Significant individuals and groups significant developments and events impacts on society and identity as australians

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The Church in Australia: Key Elements for use at levels 4-6 with the New Religion Curriculum

YEAR 4: c 1788 CE -1850 CE:

First Contacts

Timeline (Eras)


  1. The Era of the Laity




  • Catholic Church “officially” began in Australia on 26th Jan 1788 when the first Catholics arrived as convicts on the first fleet.

  • These first Catholics- English, Scottish and Irish convicts were here by force and did not want to be here. Some practised their faith, some did not.

  • Catholicism existed as a religion of men and women “degraded, deserted and physically imprisoned”.

  • The Catholicism that had come with the Irish to Australia was a Catholicism of poverty and peasantry, violent, crude and ignorant with a priesthood largely sharing its passions and prejudices. The mass of Catholics in Australia were nominal, though may sought to return to the faith at their deathbeds.

  • 1796: 800 Catholics in NSW. 25% of all convicts were Irish.

  • Regular shipping captains noted the only sign of religion in NSW were the Irish praying.

  • First priests- Frs Dixon and Harold, were transported after the Irish Rebellion of 1798. They both arrived in January 1800.

  • Harold was transferred to Norfolk island where he taught school and ministered privately. and

  • Fr Dixon celebrated the first known public Mass in 1803 in Sydney. After permission to publicly minister to Catholics was withdrawn in 1799, he and Fr Harold continued to minister privately to Catholics. There was not another public mass in NSW for another 16 years.

  • Between 1798 and 1808 three priests were transported to NSW: Frs Dixon, Harold and O’Neill. By 1808 all had returned to Ireland with pardons.

  • Catholic layman Michael Hayes continually harangued his brother Richard, a Franciscan in Rome, about the religious destitution of Australian Catholics.

  • Some early Catholic free settlers included: James Meehan, Michael Hayes; the Davis family; Roger Therry.

  • 1806 Formal Catholic Education begins

  • 1817 Fr Jeremiah O’Flynn arrives- appointed by Rome, but without English permission. He began ministry to Catholics and celebrating Mass and the sacraments for 6 months until expelled in 1818.

  • O’Flynn left the Blessed Sacrament at the home of a Sydney stonemason James Dempsey, who held Sunday services until 1820.

  • 1820 Formal petition for appointment of Catholic clergy

  • In 1820 the first official Catholic chaplains arrived: Frs Philip Connolly and John Joseph Therry.

  • Fr Connolly left for Tasmania in 1821.

  • First Mass in Tasmania in a store owned by a catholic

  • First Catholic church in Australia was opened in Harrington St Hobart in 1821-2 by Fr Connolly.

  • By 1828 there were 8000 Catholics in the colony: 3000 convicts, 5000 free settlers, all but 500 of whom were emancipated convicts. A number of these were relatively prosperous.

  • Between 1820 and 1830 Fr Therry dominated the small world of Australian Catholicism

  • Therry would travel 250 km every Sunday to conduct Masses in Sydney, Liverpool and Parramatta.

  • 1825 Therry dismissed as chaplain and his salary stopped.

  • Fr Daniel Power replaces Fr Therry as chaplain. Rivalry between the two resulted in division in the Sydney congregation.

  • Fr Christopher Dowling replaces Fr Power on his death in 1830. Bitter rivalry between him and Therry, especially over the St Mary’s project.

  • The 1829 Emancipation Act resulted in the arrival in the colonies of prominent Catholic laymen, including Roger Therry and John Plunkett as prominent legal officials.

  • 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.

  • 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. The Cardinals discussed his request and approved it on 15th July 1681, but Fr. Riccio was dead.

  • As an English settlement, the old, bitter religious and political animosity between Catholic and Protestant Christians transferred from Europe to Australia.

  • Chaplain to the fleet was an Anglican priest- Rev Richard Johnston.

  • Fr Thomas Walsh asked to come as chaplain to the estimated 300 Catholic convicts and marines, but his application to Lord Sydney, Secretary of State in London, went unanswered.

  • 25th Jan 1788, Abbe Monges, chaplain to the La Peruse expedition, celebrates Mass in Sydney- for the French expedition.

  • Feb 17th 1788: Death of chaplain and botanist with La Peruse expedition. Pere Le Receveur, OFM was the second white man buried in Australia.

  • All convicts required to attend Sunday services.

  • 1792 Fr Ambrose Pierson OSB and Fr Louis Ventenat, French priest-explorers, land in Van Diemen’s Land to explore the Huon River and discover the Derwent River.

  • 1793 A Spanish priest arrives as chaplain to an expedition to Sydney. Notes there is no place of worship in Sydney.

  • Catholics who refused to attend the Anglican services were flogged.

  • Irish (Catholic) convicts were both political and social prisoners and so hatred and suspicion between the Catholic convicts and their Anglican gaolers laid a foundation of Catholic/Protestant sectarianism which remained strong until the 1960’s and still exists in some form today.

