The Church of Torres Strait (TAC) on Saibai Island in the Torres Strait
has the very attractive church dedicated to the Holy Trinity in which to
The construction of the church, completed in 1938, is a moving testimonial to the faith and commitment of the Saibai people, taking place as it did during nineteen difficult years which included the Great Depression Australia-wide. Saibai people are renowned for the depth and strength of their Christian faith and produced the first Torres Strait Islander bishop, the Right Reverend Kiwami Dai, who died last year, and many fine priests and people willing to serve God wherever He might send them.
Many Saibai Islanders remember well the dedication on December 4, 1938. The beach and harbour at Saibai were a splendid sight with outrigger canoes, which brought invited guests from neighbouring Papua New Guinea, lined up on the sand and pearl, beche-de-mer and trochus luggers moored alongside the mission vessel Herald 1.
The Bishop of Carpentaria, the Right Reverend Stephen Davies, had come in the Herald 1, to open a church which had taken the Saibai people 19 years of sacrifice and toil to build.
The Church of the Holy Trinity was the fourth on Saibai. The original London Missionary Society missionaries used the island style building for services but the first real church was called Panetha (Morning Star in the Samoan language and Goeyga Thithuy in the local dialect). It was built by Nermia, the Samoan missionary who came to Saibai for the London Missionary Society around 1881, with the help of Daku from Dauan and Kebesu. The third church was called Mari Yoewth, and it was a "temporary" home for services until the current church was finished and built from the corrugated iron taken from Panetha.
No one knew the dedication of the new church until Bishop Davies called it out when he knocked on its door with his staff. It was opened in the traditional Anglican way by Gabugub Daunau, one of the Churchwardens.
It would be difficult for anyone who does not know the Torres Strait islands to understand and appreciate the labour and effort that went into the Church of the Holy Trinity.
The Saibai people truly made an act of faith when, under Chief Council Gauga Awabu, they met on the beach between the two fig trees Baythana Dhani and Goeynawoena Dhani at Maub and decided that Panetha was no longer satisfactory and should be replaced.
They decided some of the men could go to sea and earn the money they needed for timber, cement and corrugated fibro roofing. It was a decision that would eventually involve three generations of Saibai people, who had to keep earning a living while trying to raise the extra money they needed for the church. That is why the building took a long nineteen years to complete. As Jack Warusam, Dhoeybaw (wild yam totem) elder and grandson of Asa says, "Our grandfathers started the work, our fathers continued it until the eldest sons of our fathers came along and joined them. Then we came along and joined our fathers and brothers".
In 1917, the Archbishop of Queensland blessed the great granite foundation stone, laid by elders of the time on its imposing site looking across the sea to Papua New Guinea.
Samoan missionary, contributed to the new church in two ways. He had taught
Saibai people to adze and shape Wongai timber for the rafters in Panetha
and how to burn coral to make a serviceable lime.
Imported Portland cement was used for the foundations and concrete slab floor, the 30cm thick walls were made from lime, gravel and sand poured in a mangrove timber framework. The lime, gravel and sand were mixed in old canoes, using wooden paddles for spades.
Canoes were used for transporting the coral from Saibailgau Maza (Saibai Reef) on the traditional boundary line with Papua New Guinea, Dauanalgau Maza, Gawal Maza and Wai Reef.
The coral was placed in a great heap. Logs were cut, placed in a heap and covered by dried coconut leaves as is done for earthovens, and set on fire with the coral on top. As the wood burnt, so did the coral, disintegrating into ash or lime. People camped at the coral burning sites, the women keeping up supplies of food and generally supporting their menfolk. The Dauan and Boigu people who have genealogical links with the Saibai people helped in this work.
As the walls of the new church crept upwards the financial situation improved, thanks to the new generation of Saibai seamen who were earning better pay on the luggers. They could afford the cement for the concrete slab floor, which was the second stage of construction.
At no stage was money available to employ a European carpenter to supervise construction. Saibai people did all the construction themselves. A European mission carpenter with the unlikely name of Irish was only needed to build the roof of Holy Trinity.
The magnificent lime-stone and coral Church of the Holy Trinity stands today as a great place of worship in the finest Anglican expression of the Catholic Faith. The people of Saibai, Church of Torres Strait, give thanks to Almighty God for the special blessings bestowed upon them over the past 61 years.
Thanks to the dedication of the Saibai People, the magnificent Church of the Holy Trinity, Saibai Island was finally completed after 19 years of hard toil and little money. The National Trust will ensure its preservation. (Photos by Fr. Eric Babia, a former priest of Saibai and now parish priest of St. Clare's Cairns).
The sanctuary of Holy Trinity, Saibai Island.
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