Australia’s first Catholic Mass, 15 May 1803

Australia’s first Catholic Mass, 15 May 1803
kingThe first publicly sanctioned Catholic Mass – on May 15, 1803 – was a signal event as an act of emancipation for Catholic worshippers. And by the time it happened the colony had about 1700 of them. That freedom to practise their religion was effected in a series of Government Orders issued by the then Governor of New South Wales, Philip Gidley King (pictured), between April 12-19,1803.

The first publicly sanctioned Catholic Mass – on May 15, 1803 – was a signal event as an act of emancipation for Catholic worshippers. And by the time it happened the colony had about 1700 of them.

That freedom to practise their religion was effected in a series of Government Orders issued by the then Governor of New South Wales, Philip Gidley King, between April 12-19,1803.

As a result, what is claimed to be the first official Mass in Australia was celebrated in Sydney by convict priest Fr James Dixon on May 15.

When the First Fleet, commanded by Captain (later Admiral) Arthur Phillip, set sail from Plymouth, England, on May 12, 1787, to establish a penal colony at Botany Bay in New South Wales, the only religion sanctioned for that colony was the Established Church of England.

An English Catholic priest, Fr Thomas Walsh, had written to the Home Secretary, Lord Sydney, in February 1787 requesting permission for himself and another priest (whom he did not name) to accompany the fleet at their own expense, to minister to the ‘not less probably than 300’ Catholic convicts to be transported to Botany Bay.

Although undated, the letter is filed among the Colonial Office records in the Public Record Office at Kew, London, between a letter to Lord Sydney dated February 7, 1787, and another dated February 15 – three months before the departure of the First Fleet. The letter was not answered and no Catholic priest came to the colony until the beginning of the 1800s.

Contrasted with the treatment of Fr Walsh’s request was the appointment of an Anglican, the Rev Richard Johnson, as chaplain to the First Fleet and to the colony. On October 24, 1786 – only 12 days after the commissioning of Phillip – at the intervention of William Wilberforce and with the compliance of the British Prime Minister, William Pitt (the Younger), Johnson received his commission.

The attitude of the British Government is disclosed in the records. On April 24, 1787, the Privy Council Committee for Trade and Foreign Plantations, of which Lord Sydney was a member, amended the draft of Instructions for Governor Phillip, drawn up by the Home Office. The committee deleted three paragraphs providing for liberty of conscience and free exercise of religious worship in New South Wales, replacing them with this paragraph: “It is our will and pleasure that you do by all proper methods enforce a due observance of religion and good order among the inhabitants of the new settlement and that you do take such steps for the due celebration of public worship as circumstances will permit.”

Thus Phillip was empowered to order attendance at Divine Service conducted by Rev Johnson.

In his book, An Account Of The English Colony in New South Wales, the Deputy Judge Advocate, Captain David Collins, wrote that “the discharge of religious duties was never omitted” and that “the whole body of convicts attended”.

Marine Captain Campbell’s orderly book recorded: “Headquarters, February 2nd 1788. The church Drum to beat at 10 o’clock tomorrow morning for prayers, the convicts are to assemble for Divine Service on the left of the encampment and they are expected to appear as clean as circumstance will permit.”

In 1790, Collins reported that when chaplain Richard Johnson complained of non attendance at Divine Service, Governor Phillip ordered that three pounds of flour be deducted from the ration of each labouring convict who did not attend prayers once on each Sunday “unless some reasonable excuse for their absence should be assigned”. Catholic convicts were made to attend the services conducted by Rev Johnson.

The prominent English Catholic layman William Fermor tried to have Catholic priests sent as chaplains to Botany Bay with this memorandum to the Colonial Office in 1790:

“By reports from three different Roman Catholic Priests who have for many years attended the RC convicts on board the Hulks at Woolwich & Gosport & from him who attends the RC Culprits in Newgate – The number of difft. RC of various Countries transported to Botany Bay amount to about 800. If an inquiry be made of the Commanders of the Hulks at Woolwich & Gosport, it could be found that the conduct of the convicts of that persuasion has been considerably mended since the admission of their Clergy to attend them [as a result of the 1778 Catholic Relief Act]. The most moderate terms that Govt would think proper to prescribe, they would readily accept” – (it is filed between two 1790 documents).

Fermor’s memorandum, like Fr Walsh’s letter, elicited no action.

