The colonial priest who lit the flame

Fr John Therry

May 25 will mark 150 years since the death of Fr John Joseph Therry. On the shoulders of this pious, zealous and obstinate Irishman lay the weight of establishing Catholicism in colonial Australia. 

- Australian Dictionary of Biography 

A legend in his own lifetime, his funeral was 'certainly the most numerously attended' ever seen in Sydney to that date. His remains are now in the crypt of St Mary's Cathedral, where the Lady Chapel was erected as his memorial.

Born in Ireland in 1790, ordained a priest in 1815, he did parochial work in Dublin and then Cork, where he became secretary to the bishop.

the British authorities had excluded Catholic clergy from the Australian colonies. Fr Therry's interest, aroused by the transportation of Irish convicts and the publicity surrounding the forced return of Fr Jeremiah O'Flynn in 1818, came to the notice of Bishop Edward Bede Slater, whom Pope Pius VII had appointed vicar-apostolic of the 'Cape of Good Hope, Madagascar, Mauritius, and New Holland with the adjacent islands.'

At the same time the Colonial Office had consented under the pressure of radical demand to send two official Roman Catholic chaplains to New South Wales.

Therry sailed from Cork under a senior priest, Father Philip Conolly, in the Janus, which carried more than a hundred prisoners. They arrived in Sydney, authorised by both Church and State, in May 1820.

Therry described his life in Australia for the next forty-four years as 'one of incessant labour very often accompanied by painful anxiety.'

He had to be at once a farseeing pastor making up for years of neglect, a conscientious official of an autocratic British colonial system, and a pragmatic Irish supporter of the democratic freedoms.

In 1821 Father Conolly, an eccentric temperamentally incompatible with his companion, went to Van Diemen's Land, leaving Therry for five seminal years the only priest on the mainland.

Articulate and thorough, Fr Therry set himself the task of attending to every aspect of the moral and religious life of the Catholics. He travelled unceasingly, living with his scattered people wherever they were to be found, sometimes using three or four horses in a day.

His influence was impressive among the Protestant settlers and outstanding among the convicts.

He also early formed a lasting interest in the Aborigines, who became very attached to him. He pleaded the cause of their education to Governor Darling.

Oppressive behaviour by officials or settlers towards the soldiers or convicts angered him, particularly where religious issues were involved.

He was bitterly resentful of his exclusion from certain government institutions, especially the Orphan School, where he was unhappy about children whose parents were Catholic being baptised and instructed by the Anglican chaplains.

Read full Biography: Therry, John Joseph (1790–1864) (Australian Dictionary of Biography)

Related:

Colonial priest laid foundations for Church in Australia (The Catholic Weekly)

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