Four broad stages to Australian Catholic Story:

Firstly, it was an Immigrant Church: with an English hierarchy followed by significant numbers of Irish, the initial foundation was a European transplant that took root in an ancient land.

Secondly, Australianising the church: whilst acknowledging those who initially brought the faith Australia grew into a new nation and moved away from its Anglo-Celtic origins. It was natural that the church would find its own voice and forge a Catholic culture that resonated with the local community.

Thirdly, a Church of Many Faces: the post-War immigration wave brought people from around the globe to settle in and build a new Australia. The local church inevitably reflected and benefited from this influx and grew with the new elements added to the catholic story.

Finally, Australian Catholics Return The Favour: it took the Gospel back to world. The Religious Orders, which came in such numbers to the new nation, are now active with Australian members in all corners of the globe. Many are working with the marginalised, the poor, refugees, the disabled, the oppressed. Like the first Catholics who came to Australia in response to Christ’s call contemporary men and women labour in often hostile lands to help forge a Catholic faith.


1. Sydney Town-Irish Catholics Without A Priest

In 1788, the First Fleet brought the first Catholics to settle in Australia.

Mainly convicts and predominantly Irish, there were some Catholics among the guarding forces.

The first Catholics practiced their belief without clerical support for over 10 years.

The first priests didn’t arrive in the new colony of New South Wales until 1800. One was Fr. James Dixon (1758-1840). He was a convict who was transported following his involvement in the 1798 Uprising: a republican revolutionary rebellion against the British rule in Ireland. His flock at this stage numbered about 2000. Not all of these were seeking the services of a priest – many were, in fact, Catholic in name only – but a sufficient number were to convince Governor King that he could help to keep the unruly Irish happy by allowing open celebration of the Sunday Mass.

In 1804 this privilege was withdrawn and Fr. Dixon was only able to operate as a Catholic priest in a private capacity. He was permitted to return to Ireland in 1808.

Once again the Catholic community of Sydney town had no priestly support for another decade.

It was not until the arrival of Fathers Therry and Connolly, sponsored by the British Government, in 1820 that the Church in Australia had a formal beginning. In the 32 years prior to this arrival Irish lay people with their devotions mostly maintained the Catholic belief.

2. The Distinctive Irish Catholic Spirituality

There were several distinctive spiritual elements that the Irish Catholics displayed.

They have been called their survival elements:

The Irish Catholic enjoyed a natural religious spirit. Their traditional faith was firmly based on the sacred Scriptures which the people knew and loved.

They had a great love for and devotion to the person of Christ, especially in His Passion and the Holy Mass.        

They also displayed a great love for Mary, the angels and saints, but especially above all, for Mary as Mother of God.

The rosary was a key component of an Irish religious spirituality.

In Ireland they displayed spirituality in harmony with nature, accepting it, in love with it.

One wonders as to the Irish Catholics initial response to the rugged, harsh elements of the Australian land. Nonetheless they led the way in working and taming the local terrain.

The Irish spirituality displayed little or no distinction between the material and spiritual world. They were equally at home in this world and in the world beyond.

The Irish Catholic had a quality of intimacy and directness in prayer to God and in the daily life of the Christian community. Prayer was not limited to the liturgical texts or devotional lines. The spontaneity of Irish prayer in simply addressing God and sharing daily stories was feature of their lives.

Irish hospitality is legendary and they saw it as a living expression of the Gospel. The guest is no other than the living Christ. Thrown together and forging a new community in Australia this openness to others was a key feature of the developing group.

Penance and self-denial was a key feature of Irish spirituality. The idea of fasting was as a means of entering into the death of Christ. The Lenten menu of bread and dripping was common. The idea of self-denial for God was a key element of Irish spirituality.

A close bond of unity with the dead gave a sense of fidelity to, and a spirit of continuity, with the past.  

This distance from the dearly departed in the church cemetery must have been a trial.

The need for reverencing the dead and caring for the gravesite was a feature of their spirituality.

