The Journey of the Catholic Church in Australia

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The Catholic Church has had a very interesting and impressive story to tell over many hundreds of years and well before Captain Cook sailed up the East Coast of this Great Southern Land of the Holy Spirit. 

The Portuguese had maps of the East Coast of Australia from the Mendoza expedition of 1522... 

After the Eureka Stockade in 1854, to restore order and calm on the gold fields of Victoria, Governor Charles Hotham used the services of Bishop James Goold... 

The Catholic Education system as we know it today is reputedly unique in the world. This system educates over 20% of all Australia's Primary and Secondary children...

Did you know the following facts?

  • The Portuguese had maps of the East Coast of Australia from the Mendoza expedition of 1522. Fr. Matteo Ricci (1552 - 1610) while working in the court of the Chinese Emperor in 1602, drew up a map of the world. This included a map of Australia that can be identified as the northern section of this continent coming down the east coast as far as the town of St. Lawrence and the Sarina Range in Queensland. A copy of this map was sent to the Pope and is still in the Vatican archives. Earlier Chinese maps of the East Coast of Australia have been found on porcelain which goes back before 1450. Even before Marco Polo's long visit to China, which ended in 1295, the Chinese Emperor had kangaroos in his zoo!

  • Fernandez de Quiros, a Spanish Catholic, named our country "Australia del Espiritu Santo" (The Southern Land of the Holy Spirit) in 1606. He had actually discovered the New Hebrides.

  • Fr. Victorio Riccio, a Dominican priest from Manila in the Philippines, on 4th June 1676 wrote to the Cardinals at Propaganda Fide (now called the Congregation for the Evangelisation of Peoples) in Rome. He suggested that the newly discovered "Southern Land" be made a Prefecture Apostolic to take in Australia, New Guinea and Antarctica, so that the peoples could be converted. He volunteered to be the first Prefect Apostolic (similar to a Bishop) with the assistance of four Franciscans from Manila (His map of Australia that he sent to Rome was displayed in Brisbane at Expo '88). The Cardinals discussed his request and approved it on 15th July 1681. Unfortunately, in those times mail had to go via the Pacific, Mexico and the Atlantic and then overland from Spain to Italy –which took years–and so when the reply came back to Manila,  Fr. Riccio was dead.

  • The Laperouse Expedition from France reached Sydney harbour soon after 26th January 1788. Sadly one of the two Catholic priests on board, who had been wounded by Pacific Island natives, died. He was buried at what is known today as La Perouse, on the shore of Botany Bay. So probably the first burial of a European to take place in Australia on the East Coast was that of a Catholic Priest, Fr. Receveur, a Franciscan.

  • The Colony of New South Wales was founded when the Penal Laws of England were still in force, and so no Catholic priest was allowed to accompany the 300 Catholic Convicts with the First Fleet. The first priests arrived as convicts in 1800 after the Irish Uprising in 1798. They were Frs. O'Neil, Harold and Dixon. The first government sanctioned Mass was permitted to be celebrated by Fr. James Dixon on 15th May 1803. But after the Castle Hill Uprising on 14th March 1804, the government withdrew permission for Mass to be celebrated.

  • The Catholic Church has had its "Lost Generations" during the first 33 years of the colony, as the government took away all children born here to Catholic convicts, and baptised and reared them in the Church of England faith. This practice was stopped by the intervention of one of the first official Catholic Chaplains to the colony, Fr. John Joseph Therry who arrived in Sydney in May 1820.

