Just a few days ago, we celebrated Australia Day. We all have different ways to celebrate, remember or some even disagree with the way we mark the day that hopefully can bring us all together as Australians.
Taking inspiration from this celebration, I would like to share with you a short history of the Church in Australia. I must clarify that this material is taken from R. Dixon (2005) The Catholic Community in Australia. Openbook Publishers: Adelaide. I hope you enjoy the reading and that you get a deeper knowledge on our identity as Australians and also as Catholics.
Peace in Jesus
The first Catholics to reside in Australia arrived with the First Fleet in 1788. They were mostly Irish convicts, together with a few Royal Marines. One-tenth of all convicts transported to Australia were Catholic, and half of these were born in Ireland, while a good proportion of the others were English-born but of Irish extraction. Most of the rest were English or Scottish. By the year 1803, a total of 2086 Irish convicts, nearly all of whom were Catholic, had been transported to Botany Bay. Estimates are that about four-fifths of these were ordinary criminals and most of the remainder 'social rebels', those convicted of crimes of violence against property and landlords. Only a very small number could be regarded as genuine political rebels: about 600 in the entire history of transportation, and hardly any after 1803.
The first priests
Although many Irish convicts were merely nominal Catholics -- in fact, many were quite irreligious -- many others diligently and courageously kept their faith alive despite the fact that, for most of the next thirty years or so, priests were only sporadically available to provide them with the sacraments. According to the 1828 Census, out of a total Catholic population of about 10 000, there were 374 adults who had been born in Australia and raised in a totally lay environment, the Catholic faith passed on to them despite the absence of priests. It was not until 1800 that the first priests arrived in the colony -- as convicts! One of these, James Dixon, was granted conditional emancipation and permission to say Mass for the Catholics of Sydney, Liverpool and Parramatta on successive Sundays, a practice that continued from 1803 until March 1804, when the Castle Hill rebellion so alarmed Governor King that he withdrew Dixon's privileges. Dixon soon after returned to Ireland, and Mass was not legally celebrated again in the colony until Fathers John Joseph Therry and Philip Connolly, chaplains appointed by the Government in London, arrived in 1820. Their arrival can be regarded as the formal establishment of the Catholic Church in Australia.
The first bishop
The first Catholic bishop in Australia was John Bede Polding. Like the man who prepared the way for his arrival and who became his first Vicar-General, William Ullathorne, and like his successor, Roger Vaughan, Polding was an English Benedictine monk. Polding's dream was to establish a Church founded on monastic ideals, in which scholarship and sublime liturgy , accompanied by Gregorian chant, would civilise and convert the new country, just as they had in earlier centuries in Europe. But Polding's priests were mainly Irish, and this was not their conception of what the Church should be like. Their efforts, and the efforts of the Irish bishops who were appointed to other newly established dioceses, soon combined with Australia's singular geographical and social environment to subvert Polding's vision.
Irish clergy dominated Australian Catholic life until fairly recently, and it was not until the 1930s that Australian-born priests outnumbered them. Irish priests continued to come to Australia throughout the twentieth century, a few arriving even in recent years.