John J. O’Riordain John J, 1980, Irish Catholics- Tradition and Transition, Dublin, cited in A.L.O’Toole,1984, C.F.C. A Spiritual Profile of Edmund Ignatius Rice, Bristol

3. English Benedictines- Keeping the Catholics Calm

The official Catholic Church in Australia was founded and administered by English members of the Benedictine order – and their influence on the infant church in Australia was profound.

In the years following the 1798 Uprising in Ireland the British authorities were always suspicious of the Irish. In Australian they were alarmed, in 1817, when the Irish Fr. Jeremiah O’Flynn (1788-1831) arrived in the colony claiming to have permission from London to operate openly as a Catholic priest. Fr. O’Flynn failed to convince Governor Macquarie who eventually returned him to Ireland.  His arrival, however, raised the issue of priestly ministry to the growing number of Catholics in New South Wales.

It was to the English Benedictines that London turned. With a reputation for deep spirituality and learning their leadership of the local Catholics included a British hope that the Irish colonists would remain focused on religious and not political issues.

Rev. John Bede Polding (1794-1877) would arrive in 1835. As Archbishop he oversaw the expansion of the church across the colony. Within a few years his reputation was such that a local journal observed: “His labours are incessant, his zeal unbounded, Protestants as well as Catholics revere him as a saint.”

4. Other Religious Orders Come To Australia

The Catholic story of Australia has many chapters that were written by European Religious Orders coming to this vast land in response to a specific need.

The establishment of schools, orphanages, hospitals and parishes throughout Australia is a narrative of God’s call for Bishops, priests, Religious brothers and sisters and lay people to respond the needs of the local Catholic community.

The courageous response of these groups to God’s call, the hardship of travel and lack of resources marks this era in the Australian Catholic story as one of our finest. With their faith in God’s providence many men and women worked with the Catholic community to create a vast array of organizations that made a remarkable contribution to the growth of the Australian nation.

The generosity, energy and steadfast work of these European Religious men and women soon attracted many local vocations to their mission. The story of the twentieth century is one of home grown priests and religious who responded to God’s call.

5. Spanish Leadership And Care For The Indigenous – New Norcia

In 1846, in a seemingly inhospitable area 130 km north of Perth, two Spanish Benedictine monks – Rosendo Salvado and Joseph Serra – began a remarkable experiment: Operating in a British colony their mission would be to educate and be an advocate for the local indigenous people.

A year later a foundation stone was laid for the monastic town that became New Norcia.

Serra would become co-adjutor Bishop of Perth in 1849 and return permanently to Europe in 1859.

Fr. Salvado (1814-1900) remained at the mission leading the Catholic community and caring for the local Aboriginal people. He was committed to a traditional education for them and approached this work with a deep understanding for the local culture; a novel focus for the time.

Indigenous people came from all over the region to live and learn at New Norcia.

Fr. Salvado died on a visit to Rome in 1900.

Upon hearing of his death, it is reported that the local people cried for three days.

In 1903 his remains were returned to Western Australian and re-buried behind the altar of the New Norcia Church that he built.

6. Brother Ambrose Treacy – Religious Orders sail to Australia

Patrick Ambrose Treacy (1834-1912) was born on August 31, 1834 in Tipperary, Ireland.

When only 17 he set out for Waterford to join Edmund Rice’s Christian Brothers. For the next decade-and-a-half he worked in schools across Ireland and gained a reputation as an accomplished teacher. In July 1868 the Superior General of the Order appointed him as leader of a new Australian mission. He and three other Brothers left Ireland in August 1868 and arrived at Melbourne in November.

The Brothers came at the invitation of the local bishops but they soon discovered that no money had been set aside to help establish their schools. Instead they were told to “throw themselves on the people”. Br. Ambrose had a talent for raising funds and the foundation stone of what became Parade College East Melbourne was laid two years later; the school opened in 1871.

From here the Christian Brothers’ mission moved across Victoria and beyond. In 1874, Ambrose took over the St Vincent’s Orphanage in South Melbourne. The following year Gregory Terrace in Brisbane was opened. New schools soon followed in Ballarat, St Kilda, Geelong and Adelaide as in Dunedin, New Zealand.
Ambrose set a fast pace for himself and his confreres. The rate of expansion was such that Ambrose was forced to return to Ireland to find more brothers to join the new venture.