  • On 19th November 1817 an "uninvited" priest, Fr. Jeremiah O'Flynn, arrived in Sydney Town. Governor Macquarie was determined to expel him but he hid for nearly six months among the Catholics, celebrating Mass, weddings and baptisms. He was arrested while celebrating Mass, and was deported on 20th May 1818. Macquarie wrote in his diary: "O'Flynn, the popish missionary, was this day sent back to England". It is generally believed he left the Blessed Sacrament at the home of William Davis. So began the famous legend of the Eucharist in the priestless colony. However on his forced return to London Fr. O'Flynn appealed to the British Government for help and legal status for the Catholics of New South Wales. Fr. John England, chaplain to Cork Jail in Ireland, from where many of the convicts left for Australia, took up his cause. A month after Fr. England's "Open Letter" in the "Cork Chronicle" of 5th January 1819 was printed, the House of Commons instituted a Commission of Inquiry into the conditions of the Colony. The outcome of the Bigge's Commission was that Governor Macquarie's powers were curtailed and all future governors had to have a Council, which developed into our present day State Governments. Provision for two Catholic Chaplains was made, and the Governor resigned. O'Flynn had unknowingly become the reformer of British social policy in Australia.

  • Another reformer of British social policy was Fr. William Ullathorne, an English Benedictine from Downside Monastery near Bath. He was made the first Vicar General of the Church in New South Wales, arriving here in 1833. His pamphlet, "The Catholic Mission in Australasia" was published in 1837 and caused the Lord-Lieutenant of Ireland to ask for more details of the horrors of the penal system in Australia. The resultant "The Horrors of Transportation, briefly unfolded to the People" published in 1838 in Ireland exposed the unjust treatment of convicts virtually as slaves. On 8th February 1838 he appeared before the Molesworth Select Committee of the House of Commons to explain the convict system in New South Wales. The result was the ending of transportation to the East Coast of Australia in August 1840. This made him a marked man back in the colony by such people as William Wentworth and the squatters who used the readily available convict labour to make their fortunes. Because of the attacks in the local papers on Ullathorne, as "The Most Reverend Agitator-General of New South Wales" (a pun on his title of “Vicar- General”) The first Catholic newspaper in the Colony, "The Australasian Chronicle" was begun on 2nd August 1839 by Bishop Polding, OSB, and a learned Scottish immigrant, Duncan, a convert to Catholicism.

  • Meanwhile On 12th May, 1834, the Vicariate Apostolic of New Holland was erected and Dr John Bede Polding, an English Benedictine monk who would first arrive in Australia on September 13th 1835, was appointed Vicar Apostolic with jurisdiction over what is now the Commonwealth of Australia. *On 28th February (9th March), 1842, the Archdiocese of Sydney was erected with Archbishop John Bede Polding as its Residential Archbishop. He was recognized by the British Government and enjoyed the same privileges as the Anglican Bishop Broughton, thanks to the Emancipation Bill of 1829 giving freedom of religion in all British dominions.

  • Some weeks later, (early April 1842) Sydney was made a Metropolitan See, with Hobart and Adelaide as suffragans. At that time, the Archdiocese of Sydney included the whole of the Eastern portion of the Continent, comprising what are now known as the States of New South Wales, Victoria and Queensland.  

  • Bishop Polding popularised the name “Australia” when he declared as early as 1840 that the people in Australia were no longer English, Irish, Scottish etc. but Australians. He implored his people to leave the quarrels and the prejudices of the countries from which they came, and to begin as ‘One people –Australians’.

  • When Bishop Polding arrived in Sydney in September in 1835, St Marys Cathedral was only partially built due owing to lack of funds. At once he set to work to finish it. However, it was burnt down in June 1865, and Polding made enormous efforts to replace it, commencing the present-day St Mary’s Cathedral in College St, Sydney.

  • Thus Bishop Polding, who ministered (especially to the convicts) extensively throughout the country for 42 years on horseback and by sea, is considered the founder of the Catholic Hierarchy in Australia.

  • Transportation to Van Diemen's Land (Tasmania) and Norfolk Island was stopped by the efforts of the first Catholic Bishop of Hobart Town, the social reformer, Bishop Robert Willson. He came as Bishop in 1844 and returned to England in 1846 to report to the Home Office and the House of Lords’ Committee on the horrific conditions of the convicts and their treatment. Transportation to Van Diemen's land and Norfolk Island was discontinued in 1852 after Willson's report of March of that year. The Secretary of State for the Colonies, the Duke of Newcastle, expressed his thanks to Bishop Willson on 18th July 1853. Bishop Willson was referred to as "The Apostle of Reform".