  • There were two essential elements of civilisation in the colony: Protestant religion and British political and social institutions. The Irish were considered barbarians.

  • 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.

  • Rev Samuel Marsden, Anglican Chaplain, in 1806-7 identified Catholicism with rebellion. His solution was to repress Catholicism and it would die out in NSW.

  • Protestant ministers were appointed as magistrates and were invariably anti-Catholic, dispensing punishment in accordance with English law. This led to the intertwining of Irish nationalism and faith and itself helped keep Catholicism alive, though bitter and hateful of the Protestant establishment.

  • 1815-1831: Anglican domination of schooling

  • 1820 First Jewish worship service

  • 1820 First celebration of Russian Orthodox Easter

  • By 1820 Catholics were still reluctant to send their children to school because they were staffed by Protestants who forced catholic children to follow the ceremonies of the “Established church”- the Church of England.

  • The new Chaplains began a careful pursuit of the goodwill, or at least acceptance, of a non-Catholic society.

  • Some Protestants supported the appeal to build the first Catholic chapel and a protestant, JT Campbell, was treasurer of the fund for many years.

  • From 1825 onwards, it seemed to Catholics that Anglicanism was to secure a privileged and oppressive place in the colony.

  • Anglican church officially funded by colonial land grants. Archdeacon Scott arrives to secure the official establishment of the Anglican religion.

  • Archdeacon Scott led the pressure to dismiss Fr Therry as chaplain in 1825.

  • Until 1829, some Catholic free settlers unwilling to publicly worship because of a fear of discrimination and social rejection

  • St Mary’s “chapel” foundation stone laid in 1821.

  • 1826 First catholic school in Tasmania

  • As a Penal colony, any mission to NSW had to have the permission of British authorities and the governor.

  • 1792 five lay Catholics petition Governor Phillip to appoint a Catholic priest

  • The early governors refused requests for Catholic clergy to minister publicly to Catholic convicts and free settlers due to suspicion of and antagonism towards the Irish.

  • This included the refusal for three transported convict priests to perform public ministry to Catholics.

  • Convicted priest Fr Dixon’s first Mass in 1803 was celebrated under strict regulations drafted by Governor King and with police surveillance. Permission was withdrawn the following year for fear it was encouraging sedition, including the Castle Hill rebellion in 1804 led by an Irishman William Johnston.

  • 1806 Governor Bligh allows Catholic schools to open.

  • In Britain, Lord Bathurst, Secretary of State for Colonies, was willing to accept a well-recommended Catholic clergyman for the colonies, but O’Flynn did not appear to meet his requirements.

  • Governor Macquarie challenged and then arrested and expelled the “illegal” and impractical Fr O’Flynn from the colony in 1818.

  • Macquarie was no lover of Catholics, especially of priests, but he suspected any religious who might act to disturb the peace and harmony of the colonies.

  • Macquarie’s actions added to growing severe criticism of the authoritarian regime of NSW government. In England, a more tolerant spirit had grown and it was considered that to give Australia catholic priests would quieten the catholic population.

  • The new Chaplains began a careful pursuit of the goodwill, or at least acceptance, of a non-Catholic society.

  • The governor prohibited any attempts at making converts and access to orphans- who were strictly an Anglican preserve.

  • Macquarie saw the laying of the foundation stone of St Mary’s chapel as a means of strengthening the loyalty of Catholics to the British crown.

  • 1825 Governor Darling arrives, declaring he had no desire to see any more Catholic clergy in NSW.

  • After his dismissal as chaplain, Fr Therry was prevented from attendance to convicts or soldiers who sought his ministry. The medical Superintendent of Sydney hospital would not allow him access to dying Catholics.

  • 1829 Emancipation Act in Britain emancipated Catholics, allowing them to hold government appointments.


  1. 1833:

The Era of the Clergy begins

  • Fr John McEnroe was appointed as a second chaplain in 1832 and arrived with Plunkett.

  • Fr William Ullathorne, an English Benedictine priest, was appointed Vicar-General in 1833.

  • Ullathorne became aware of the degenerate state of the church in Tasmania under a broken Fr Connolly, who was engaged in bitter disputes with a strong Catholic laity. Many Catholics had fallen away from the faith.

  • Of the 16.000-18,000 Catholics in Sydney in 1832, less than a half ever saw a priest.

  • Churches still not built: masses held in magistrates courts.

  • In 1835 an English Benedictine, John Bede Polding, was appointed first Catholic bishop of 8 priests and 20,000 Catholics of NSW.

  • 1836: first ordination in Australia- a Benedictine

  • 1838 Caroline Chisholm arrives in Australia and champions the cause of women and emigrants.

  • 1838 The first religious arrive in Australia- 6 Sisters of Charity. Adult social work was their focus, especially among poor women.