After a pause in the prolific initial growth the mission, in the late 1880’s was ready to grow again.  New schools opened in Lewisham, Rozelle, Balmain and Goulburn in NSW, as well as Nudgee College and St James’ in Brisbane as well as schools in Rockhampton and Toowoomba. In Western Australia the Christian Brothers opened schools in Subiaco and Albany.

Ambrose closely oversaw the Australian mission administering the schools and raising funds for their operations. This skilled educator could also be found in a classroom whenever needed.

Without Ambrose’s strength and vision the mission in Australia may have faltered. He was joined by a great list of men willing to embrace this call by Christ to educate young Catholic students. This long and arduous work they undertook without expectation of personal reward. Their true motivation is found in a daily prayer they recited: “Live Jesus in our hearts, forever.”

From precarious beginnings Edmund Rice’s Christian Brothers established an extraordinary network of schools and orphanages across the Australian continent. By 1900, the Christian Brothers had over 100 brothers and 30 schools.

They weren’t alone: the long list of teaching orders that came from the other side of the world to share their Christian charism and commitment is a long one.

7. Caroline Chisholm- The Emigrant’s Friend

Caroline Chisholm (1808–1877) was instrumental in both raising the difficulties facing migrants, particularly young females, and in doing something about it. She was a classic case – like Mary Mackillop – of seeing a need and doing something about it. Her religious belief and a strong personal commitment to the Gospel message, ‘Love thy neighbour,’ – were a major motivation for her work. She also possessed a great humanitarian outlook, which allowed her to easily empathise with all people, especially the downtrodden and disregarded.

Caroline Chisholm’s efforts were made more difficult by local sectarian fears that were easily stirred by her critics and rivals. Despite this she was remarkably successful in caring for and finding safe lodgings for many women arriving in Australia. For instance, her Shelter Sheds provided cheap and safe accommodation for those heading to the Victorian goldfields.

She was a great administrator and could deal with all elements of society with ease. A strong determination marked her work; she was fortunate to have the solid support of her husband who shared her faith and appreciated her commitment to poor and needy.

For a period, Caroline Chisholm was one of the best-known women in Australia. Yet she died in a certain obscurity and was buried in England. It was left to later generations to rediscover her story and acknowledge the debt the nation owed her. Her face would one day adorn Australia’s original five-dollar note: a great, if late, sign of recognition.


1. Penola- A Home Grown Religious Order: The Josephites

Penola, a small country town in South Australia, is where Mary MacKillop – Australia’s first saint – joined with Fr. Julian Tenison Woods to establish a new religious order, the Sisters of St Joseph.

The ‘Josephites’ as they became known are a distinctively Australian order not only due to their local origins but also in the range of their mission. From the outset they had a particular concern for Aboriginal Australians.

An early story about Mary was her care for a neglected Aboriginal girl in Penola. She insisted that everyone has a place at society’s table and lived out her famous maxim: “Never see a need without doing something about it. Later, when locked in a struggle with the local bishop for control of the order she had started, Mary never gave up and in the end prevailed.

Mary had moved to Penola as a teenager to take up the position of governess to her cousins who lived in the district.

There she me the local parish priest, Julian Tenison Woods, a multi-skilled quite remarkable individual: musician, writer, scientist, geologist and explorer. Fr. Julian died at 56 years and had won the prestigious Clarke Medal for his contribution to the natural sciences.

He shared Mary’s interest in the education of children in outback Australia assisted her in a quest for founding an order of sisters. In 1866 they together established the Sisters of St Joseph of the Sacred Heart. It took another 22 years before it received official approval from Rome. By this time the Josephites were well and truly established and would become a feature of Catholic life across Australia and New Zealand. Later their witness would be extended across the globe – from East Timor to Peru.

Saint Mary MacKillop died in 1909 and her order had at that time over 1100 sisters working in Australia and New Zealand.

