Beagle Bay, Mother of Pearl Church: A piece of Germany, in the heart of the Kimberley

What is the most beautiful place of worship in Australia? St Mary's Cathedral, Sydney, or the Great Synagogue which stands on the opposite side of Hyde Park? 

Melbourne's "Sunshine Mosque" with its 17 domes or Perth's Hindu temple Shree Swaminarayan?

Everyone has their favourite, but I find it hard to go beyond Sacred Heart at Beagle Bay, also known as "the Mother of Pearl Church" – which celebrates its centenary in 2018.

It gained celebrity status after featuring in Bran Nue Dae – the groundbreaking Indigenous musical (with its most famous line: "There's nothing I would rather be/than to be an Aborigine"). 

The stage show was turned into a movie in 2010 starring Rocky McKenzie as the teenage lead, backed by a bunch of unknowns (Geoffrey Rush, Magda Szubanksi, Jessica Mauboy, Missy Higgins and Ernie Dingo). Sadly, its Indigenous creator Jimmy Chi died in Broome Hospital, last month, aged 69.

It has taken us almost an hour to get here by four-wheel-drive from Broome, driving north along a rough dirt track on Western Australia's remote Dampier Peninsula on the way to One Arm Point at the tip of Cape Leveque.

Beagle Bay was named in 1838 by John Clements Wickham, captain of HMS Beagle, as he surveyed Australia's north-west coast a couple of years after his former shipmate, Charles Darwin, had published Voyage of the Beagle about the ship's first epic voyage.

But the Nyul Nyul traditional owners had known it for centuries before as Ngariun Burr ("Surrounded by springs").

We arrive on a hot Sunday morning in this remote community of 300 people (mostly Indigenous) to find Beagle Bay blissfully asleep.

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Still, there's no mistaking the stark-white, Germanic profile of Sacred Heart, which stands erect in the distinctly non-Teutonic Kimberley landscape like the Tardis on Mars: a glorious but understandable anomaly. But Sacred Heart's reputation is based solely on its unique interior.

Sacred Heart is an incredible marriage of German and Aboriginal culture, forged through an accident of history. French Trappist monks brought Christianity to Beagle Bay in 1890 after their first attempt to found a mission at Disaster Bay proved, well, disastrous.

They left after realising the monastic life would not appeal to the people of the Dampier and were replaced by Pallottine missionaries from Germany and the Sisters of St John of God from Ireland. 

When World War I broke out in 1914, all the Germans in this corner of Australia were arrested and interned at Beagle Bay.

They decided to build a durable church (cyclones, white ants and bush fires had destroyed the previous wooden ones). And they modelled it on a photograph of a country parish church in their homeland.

Ninety thousand bricks were fashioned by hand and fired. Mortar was made from the ashes of burnt shells. 

Once the building was completed in 1917, a team of Aboriginal women worked under the direction of a German priest to decorate the interior with mother of pearl, cowrie, volute and olive snail shells. 

A year later, they had produced an art work that cannot be seen anywhere else in the world – a sublime concoction of Christian symbols, European mosaic techniques and "saltwater people" totems: dingos, snakes, emus, fish, shields and spears.

Usually the main altar and the two side altars attract most attention (St Joseph's side altar features a pearling lugger being tossed on rough seas).

But the 14 Stations of the Cross, added after World War II, are my favourites. They were painted on aluminium sheets to survive the climate and white ants by a German nun who witnessed the bombing of Hitler's Third Reich (as seen in the eighth station showing the destruction of Jerusalem).

Framed by shells, many of the panels feature Aboriginal figures – witnesses to the Holy Story. The "Mother of Pearl Church" was officially opened on August 15, 1918.

TRIP NOTES

MORE 

westernaustralia.com

visitbroome.com.au

STAY

Cable Beach Club Resort and Spa, Broome. Doubles from $449. See cablebeachclub.com

FLY

QantasLink has direct flights to Broome from Melbourne, Sydney, Brisbane and Perth. See qantas.com

Virgin Australia has direct flights to Broome from Melbourne.

Steve Meacham travelled as a guest of Tourism Western Australia.

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