HERITAGE TREASURES

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HERITAGE TREASURES

One of the first buildings to be seen by a visitor entering the historic West Coast mining town of Zeehan is the 1890s Catholic Church of St Fursaeus. With its charming bell tower beside the entrance this wooden building is a tribute to the zeal of the pioneering Catholic community. The church has a particularly fine painted wooden altar enriched by gold decoration and multi- coloured marbling, but the real surprise of the interior is above the altar within the arch between the nave and chancel. Filling this arch is a remarkable rood beam.

In the Middle Ages, rood was the word for tree, and it came to be used from that time particularly to refer to the cross on which Christ was crucified. During that period too, the practice gradually developed of placing an open screen across the church between the nave and the chancel upon which was placed a large crucifix, so it became known as a rood screen. Occasionally, the screen was replaced by a beam across the entrance to the chancel, hence a rood beam. This practice died out after the Reformation but was revived in the late 1830s by Pugin, the great English designer, architect and friend of our first Bishop, Robert William Willson. Pugin’s churches always had rood screens or, less frequently, rood beams and so did the Tasmanian churches he designed for Willson. There are still excellent Pugin rood screens in St Paul’s, Oatlands, and St Patrick’s, Colebrook.

After Bishop Willson returned to England in 1865 the practice of installing rood screens in Tasmania’s Catholic churches ceased. So it is all the more remarkable that a rood beam was

placed in St Fursaeus’ many decades later. The crucifix is supported by an ornate framework which fills the chancel arch, and at the base of the cross is the Sacred Monogram JHS in gilt fretwork. On the edge of the chancel arch above the rood is the painted inscription, ‘MY HOUSE IS THE HOUSE OF PRAYER’.

This precious and unique rood beam with its surmounting inscription and painted altar beneath it forms a remarkable ensemble and a significant testimony to the faith of the West Coast Catholic community.

By Brian Andrews, Archdiocese of Hobart Heritage Officer.