2. The Education Act/ New Education

Until the end of the 1860s, all schools – including Catholic ones – received government aid. Around this time a campaign to centralise education emerged with a catch-cry: “free, secular and compulsory education for all”. It was successful. By the early 1890s, every colony had passed an Education Act to establish a government-run system. It was a major reform but a disaster for Catholic schools which no longer qualified for financial assistance.

These Education Acts would inadvertently shape Catholic education and the Catholic community for the next century.

The Australian Bishops were committed to keeping the Catholic system alive, but without enough money to pay staff, what could they do? They appealed to the teaching orders overseas, particularly Ireland, to send priests, brothers and nuns.

The growth was rapid and local orders also emerged. In 1857, Archbishop Polding established the Sisters of the Good Samaritan (the ‘Good Sams’). This order was part of the Benedictine tradition; they were the first religious congregation to be founded in Australia. In 1866, Mary MacKillop and Fr. Julian Tenison Woods established the Sisters of St Joseph.

By 1910 there were over 5000 nuns teaching in Catholic schools across the country.

3. The Irish Connection Continues: Archbishop Daniel Mannix

Irish-born Daniel Mannix (1864 -1963) was the Archbishop of Melbourne for 46 years and a most influential public figure in 20th-century Australia.

His prominent role in the anti-conscription campaign during World War One made him a lightning rod for anti-Catholic sentiment. In 1920 was arrested by the British on his way to Ireland and transferred to England such was his political stature in the early decades of the twentieth century.

But the more Mannix was attacked, the more his prominence grew.

While he is often depicted today as a conservative, his views on issues ranging from immigration policy to the role of the church in society were well ahead of his contemporaries.

Daniel Mannix lived to 99 years of age and his lifetime could be said to include the most tumultuous periods of modern history: he was born at the height of the American Civil War when Abraham Lincoln was President of the United States and died shortly before the assassination of John F. Kennedy.


Migration Since World War II

The growth of the Australian Catholic church received an added boost with the extensive immigration to this land in the 1950’s. The vast number of immigrants from different countries broadened the definition of ‘Catholic’ to embrace a wide-ranging list of national festivals, religious practices and traditions.

Each new national group brought to Australia their own distinctive Catholic spirituality that had been fashioned in Europe over many centuries.

These Catholic immigrants who left their own lands and sacred sites came to a new, developing culture that did not support some religious processions or embrace their sacred icons. This melting pot of diverse nationalities that became the post-war Australian story helped fashion a unique church. One that embraced a wide diversity of devotions and prayers and helped form the broad base of Catholic life we have today.

In the years following World War II, Australia’s Anglo-Celtic Catholic culture was richly enhanced by the immigration of Catholics from the Netherlands, Germany, Italy and Malta, Poland, Czechoslovakia, Hungary, Croatia. Large numbers also came from the Middle East, particularly Lebanon as well as India, Sri Lanka east Asia and South America.

“When it came to religion, these people had different aspirations, expectations, needs and patterns of participation from those of Catholics of the Irish mould. They needed to be able to attend Mass in their own languages and they needed schools for their children, and the Church responded in practical ways, obtaining priests from the main countries of origin of the immigrants and building new schools and churches at a phenomenal rate.”

R. Dixon, The Catholic Community in Australia, 2005


The people who immigrated to this land necessarily forged the initial Australian Catholic story. Those who ministered to the growing Australian Church were from Europe. In recent decades Australia has itself sent Catholic priests, brothers and nuns to all corners of the globe in response to Christ’s call to proclaim the good news.

1. Dr Mary Glowrey

Dr Mary Glowrey (1887-1957) was born in Birregurra, Victoria. She was the third of nine children. She was a very spiritual young woman and exceptionally intelligent student who gained a scholarship to studying for a Bachelor of Arts at Melbourne University. However after much of prayer, and the encouragement of her father, she switched to Medicine and in 1910 graduated with a Bachelor of Medicine and Bachelor of Surgery.