  • The religious profession of Sister Xavier Williams, on 9 April 1839 at Parramatta was a “first” and made a great sensation among Catholics and others. Other young women asked to join the Sisters. The distinctive dress of the Sisters made them conspicuous and drew on them at times the hostility or bigotry. The good they did brought them support.

  • 1839: 21, 898 Catholics in Australia out of a population of 101,904. One bishop, 24 priests, 28 teachers, 11 Catholic schools.

  • Fr Ullathorne attempted to remove the factions around Frs Therry and other priests in order to build better relationships in the colony.

  • All clergy given a wage; small grants to churches

  • Bishop Polding’s attitude was to try to break down the Irish connection with Australian Catholics, emphasising that Catholics were Australians, regardless of origin.

  • Archbishop Polding was especially concerned for the plight of Indigenous Australians and how their culture was being destroyed by white settlers.

  • 1838 Myall Creek massacre of Aborigines. Prominent Catholics strive for justice for massacred Aboriginal people.

  • The arrival of Governor Bourke in 1831 represented a significant change in the attitude of authority towards Catholics.

  • His administration sought a Catholic ecclesiastical authority with whom it could deal.

  • 1836 Governor Bourke proclaims the Church Act, giving equality to all religious denominations.


  • 1840 Fr Geohagan became the first priest in Melbourne.

  • 1841 Prominent lay people seek appointment of a Catholic priest to WA

  • 1841 First priest in SA works as a carpenter to make a living.

  • In 1842 there were 24 catholic priests in NSW.

  • Feb 28th 1842 Fr Geoghegan baptises Maria Ellen (later St Mary of the Cross) MacKillop in Melbourne.

  • Religious Orders of priests began to arrive: Passionists and Christian Brothers (1843); Augustinians (1838); Jesuits (1848).

  • 1842 Polding becomes Archbishop

  • 1842 – establishment of Catholic Diocese of Hobart Town and Diocese of Adelaide

  • 1843-47 Christian Brothers arrive, but leave again after a dispute with the Archbishop who tries to “Benedictinise” them.

  • 1848 Benedictine nuns arrive.

  • 1851 18,000 Catholics in Victoria.

  • 1845 – establishment of Diocese of Perth with a focus on evangelising the Aboriginal people and establishment of missions

  • 1846 8 Sisters of Mercy arrive in Freemantle, led by Sr Ursula Frayne.

  • 1846 – first priests sent to ‘Northern Territory’ ; establishment of mission for Aboriginal people (Port Essington)

  • 1847 – establishment of mission for Aboriginal people at New Norcia

  • 1847 – establishment of Dioceses of Melbourne, Maitland and Essington.

  • 1848 - establishment of Diocese of Victoria (Northern Territory)

  • 1848 only 306 Catholics in the impoverished Diocese of Perth.

  • 1843 A group of fanatical Wesleyans interrupt Mass in Geelong, Vic.

  • A movement began in NSW to make education “Free, Secular and Compulsory”, which was to challenge the Church’s attitude towards education and the schools it was setting up.

  • Attitudes towards the arrival of Religious in Australia reflected a change in Catholic/Protestant relations, with many Protestants welcoming and even providing for them as they arrived in towns to set up schools and teach cultural pursuits such as the piano.

  • Missions to Indigenous communities began with the Passionists on Stradbroke Island.(1843)

  • 1845 – Parliamentary Committee on Aborigines attended by Bishop Polding; Polding condemned the ill-treatment of Aboriginal people


Sequence some key people and events (secular and religious) of early colonial Australia (c.1788 CE – c.1850 CE) and recognise their significance in bringing about change.

Develop historical narratives about some key events and people’s experiences in the early Church in Australia (c.1788 CE –c.1850 CE) using appropriate historical terms.

Identify different points of view towards Aboriginal people in early colonial Australia (e.g. squatters, missionaries, free settlers, convicts, clergy).


First Catholics were lay and mainly Irish convicts

First Priests came without permission

Few people were able to access Catholic rituals and sacraments

The vast majority were catholic by name, not practice

The first official clergy were few and vastly overworked.

Some clashed and subverted each other

The Irish clergy were not always co-operative with the English Benedictine Archbishop

The formal structures of the Church began in the 1830’s with the arrival of priests, brothers and nuns.

Events and developments centred around Catholics being different from the rest of society, even free settlers. Most Catholic/official interactions were marked by:

Suspicion/Fear; Bigotry and hatred; Sectarianism; Competition

From official points of view, decisions by colonial governors up to 1830 were marked by Suspicion and bigotry; Fear of rebellion and qualified support at best for Catholic clergy.

Irish Catholics were judged as to whether they fitted “civilised” British society

Toleration grew with changes in Britain- e.g Catholic Emancipation Act

Catholic clergy were supported by the state

The presence of religious was seen as a civilising influence

Education was critical for Catholics, but it also brought tension with state education

The Church officially sought protection of the rights of Aboriginal people, but this was largely ignored by the people

Catholics were gradually being accepted into all tiers of society.

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