Convicts, Catholics and St Mary's
The early years of settlement were haunted by the Protestant fear of Irish Catholic sedition with the state trying to sanction religious beliefs.
The beginnings of Australian Catholicism in the colony of New South Wales are both remarkable and humble. Today we may find it difficult to understand the depth of hatred and bitterness in the early years of the colony between Catholics and Protestants and the English and Irish. Then, there was a Protestant ascendancy to the penal colony, manifest in its governors, officers, administrators, churchmen and free settlers. The early years of settlement were haunted by the Protestant fear of Irish Catholic sedition with the state trying to sanction religious beliefs. Priestless and out of favour, Catholics were forced to practise their religion in private for most of the first 30 years of settlement.
The first recorded public Mass, celebrated for a congregation of convicts, was given in Sydney on 15 May 1803 by an Irish convict priest, Reverend James Dixon, who was transported with two other priests for alleged complicity in the 1798 rebellion of the United Irishmen. The Mass was celebrated under strict regulations drafted by Governor King and was conducted under police surveillance. It had taken 15 years for Catholic worship to receive this cautious tolerance in the colony. Father Dixon’s permit was withdrawn one year later, however, following the Castle Hill Irish rebellion of 1804, amid Governor King’s suspicions that he had been implicated in the rebellion. Dixon received a pardon in 1809 and by 1810 all three priests had left the colony. Another Irish priest, Father Jeremiah O’Flynn, came to the colony in 1817 in an unofficial and unauthorised capacity to minister to Catholics, but his stay was unsuccessful and short-lived. He was deported in 1818 and it was not until 1820 that Mass could be celebrated publicly again in the colony.
The first two official Catholic chaplains authorised by the British Government and Rome, Fathers Philip Conolly and John Joseph Therry, arrived in Sydney in May 1820. The chaplains soon arranged a public meeting to elect a committee for the selection of a site for a Catholic chapel, open a subscription fund to build the chapel, and manage its construction. The government eventually granted uncleared bushland on the outskirts of town (the site of the present St Mary’s Cathedral) close to the newly erected Hyde Park Barracks. Conolly went to minister in Van Diemen’s Land in early 1821 while Therry remained in Sydney. The building of St Mary’s Chapel would become Therry’s obsession.
Governor Macquarie laid the foundation stone of St Mary’s on 29 October 1821. This event marked a new era of Catholic-State relations in the religious affairs of the colony.
Father Therry’s plans for the chapel were ambitious. It was to be made of stone rather than timber. Convict labourers from Hyde Park Barracks were assigned to work on the chapel and artisans from free settlers were also hired. Building was slow, continuing for many years. Private contributions from wealthy colonists came and went, as did a government pound-for-pound subsidy, which began in 1824 and stopped in 1827 when building work came to a halt and the chapel was left without a rooF
When news of the consecration of the Most Reverend John Bede Polding OSB as Australia’s first bishop reached the colony from London, a great effort was made to furnish the chapel before the bishop’s arrival on 13 September 1835. On Sunday 20 September Bishop Polding, aged 40, took possession of his Cathedral and High Mass was celebrated. This is the first explicit mention of a High Mass being celebrated in the colony.
In his new role, Bishop Polding first sought out the most underprivileged in the colony – the convicts – whose welfare it has been said constituted his vocation to his Australian mission. Polding’s letters are filled with concern for convicts and opposition to the repressive regime under which they were forced to labour.
Polding’s work with convicts did indeed claim a great share of his pastoral energies. He and Dr William Ullathorne, the first Catholic Vicar-General in Australia, established a scheme to attend to the spiritual needs of newly arrived Catholic convicts. When convict transports arrived, the government allowed all Catholics to be entrusted to Polding and his priests for several days. These convicts were marched from Hyde Park Barracks to St Mary’s twice a day where they were given not only religious instruction and the opportunity for the sacrament of confession, but also information about their rights as assigned servants, advice on how to best conduct themselves to avoid further convictions and how to earn tickets of leave or pardons for good conduct. Some 7,000 newly arrived convicts had passed through this spiritual program by 1841.
Every Sunday morning Catholic convicts from Hyde Park Barracks were marched to Mass at St Mary’s. Ullathorne wrote how convicts would crowd around the bishop’s confessional often causing a delay to the service as Bishop Polding found it difficult to ‘resist these poor creatures’.
Ullathorne gave evidence before the Select Committee on Transportation in England in 1838, condemning the system, which he viewed as evil and degrading. During this visit he also published two pamphlets, The Catholic Mission in Australasia and The Horrors of transportation briefly unfolded to the people. He wrote of ‘the iniquities of the [Hyde Park] barracks’ and referred to homosexual activity among convicts in the dormitories at night. On Ullathorne’s return to the colony in 1838, and at Polding’s request, he brought with him five Irish Sisters of Charity to work with female convicts at the Parramatta Female Factory. Polding considered convict women to be particularly vulnerable under the assignment system. At the Female Factory the Sisters consoled and taught ‘the unfortunate inmates’ for the next nine years. During his 42-year term as Australia’s first bishop, then Archbishop (1842), Polding gained the trust of governors and politicians, and earned for Catholic people greater acceptance in politics and the public service.
On the night of 29 June 1865, St Mary’s Cathedral was consumed by fire. A vast crowd of spectators gathered to watch. Church furniture, sacred ornaments and the Episcopal jewellery were lost. Remarkably, several beautiful stained glass windows survived, two of which are now installed in the chapel at St Benedict’s Monastery in Arcadia, Sydney. In 1868, Archbishop Polding blessed the foundation stone of a new St Mary’s Cathedral, which was built on the same site and still stands today.
Assistant Curator, Hyde Park Barracks Museum
First published in Insites, Winter 2006
Convicts, Catholics and St Mary’s was on at Hyde Park Barracks Museum 27 May 2006 - 14 October 2007