In 1916 Mary was elected founding president of the Catholic Women’s League of Victoria and Wagga Wagga and as a young medical practitioner offered inspiring leadership of this new organization.

Dr Glowrey had established a successful private practice in Melbourne but in 1915 heard the call to travel to India to care for the suffering in that land. She sailed to India and joined the Congregation for the Society of Jesus, Mary and Joseph.

She spent hear whole life caring for the spiritual and medical needs of the people of India especially the poor. Her energy and enthusiasm never waned; she started the Catholic Hospital Association of India (CHAI) and Catholic Medical College in India to train health professionals both in medical care as well as in Catholic teachings.

Dr Mary Glowrey is an outstanding example of Australian Catholics leaving our land to proclaim the Good News of God’s love in other parts of the world.

The preliminary phase of the Cause for Canonisation of Mary Glowrey has commenced in Bangalore, India.

2. Sr. Irene McCormack

Irene McCormack (1938-1991) was a Josephite nun who left Australia in 1987 to work among the poor and marginalised in Peru. Originally working in and around the capital, Lima, Sr. Irene moved on to work with the people of Huasahuasi in the Andes Mountains. This was a region threatened by a notoriously violent Communist group called the Sendero Luminoso (Shining Path) which was fighting a bloody guerrilla war against the Peruvian Government. Although warned of the dangers Irene refused to abandon her people. In May 1991 a group of Shining Path entered the village and rounded up four men and Irene. After a mock trial they were killed outside the village church. Irene was shot first.



James McAuley (1917-1976) was one of Australia’s great poets. Born in Lakemba, New South Wales in 1917 he was also an insightful and impressive social and literary critic. Raised an Anglican he abandoned his faith as a young man only to rediscover it later in life. He converted to Catholicism in 1952 and proceeded to add profound spiritual reflections to his literary output.

McAuley joined with composer Richard Connolly to write a number of hymns for Australian Catholics. Many of these are still being sung in Catholic churches. They offer a distinctly Australian voice to the spirituality of the hymns.

Some examples are:

Sing a new Song, Priestly people, In faith and hope and Love,

I know that faith is like a root
That’s tough, inert and old;
Yet it can send up its green shoot
And flower against the cold.

I know there is a grace that flows
When all the springs run dry.
It wells up to renew the rose
And lift the cedars high.

James McAuley

Worth a read are:

John O’Brien

John O’Brien was the pseudonym of Father Patrick Joseph Hartigan (1878-1952).

Born in 1878 in Yass, New South Wales, he was ordained a Catholic priest in 1903 and worked for much of his life in the Goulburn diocese; he was parish priest at Narrandera from 1917 to 1944. He wrote some of the best-loved poetry in the Australian canon. In his poetry he captured the spirit of outback Catholics with their distinctive devotions and solid religious adherence. His work also advanced the Religious sentiments that contributed to the Australian Catholic narrative.

His first volume of verse, Around the Boree Log and Other Verses (1921) found its way into many homes. He wrote affectionately and amusingly about the Catholic community in rural regions.

A selection of his most famous are:

Trimmin’s On The Rosary, The Old Mass Shandrydan, Said Hanrahan

At Carey’s

There’s a weather-beaten sign-post where the track turns towards the west,

Through the tall, white, slender timber, in the land i love the best.

Short its message is – “To Casey’s” -for it points the road to Casey’s;

And my homing heart goes bushwards on an idle roving quest,

Down the old, old road contented, o’er the gum-leaves crisp and scented,

Where a deft hand splashed the purple on the big hill’s sombre crest.

Ah, it’s long, long years and dreary, many, many steps and weary,

Back to where the lingering dew of morn bedecked the barley-grass,

When I watched the wild careering of the neighbours through the clearing

Down that sweet bush track to Casey’s, o’er the paddock down to Casey’s;

Spending Sunday down at Casey’s after Mass.

Vincent Buckley

Born in country Victoria, Vincent Buckley (1925-1988) became a leading poet and critic and held a personal Chair in Poetry at the University of Melbourne. He developed a strong interest in Irish history and culture.

