Catholics in the colony | State Library of New South Wales

Catholics in the colony

A source of great rejoicing ...

Church of England minister, Reverend Richard Johnson, was the only religious minister sent on the First Fleet. The British government had sanctioned this denomination as the sole Christian faith in the penal colony. Roman Catholic convicts were expected to attend Protestant services and undertake all baptisms, marriages and funerals within the Church of England tradition. This remained the situation for the first twenty years of the colony.

Several Irish priests had been transported to NSW as convicts, primarily for their involvement in the 1798 rebellion against British rule. One of these men was James Dixon, who arrived in Sydney in January 1800. Keen not to stir up anti-British feelings within the Irish population, Governor King agreed to Dixon’s conditional emancipation and permitted him to conduct Mass and to minister to Catholics in the colony. By this time there were a total of 2086 Irish convicts, nearly all Catholics, living in New South Wales.

The first Mass was celebrated in Sydney on 15 May 1803. According to the Governor’s regulation, Dixon was then to travel to Parramatta and the Hawkesbury every other week. These instructions articulated the strict behaviour required of the priest, including no improper behaviour and to see that the congregation return to their respective homes after the service. To ensure this, police would be stationed around the area where the service was being conducted.

'Regulations', Sydney Gazette, 24 April 1803, p. 1. Printed. C 948 

These instructions were to guard against any opportunities Irish may have to plot rebellion in the colony. These concerns were realised in March 1804 with the uprising of Irish convicts at Castle Hill. Governor King was suspicious that Dixon’s services provided opportunities for these convicts to conspire and so he withdrew permission for Dixon to say public masses. He did continue his ministry in private and would baptise and marry those Catholics who came to him. In 1808 he returned to Ireland. From this time until 1820, there were no Catholic priests appointed to minister in the Australian colonies.

Catholics continued to meet for prayers when no priest was in the colony. Services were held in private houses, such as James Dempsey’s house in Kent Street which had a converted chapel room. When French ship the Uranie arrived in port in 1819 with a Catholic chaplain on board, local Catholics rushed to him with requests for Roman Catholic marriage and christening rites.

Irish priests Philip Connolly and John Joseph Therry arrived in the Colony in 1820. They had been authorised to minister to Catholics in Australia. However, there were limitations on what Therry and Connolly could do in their ministry. According to Governor Macquarie’s instructions, the priests were allowed to baptise and marry Catholics, but they were not allowed to proselytise Protestants nor agree to marry couples where one of them was Protestant.

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Macquarie's instructions, Wentworth papers, A 753, Safe 1/334, pp. 369-372.

After a year in Sydney, Father Connolly moved to Hobart and Therry was the sole priest for mainland Australia. Intending to stay four years in the colony, Therry was to remain in Sydney for the remainder of his life, another 44 years.

He was the driving force behind the construction of St Mary’s Cathedral in Sydney and became the source of spiritual comfort for Catholics, in most cases the poor, convict classes of Sydney.

 > See letters from convicts and their families to Father Therry

See letters from convicts and their families to Father Therry

> See the evolution of St Mary's Cathedral, Sydney

See the evolution of St Mary's Cathedral, Sydney