  • Another Catholic Apostle of Reform was Caroline Chisholm, whose picture was adorned on the $5 note for the Bicentennial in 1988. She was a most remarkable woman who encouraged family life and a humane immigration policy in the colony where the imbalance of males to females had become nearly nine to one. Caroline reunited families torn apart by the convict system, and thus she was known as "The Emigrant's Friend". She also assisted the miners with accommodation on their way to the Victorian gold fields. Caroline had nine children and, sadly, a sick husband. She died in poverty in England in 1877. Some say that she should be regarded as another Australian Saint.

  • After the Eureka Stockade in 1854, Governor Charles Hotham used the services of Bishop James Goold, the first Catholic Bishop of Victoria (1858-1886) to restore order and calm on the gold fields of Victoria. The Governor wrote to him on 6th December 1854,

    ".... I am convinced your Lordship's presence (on the gold fields) will have a most healing and beneficial effect. Everything I can do to restore and redress the miners' grievances shall be done - and Your Lordship is empowered to say so". 

  • He was the first Catholic Bishop of Melbourne (1848 - 1886). Peter Lawlor, the leader of the revolt, was also a Catholic, fortunately instead of going to jail, he became a Member of the Victorian Parliament. Karl Marx tried to claim the ‘Eureka Stockade’ as the first of the communist revolts of the world, but Lawlor denied such a meaning behind the revolt. Another interesting character in Australia's story around this time was Ned Kelly. Fr. Charles O'Hea, the priest who baptised Ned and anointed him in that ceremony, was also with him on the gallows in Melbourne on 11th November 1880 and gave him the Last Anointing.* Ned was an outlaw but he was also, like those at Eureka, fighting against the grave injustices against the poor and dispossessed that were rampant in the colonies of their day.

  • There were some, however, who worked within the law for the same purpose. Thus, the Sisters of the Good Samaritan, were the first congregation of religious sisters founded in Australia. Founded in Pitt St, Sydney in 1857 by Archbishop John Bede Polding, OSB. Besides caring for destitute women they established a school in Pitt Street as early as 1862. They also began in the same year a school at the Cathedral. were early teachers in Catholic school. They were in the forefront of Catholic education in NSW when Government aid to denominational school was cut off in 1880.

  • Having already several convents in NSW, they spread to spread first to Port Pirie in South Australia in 1890 and gradually to all the other Australian States except the Northern Territory.

  • Other religious congregations joined in the Catholic Education System, which as we as we know it today is reputedly unique in the world. This system educates over 20% of all Australia's Primary and Secondary children. A famous Australian, Blessed Mother Mary MacKillop, founded another congregation, the Sisters of St. Joseph, in 1886.  They took the faith and Catholic education to the bush.

  • After the official cessation of Government Funding, c.1880 the Church determined to continue educating the Catholic children of the colonies with the help of Sisters, Brothers and lay people, often from Ireland.  

  • Another great influence in Australian history was Cardinal Patrick Moran, an Irish Archbishop of Sydney. He, too, saw Australia’s future not in terms of separate colonies but as one nation and his great address at Bathurst in 1896 was vital in the story of Australian Federation. Even Sir Henry Parkes who had the title of ‘Father of Federation’ said,

  • We cannot underestimate the value of the Cardinal’s utterances in favour of Federation –they reached thousands whom we can never hope to reach.

  • Cardinal Moran’s influence helped to get the Federation Referendum passed. It was very close. Only 11% of the actual population voted YES for Federation and 9% voted NO (remember that nearly 50% of the population had no vote such as women and Aborigines and non-British subjects).   