And hard-faced men, who beat the drum
To call me to this cause or that,
Those heirs of someone else’s tomb,
Can’t see the sweeter work I’m at,
The building of the honeycomb.  

from No New Thing
Thomas Keneally

Born in Sydney in 1935, Thomas Keneally studied to become a priest before leaving the seminary to become a schoolteacher and writer. His first novel was published in 1964.

Keneally has been nominated for the prestigious Booker Prize four times and won it for Schindler’s List in 1982. He has also twice won Australia’s leading literary award -the Miles Franklin

The themes of his novels are varied from Australian Aboriginal issues in The Chant of Jimmie Blacksmith to the American Civil War (Confederates), the Holocaust (Schindler’s List) and Catholic Australia (Three Cheers for the Paraclete).


Damien Parer

Photographer and filmmaker, Damien Parer (1912-1944) is responsible for some of the most iconic images of World War II. He attended Catholic schools in NSW and Victoria before becoming a photographic apprentice. He captured the enduring images of wounded diggers on the Kokoda Trail – which were part of Australia’s first Oscar-winning film Kokoda Front Line! A fearless war photographer he was killed by Japanese gunfire while filming the American invasion of the island of Palau in 1944.


William Wardell/John Hawes

Two English converts designed some of Australia’s most striking religious architecture: William Wardell (1824-1899) and John Hawes (1876–1956). Wardell, who converted to Catholicism in 1843, was noted for his excellent church designs. He travelled to Australia to improve his health and began to make his mark on the local religious landscape. He designed some of Australia’s major cathedrals in a neo-gothic style.

John Hawes was an Anglican minister who converted to Catholicism while in the Bahamas in 1911. His Romanesque style buildings such as Geraldton Cathedral are eye-catching and exotic.



Jim Scullin (1876 –1953) was a Labor Party politician of humble origins who would become the first Catholic Prime Minister of Australia. When he won the 1929 federal election, Scullin was looking forward leading the country into a period of stability and reform. Within days, the US Stock Market collapsed triggering the Great Depression. The Scullin Government was dogged by difficulties in facing the unprecedented challenges of the times. The party split and the Scullin Government fell in 1931.

Joe Lyons (1879-1939) had been Premier of Tasmania before entering Federal Politics. A Minister in the Scullin Government, he disagreed with the direction the party was going and quit to form a new more conservative party – the United Australia Party. Lyons became Prime Minister – the first and only Catholic non-Labor Prime Minister until Tony Abbott was elected in 2013. Lyons was popular with both sides of politics for his relaxed and genial approach to politics.

B. A. Santamaria

It was often said by his critics that Santamaria was secretive and operating in the shadows. Though a private man, Santamaria was always available to those who needed him. In fact, he insisted that his phone number be listed, and not silent; something that continued until the end of his life despite the abusive and threatening phone calls he would receive.

Melbourne historian, Patrick Morgan edited two volumes of Santamaria’s letters. He felt moved to remark about the man who emerged from his research:

 “The letters reveal that Bob Santamaria put an enormous amount of his energies into non-political matters. For decades he looked after people’s needs – he single-handedly ran an extensive private welfare bureau, information service, contact network and influence circuit all rolled into one. People contacted him with all sorts of problems and requests; in the early decades they were mainly Catholics, but later on the circuit widened.  He was always willing to help. 

“Examples of those he assisted included people trouble with rental or hire purchase agreements, the unemployed, people with their own hobby horses, writers with articles to publish, unmarried men looking for partners, Catholics looking to devote their lives to his cause or to the Church, people who needed money, those asking how to get a home savings grant, supporters who couldn’t afford to renew their News Weekly subscriptions, people wanting to meet Mannix or the Pope, job seekers requesting references, travellers wanting introductions on overseas trips, immigrants trying to get a start here, people with legal and occasionally medical (but not personal) problems. He also helped people to get residence permits for overseas friends and relatives, migrants to get credit for foreign qualifications, and overseas applicants to get into Melbourne Seminaries to study for the priesthood.  He was an indefatigable visitor of the sick”.