The Hermitage Of Cat Island in the Bahamas


John Cyril Hawes (1876-1956), architect and priest, was born on 7 September 1876 at Richmond, Surrey, England, third son of Edward Hawes, solicitor, and his wife Amelia Mariana, née Boult. Educated at Brighton and at the King’s School, Canterbury, he was greatly influenced by the splendour of Canterbury Cathedral and showed an early talent for drawing. In London in 1893 he was articled to Edmeston & Gabriel, architects, and attended lectures at the Architectural Association School and at the Central School of Arts and Crafts under Professor W. R. Lethaby. There he came under the influence of the Arts and Crafts movement: the work of Ninian Comper and Charles Voysey, and the writing of John Ruskin.

Fr. Jerome and his Jack Russell

In 1909 Hawes was invited by Bishop Hornby to join the Church of England mission in the Bahama Islands where many churches had been damaged by a hurricane. On Long Island he ministered to his native parishioners, repaired the churches, and designed and built St Paul’s, Clarence Town. After several years dissatisfaction with High and Low Church divisions, Hawes experienced a second conversion in 1911 and left the Bahamas for New York to become a Roman Catholic. Then followed three years of indecision and wandering, mainly in Canada, where he worked as a teamster and labourer on the Canadian Pacific Railway. He entered The Beda College, Rome, in 1913 and was ordained priest two years later.

Cat Island Hermitage

In Rome Hawes met Bishop William Bernard Kelly from Western Australia and was recruited for his Geraldton diocese. The dual role of outback missionary and architect with a commission to design a cathedral appealed strongly to Hawes’s two major enthusiasms. Arriving in Geraldton in November 1915, he took up a temporary appointment in the Murchison goldfields parish of Mount Magnet and Cue, but started work on his Geraldton cathedral next June. By August 1918 the nave was opened for services but the Cathedral of St Francis Xavier was not completed until 1938, owing to lack of funds and the hostility of Dr Richard Ryan who succeeded Bishop Kelly in 1923. The cathedral is Hawes’s most important building: frankly eclectic, a mixture of Romanesque and Californian Spanish Mission styles, but with a roughcast simplicity and dignity totally in harmony with the surroundings.

This is father Jerome’s masterpiece, the Catholic Church at Clarence Town on Long Island in the Bahamas.

Of Hawes’s other buildings in Western Australia, the most interesting include his highly individual parish church of Our Lady of Mount Carmel, Mullewa, again largely Romanesque and built of local stone mainly through the architect’s own labours, and the adjoining priest’s house (1927). There are also churches at Morawa (1932), Carnarvon (1934), Northampton and the Utakarra cemetery chapel (1935), and Perenjori (1936); and he designed chapels at Yalgoo, Bluff Point, Nanson and Melangatta homestead.

In 1922 Archbishop Clune commissioned Hawes to design a new cathedral for the Perth diocese, but while Hawes was in England ordering stained glass and mosaics for the project his plans were rejected and the choice of architect switched to M. F. Cavanagh. Bitterly disappointed, Hawes was later befriended by his next bishop, James Patrick O’Collins, who greatly valued his work and arranged in 1937 for him to receive the Papal title, monsignor.

Throughout most of his life Hawes was attracted by the eremitical ideal: in 1939 he returned, via England, to the Bahamas where he built a hermitage on Cat Island and attempted to live as a hermit under the name of Fra Jerome. But his architectural talents were soon sought and he spent much time designing churches and supervising building on Cat Island, Long Island, and in Nassau where a convent, a boys’ college, and the Benedictine Monastery of St Augustine brought him fame. Worn out through hard work and a severe regimen, he died in St Francis Hospital, Miami, Florida, United States of America, on 26 June 1956. He was buried in the cave he had prepared for himself below his hermitage on the hilltop of Cat Island.

Select Bibliography

• P. F. Anson, Abbot Extraordinary, and The Hermit of Cat Island (Lond, 1958) (.pdf)

• J. M. Freeland, Architecture in Australia (Melb, 1968)

Westerly, Nov 1963, Sept 1976

• J. C. Hawes diaries and letters (St Augustine’s Monastery, Foxhill, Nassau, Bahama Islands, and Bishop’s House, Geraldton, Western Australia).

Citation details

A. G. Evans, ‘Hawes, John Cyril (1876–1956)’, Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, (Link), published first in hardcopy 1983, accessed online 15 December 2018.

B.This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 9, (MUP), 1983.

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