  • Credit must be given to is also given to Archbishop Daniel Mannix Head of the Catholic Church in Melbourne, Victoria from 1919-1963. His predecessor, Archbishop Carr, had helped begin the Commonwealth Bank to help the ordinary people in financial matters. Mannix made his name with the Conscription issue during World War One. Twice he confronted the Prime Minister, William Hughes, on this matter, and with the help of the troops on the Western Front in Europe, defeated the Conscription bill.  Just after the Great War, the civil war in Ireland very nearly led Australia into a civil war because*… On St. Patrick's Day 1921, the Archbishop led over 10,000 returned Australian Service men, including 14 Victoria Cross winners in a very provocative parade through the streets of Melbourne.

  • 1970 saw the first visit to Australia by a Pope. On November 30th that year Pope Paul VI arrived at Sydney International Airport and announced:

    This meeting offers Us the long-awaited occasion for making personal contact also with the whole of the Australian Catholic community, which is so dynamic and so dear to Us. We express Our paternal affection for them. Let all the Catholics of Australia know that the Pope prays for them…

  • Pope John Paul II was the next Pope to visit Australia on 24th November 1986. He addressed the crowd gathered at Fairbairn (ACT):

    I come to Australia in the footsteps of my predecessor Paul VI, who was the first Pope in history to visit Australia (in 1970). For me personally it is the second time. My first visit to your beautiful country took place in 1973 on the occasion of the International Eucharistic Congress in Melbourne. At that time I was able to come here to Canberra, where I met the Prime Minister and other leading members of Parliament. I also visited the War Memorial and the Australian National University. I still have warm memories of that visit, which was followed by brief visits to the State capitals as well as to Geelong and Queanbeyan. On this occasion, however, I come as a pilgrim, as one who journeys as an act of religious devotion. I come here as Pastor of the Catholic people, to celebrate the Eucharist with them, to strengthen them in their faith, to confirm their hope and to invite them to an ever more generous love of God our Father and of men and women everywhere.

  • The Pope’s 1986 visit to Australia included visits to Canberra, Brisbane, Sydney, Melbourne, Alice Springs, Hobart, Darwin, Adelaide and Perth.

  • In 1988, the Archbishop of Sydney, Edward Bede Clancy was created Cardinal by Pope John Paul II. During the Bicentennial celebrations he led the religious ceremonies for the opening of Parliament House in Canberra in the presence of the Queen, Elizabeth II.

  • In order to beatify the saintly Sr Mary Mackillop, RSJ, Pope John Paul II would visit Australia for the second time in 1995. On 19th January he performed the rite of beatification for our first “Blessed” before an estimated 250 000 people, stating:

    Accepting the wishes of our brother, Edward Cardinal Clancy, Archbishop of Sydney and President of the Australian Catholic Bishops Conference and others of his brother Bishops, and also the entire religious families Of the Sisters of St. Joseph and many of the faithful, and having received the favourable response of the Congregation for the Cause of the Saints, We declare with our apostolic Authority that the Venerable Servant of God, Mary of the Cross MacKillop be named Blessed in posterity and we give permission for her feast day to be celebrated each year on the 8th August, the day of her birth to eternal life in places according to the norms established by law. In the name of the Father, and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.

  • In 2001 George Pell became the eighth Archbishop of Sydney, and in 2003 was elevated to the rank of Cardinal by John Paul II. Cardinal Pell was instrumental in preparations for Sydney’s bid to host World Youth Day in 2008. Pope Benedict XVI confirmed the success of the bid when, on August 21st 2005, at the conclusion of the World Youth Day in Cologne, Germany, the announcement was made that the  XXIII World Youth Day would take place in Sydney in July 2008. 

  • After a harsh beginning under the Penal Laws, the Catholic Church has grown into the largest Christian Community in Australia. Captain Arthur Phillip, the first governor of New South Wales (1788 - 1792) if he had lived long enough, would have been very surprised to see the turn of events, for in his era the Catholic Emancipation Act of 1829 was as yet merely a wishful dream. And so the journey of the Catholic Church in this fair Australian land continues. Maybe you would like to research more. It is a very engrossing story!