought to be the first Dandenong parish priest to use motor transport. He was replaced by Fr Thomas Little in 1926.
In late 1926, Fr Thomas Little organised a meeting with the parishioners of St Agatha’s to arrange a fund raising target for a new church for Cranbourne. Estimated to cost £3,000 the parishioners set themselves a target of £1,000. With many events organised, the Church was well on the way to completion.