1978 Parish History – Ch. 1


When the first fleet set out for Botany Bay there was no Catholic priest on board. An offer had been made by two priests to act as chaplains without charge, but apparently there was no response.

A commission was given to the Rev. Richard Johnson by royal warrant and dated October 24, 1786, to sail with Governor Phillip, just twelve days after Phillip received his commission as Governor.

Gov Phillip - Brisbane Times image

Captain & Governor Arthur Phillip


Australia’s first Catholics were convicts, almost exclusively Irish. The large majority were industrious and progressive, sent to this country for political offences. Three Catholic priests were among those deported, charged with being implicated with the rebellion in Ireland.

Fr James Harold, transported for complicity in the rebellion, was one such. He arrived at Sydney in August, 1799, was moved to Norfolk Island and then to Tasmania, and finally returned home in 1810.

Fr James Dixon, on a life sentence for a similar offence, arrived in 1800; he was given a salary to act as chaplain in the various districts of New South Wales. In 1804 his right to celebrate Mass was withdrawn and he returned to Ireland in 1808.

Fr Peter O’Neill arrived in 1801, was pardoned almost immediately and returned home in 1803.

From those years there was no priest in New South Wales, indeed in Australia, until the arrival of Fr Jeremiah O’Flynn. He was an Irish Cistercian priest who volunteered for the Australian mission. When he arrived in 1817 without British Government authorization, Governor Macquarie refused to recognise his official status and deported him, despite petitions from soldiers of the New South Wales Corps and other soldiers to allow him to remain.

The departing priest left the Blessed Sacrament in the home either of William Davis or James Dempsey, and this provided a meeting place for a small group of Catholics who gathered there for prayer during the next two years. The host was consumed in 1819 by the chaplain of a visiting French ship.

A political rumpus in England followed the deportation of Fr O’Flynn and the English Government decided to provide the salaries for two Catholic chaplains in New South Wales.


Artistic impress of  FR JJ Therry

Artistic impression of Fr JJ Therry


In May, 1820, Fr Phillip Connolly and Fr Joseph Therry stepped ashore. Governor Macquarie imposed three prohibitions on them: they were to make no converts, there was to be no sedition, and they were not to interfere with the religious education of orphans (which was an Anglican preserve).

Within a year Fr Connolly departed for Van Diemen’s Land. From 1820 Fr Therry was in charge of the world of Australian Catholicism and, even when he was joined by other priests over the years, he exercised an enormous influence right up to the year of his death in 1864.

Fr Therry was born in the city of Cork in 1790 and arrived in this country with an official appointment by the British Government as Catholic chaplain of New South Wales at a salary of 100 pounds a year. In simple language he was the Parish Priest of the mainland of Australia.

There were 6,000 Catholics in the colony in 1820, and 11,236 out of a total of 36,598 in the 1828 census.

Fr Therry was a priest with enormous zeal and energy, who travelled great distances to reach Catholics in far-spread settlements, as adventurous men moved to new lands with the flocks and herds.

His life was taken up with constant visits to the gaols and long trips, a ministry overburdened with calls to the sickbed, suffering, death and burial.

Sydney was made a parish in 1821 and the priest had a continent to work in. Ten years were to pass before the second parish was formed in 1831 at Campbelltown.

He applied for Church Hill as the site to build his first church, but this was refused and he was given the Cathedral site. Governor Macquarie laid the foundation stone of St Mary’s on October 29 1821.

Fr Therry was replaced as chaplain by Fr Daniel Power in 1827. When Fr Power died in 1830, he was followed by a young Irish Dominican, Fr Christopher Dowling, in September, 1831. Shortly afterwards, he left Sydney for Newcastle.

Fr Therry moved to Van Diemen’s Land in 1838, and in 1846 he was appointed parish priest of Melbourne. He spent his last years as Archdeacon in Sydney and is buried in the crypt of St Mary’s Cathedral.

He opened the first Catholic school in Australia at Parramatta in 1820 (it closed in 1823) and another in Sydney in 1822. This latter school occupied the site of the present David Jones’ store in market Street.

It was a building with two storeys, one occupied by the Catholic children, the other by an Anglican school. At recess once storey emptied into Hyde park, the other into Castlereagh Street.

The policy of the authorities in Sydney towards religion was changing rapidly following the passing of the Catholic Emancipation Act in England in 1829. The coming of Governor Bourke in 1830 brought further changes. The British Act allowed Catholics to hold Government appointments.

The first to be so appointed was Roger Therry (no relation to Fr Therry) who was made a Commissioner of the Court of Requests and later a judge in both Victoria and New South Wales. John Plunkett was appointed Solicitor-General in 1832; both men were Irish.

In addition there was a grant of 500 pounds to St Mary’s Cathedral in the same year and a request by the Governor for the appointment of a Catholic ecclesiastical authority with whom he could treat; Fr Therry was proving very difficult.

[Additional ‘Memorial Note’ on Fr Therry]

Tomb of Jn Joe Therry in St Ms crypt Sydney

JJ Therry tomb in St Mary’s crypt, Sydney


Words on the tombstone: Here lie the remains of the Venerable Archpriest John Joseph Therry. Arrived in Sydney 1820, died in Sydney 1864; Founder of St Mary’s Cathedral.

Most Rev W B Ullathorne, OSB, was appointed Vicar-General in Australia by Bishop William Morris of Mauritius in 1833. The Government provided him with a salary of 200 pounds a year with an allowance of 1 pound a day when travelling. In that year there were four other priests in the colony.


[Note on Polding as Member of the Senate of University of Sydney – with further images]


M. Rev. John Bede Polding – Illustr. Sydney News 16 Nov.1867. – NLA Newspapers

John Bede Polding, novice master and superior of the Benedictine monastery of Downside, was consecrated in London as Australia’s first Bishop and he arrived in Sydney in 1835.

The new Bishop brought three priests and three sub-deacons with him and he sent the Vicar-General home for further assistance. He got no help from England, but instead received ten priests from Ireland. In addition, in 1842, All Hallows College in Dublin was established to provide priests for foreign missions.

In August 1840, the foundation stone of Sydney’s second church, Church Hill, was laid; there being then 14,000 out of 40,000 Catholics in the colony.

Bishop Polding left Australia in November of that year to seek additional priests; he was accompanied by Fr Gregory and Vicar-General Ullathorne who was not to return.

Before his departure he had sent the Irish Franciscan, Fr Patrick Geoghegan, to establish Catholicism in Melbourne, while Ullathorne had gone to Adelaide to establish a church there.

In 1842, episcopal sees were set up in Hobart and Adelaide, in Perth in 1845, in Melbourne in 1847.

A little earlier, nearer home, Bishop Polding was in the Yass district in September, 1838, when he laid the foundation stone of a church there.

[Check here to link to the Southern Tablelands History Matters website for the ‘interesting circumstances’ surrounding the laying of the foundation stone ]

Fathers Michael Brennan and John Fitzpatrick were working in that centre at the time. Their labours were so successful that His Lordship decided to establish a missionary district there.

This was the first step towards the creation of the missionary district of Corowa; it also brought to Yass that wonderful priest, Father Lovat.

(End of Chapter 1).