Fr John Joseph Therry

Founder of the Australian Catholic Church

In his riveting biography of Fr. John Joseph Therry published in 1922, the late Bishop Eris O'Brien described him as the founder of the Catholic Church in Australia.

The young Irish priest arrived in Sydney in 1820. He was thirty years of age. He was accompanied by another Irish priest, Fr. Phillip Conolly. The two priests were the first approved chaplains to the New South Wales Catholic community, which then numbered about 10,000 people, a third of the total population.

At that time, the majority of Catholics had been transported as convicts after the Irish rebellion of 1798. Some were certainly criminals, but the vast majority were political offenders who had taken up arms against British rule in Ireland. They were often decent men and proved it on their release by becoming hard-working excellent citizens.

The young Father Therry, ordained in 1815 and a native of Cork City was one day walking through the city when a wagon passed him. It was crowded with hand-cuffed young men. Guarded by a military escort they were on their way to board a ship for Botany Bay. He was so moved by their plight that he resolved to follow them to the ends of the earth. And he did - with the permission of his Bishop and the approval of the British Colonial Office.

In Sydney the two priests faced an enormous task renewing the faith of Catholics who had been so brutalised and isolated for decades. Many Catholics were unbaptised. Marriages had taken place without the blessing of the Church. Children were uninstructed in the faith of their forebears and there was widespread ignorance and religious indifference. And of course, there was no church building in which Catholics could assemble for Mass.

Several injustices soon rankled in the heart of Fr. Therry. While the government under Lachlan Macquarie allowed him to celebrate weddings for two Catholics, he was prohibited from doing so if one of the parties was a Protestant. He was also forbidden to enter the Government Orphanage in order to give religious instruction to Catholic children. The government also demanded that he only celebrate Mass in public on Sundays and on Holy Days celebrated by the Church of England.

With courage and persistence, Fr. Therry protested and argued with various governors. In fact, he frequently ignored their demands. After years of agitation, supported by the sympathy of many fair-minded tolerant Protestants, these restrictions were finally removed.

On a very personal note, his relations with his associate, Fr. Phillip Conolly, deteriorated. They had different personalities, and found it very hard to work together. There was probably fault on both sides. Fr. Conolly decided to leave the mainland to Fr. Therry and he went to Tasmania, where he remained until his death in 1839.

Fr. Therry had this vast continent to himself for the next ten years. He was ready for the task. Apart from his efforts to renew the faith of so many he had a special ministry to convicts still serving their sentences. Indeed his diary contains many references to accompanying poor wretches to the gallows. One episode is described by James Bonwick, a Protestant writer on early Australian history.

"Word was brought to Fr. Therry that a convict sentenced to execution desired to see him for confession. Many miles had to be traversed in haste, for the time was very short. The season was late, the roads were uniformed, the floods had come down, and bridgeless rivers had to be crossed. Coming to a raging torrent which his horse was unable to enter, the distressed priest shouted to a man on the other side for help. A rope was thrown to him which he tied around his body. He leaped into the stream, and was dragged through the dangerous passage by men on the other side. Without stopping for rest or change of clothing, the brave man mounted another horse and arrived in time to bring the consolations of religion to a poor convict."

This story was typical of Fr. Therry, and his charity and love for all people became legendary. On more than one occasion during his journeys into the country he was held up by escaped convicts turned bushrangers. When they discovered their victim was Fr. Therry, he was always freed with an apology.

One of his greatest achievements was to see laid the foundation stone of the present St. Mary's Cathedral in Sydney. Against the opposition of many who believed it was too vast for their needs, Fr. Therry went ahead. His vision for the future needs of the colony was vindicated in a few short years.

The years passed quickly. By 1830 other priests began to arrive. Fr. Therry was no longer a lone ranger. The first Archbishop of Sydney, John Polding, OSB, was appointed in 1842. Fr Therry continued his missionary efforts for many years. He travelled far and wide. He even spent time in the young city of Melbourne and later was posted to Tasmania, where he ministered for ten years. He finally returned to New South Wales to his final appointed of parish priest in Balmain.

His zeal for souls was unabated even in his twilight years. He died on the 25th of May 1864 aged seventy-three years, having spent forty-four years in Australia.

Reflecting on his life it is clear that Fr. Therry was a devout priest and a wonderful model for all priests that would come after him.

He read widely and his personal library testified to that. However he was not a great scholar. He loved the Mass and rarely omitted to celebrate daily.

Every evening he would pray the Rosary by himself or with some family.

His sermons were always well prepared. He would often write out his sermons but never read them to the people. Writing out his sermon helped him to remember what he wanted to say, so he never had to read it. He would often frequently ad lib as the Holy Spirit moved him. He had a quiet and easy manner and a voice even in his old age that was audible and pleasing to the ear. He would frequently quote from the Scriptures and from famous French preachers like Bourdaloue and Massillon.

His funeral was a huge affair. Crowds lined the streets for more than a mile and a half as the procession proceeded for burial at the old Devonshire Street cemetery. It was the largest attended funeral ever seen in Sydney up to that time. Years later in 1901, his remains were transferred to the crypt under St. Mary's Cathedral.

I have read a number of books with such titles as "One Hundred Great Australians" or "Men and Women Who Shaped Australia". While there have been chapters on notable Catholics like Caroline Chisholm, Mary MacKillop, Cardinal Patrick Moran, Archbishop Daniel Mannix, John Curtin or B.A. Santamaria, the name of Fr. John Joseph Therry never rates a mention. But I think Fr. Therry was the greatest of them all.

Fr Barry Tobin PE