Kiama history - graves footnote to drownings

Sue Lark at the graves of two priests who drowned in Kiama in 1883. Picture: GREG TOTMAN
Sue Lark at the graves of two priests who drowned in Kiama in 1883. Picture: GREG TOTMAN

Two headstones, joined by a cross and overlooking Gerringong's Boat Harbour, reveal a sad story that rocked the South Coast's Catholic community in 1883.

On a warm summer day on Friday, January 12, Father Michael McGrath, 33, a Catholic clergyman from the Shoalhaven, and Father Patrick Clarke, 26, a locum priest, decided to go for a swim off the rocks at Kendalls Beach, Kiama.

Father Patrick Ryan, the parish priest from Albion Park, was with his colleagues but decided against entering the water and instead took a walk across the headland.

He watched the two priests skylarking before he realised that the two were out of their depth and, as neither could swim, were in serious trouble.

The alarm was raised, but the many people gathered along the shore were unable to help. A Dr John Caird, who lived nearby, entered the water, retrieving the body of Father Clarke. Father McGrath's body was retrieved a short time later by a local man named McCulloch.

The bodies were taken to the nearby Ss Peter and Paul Church.

The parishioners of Kiama and Nowra both lobbied to have the priests buried in their own parishes, but Archbishop Roger Vaughan suggested a compromise and chose the Gerringong cemetery, where their graves remain overlooking Gerringong's Boat Harbour.

Family History Centre officer Sue Lark said when the Kiama Family History Centre opened 25 years ago its main focus was on genealogy and helping people piece together names, dates and births for a family tree.

But as the internet has evolved and people can now find many basic details online, the centre's role has changed. It now includes tracking down the stories behind the graves, and helping people find solutions to family history puzzles.

"You can't study family history without local and social history," Ms Lark said.

Expo showcases family connections

The Kiama Family History Centre’s 25th anniversary Family, Social and Local History Expo will be one of the largest gatherings of historical groups on the South Coast in many years, organisers say.

More than 30 family history societies, local history societies and museums from throughout NSW and Queensland will be present at the expo, which will be held at the Kiama Pavilion on Saturday from 9.30am to 4pm.

‘‘Each organisation will be showcasing what they do and how they can help you find out more about your family history or the history of their specific area,’’ the centre’s Sue Lark said.

Well-known genealogist Cora Num will speak about tracing missing ancestors and Irish research on the internet, while Gail Davis from State Records NSW will give a talk titled Getting to Know State Records Family History Sources.  

Those interested in the history of Kiama can join historian Ray Thorburn, who will host short historical walks around town.  

Entry is free, as are the talks and the historical walks.  

‘‘Bring along your historical puzzles and let us solve them for you,’’ Ms Lark said.

For more information contact Kiama Family History Centre 42331122 or


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