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12 July, 2021

Bucasia historian casts light on dark orphanage history

Exclusive Mackay Local News journalist, John Bell, has spent the past week with historian and archivist, Doug Petersen, to help bring to light the 135-year-old, heart-breaking story of more than 33 babies and young children who died, and were buried in unmarked graves, in the dunes of what is now one of the Mackay region's most popular beaches.

By John Bell

Bucasia historian and archivist Doug Petersen with a plaque commemorating the babies and yound children who died at St Joseph's Orphanage between 1869 and 1886.

The search is on to find the remains of 19 babies and very young children who are buried in unmarked graves in Mackay’s lost Orphanage Cemetery at Bucasia.

Local historian and archivist, Doug Petersen has spent years researching his book on the deaths of 33 babies and infants, who died between 1869 and 1886 after staying at St Joseph’s Orphanage at Bucasia.

Mr Petersen has also located the 1886 hand-written map which appears to locate secrets the lost Mackay Orphanage Cemetery by the Queensland Government’s Valuer.

This map circles what is believed to be the forgotten Orphanage Cemetery next to the beach at Bucasia and St Joseph’s Orphanage, which was established by Father Bucas in 1869, and run by Saint Mary McKillop’s Sisters of St Joseph and then by the Sisters of Mercy  

Mr Petersen’s book documents in modern terms, the horrific living conditions of children plagued by swarms of mosquitos and sleeping on damp dirt floors in an orphanage surrounded by swamp on three sides.

He believes that with the benefit of 135-years of hindsight and modern medicine, these children appear to have suffered and were weakened by malaria, pneumonia, pleurisy and hookworm.

At the time, Mackay’s Police Magistrate, Thomas Mowbray visited Mackay’s Bucasia Orphanage where he was ‘of the opinion that the care of the orphans was excellent’.

But after Magistrate Mowbray was transferred to Bundaberg in 1887, Mackay’s Dr Arthur Cutfield and the Queensland Inspector of Orphanages ordered that Mackay’s Bucasia Orphanage be closed and the remaining children be transferred to Rockhampton.

Tragically, another 10 young children died within six months of being transferred to Rockhampton.

Be sure to grab a copy of this Thursday's print edition of Mackay Local News to read John Bell's exclusive feature on the children of St Joseph's. 

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