Two years later – on November 30, 1792 – five Catholics from Parramatta presented a petition to Governor Phillip at Government House, Sydney, on the eve of his departure for England at the end of his administration of the colony.

Signed by First Fleeters Thomas Tynan (a Marine settler), Simon Burne, Joseph Morley and John Brown (convict settlers), and a Marine settler’s wife, Mary Macdonald (nee Oliver), who had arrived in 1791, their petition read:

“We the undersigned with the most humble respect take the liberty of representing to your Excellency the inconveniences we find in not being indulged heretofore with a pastor of our religion.

“Notwithstanding the violation of the laws of our country we still would wish to inherit the laws of our Creator in the form we have been instructed in our youth, the principles of which we never wish to eradicate, whether from a reverence of duty to our parents (who have instructed us in it) or from prejudice imbibed from the precepts taught us by our priests.

“We, therefore, humbly implore your Excellency’s assistance on your return to England, to represent to His Majesty’s Ministers, that it may be taken into consideration, as our present opinion is that nothing else could induce us ever to depart from His Majesty’s colony here, unless the idea of going into eternity without the assistance of a Catholick [sic] priest.

“Your Excellency’s compliance to our request shall forever leave us in duty bound to pray for your Excellency’s prosperity.”

Phillip presented the petition at the Colonial Office in London. Like its predecessors, it was filed away and no result was achieved. The original is in the Public Record Office.

Governors John Hunter (1795-1800) and Philip Gidley King (1800-1806) received the instruction to “by all proper methods enforce a due observance of religion and good order”.

Governor Hunter issued three Orders compelling attendance by all at Divine Service conducted by the Anglican chaplains Richard Johnson and Samuel Marsden The first two – dated August 27, 1798, and November 29, 1799 – are reproduced in the Historical Records of Australia Series I Volume II (p357; p593). The third – dated August 25, 1800 – has been lost.

Governor Hunter made a gesture of toleration towards Catholic convicts. In a letter to his patron, Sir Joseph Banks, on April 5, 1800, he wrote, inter alia:

“It was surely, Sir Joseph, ill considered, the sending to this country amongst so many Ruffians, two Roman Catholic Priests [Frs Harold and Dixon]; the men themselves [the priests] are quite decent and orderly in their conduct [he was soon to change his opinion of Harold]. I have no fault whatever to accuse them of. But we have at the moment three people under sentence of Death, and they happen all to be Irish; they have abused and insulted the Established Clergyman, when his duty called upon him to visit them under their melancholy circumstances; this was never known to happen heretofore. They will not have the consolation of a visit from a Clergyman unless he is of the Romish church. I have seen it necessary therefore in their unhappy situation to send a Priest [Dixon or Harold] with the Established Clergyman, to attend them occasionally in prison.”

Governor King issued an order on October 4, confirming Hunter’s three orders on attendance.

On February 24, 1803, Secretary of State Lord Hobart wrote to Governor King, inter alia, “with a view to impressing more fully upon the minds of the convicts the absolute necessity of a strict observance of religious ceremonies, it is my positive and express direction that you do strictly enjoin every officer, both civil and military, to be constant and regular in attending divine service and that orders be given to the troops who may not be upon duty to attend regularly in like manner”.

Three Irish priests – Frs James Harold, James Dixon and Peter O’Neil – arrived in Sydney as convicts between January 1800 and February 1801, convicted for alleged complicity in the 1798 rebellion in Ireland. Harold arrived on the transport Minerva on January 11, 1800, Dixon a few days later on the Friendship and O’Neil on the Ann on February 21, 1801 (O’Neil had already served a term in prison in Ireland).

Governor King wrote to the Duke of Portland on March 10, 1801, telling him that since the suspected planning of two uprisings in 1800, the convicts in the colony had been “very quiet” until the arrival of the Ann from Cork “with 137 of the most desperate and diabolical characters that could be selected throughout that Kingdom, together with a Catholic priest [O’Neil] of most notorious, seditious and rebellious principles”.

He quickly rid the colony of O’Neil, retransporting him to Norfolk Island on May 16. O’Neil remained on Norfolk Island until King received an official request from the Lord Lieutenant of Ireland on October 30, 1802, that O’Neil be returned to Ireland (O’Neil had been exonerated of the charges before he left Ireland but too late to stop his departure). O’Neil left Norfolk Island for Sydney on January 15, 1803, and departed for Ireland in February.

Soon after arriving in Sydney, Fr Harold became involved in the suspected plans for an uprising of the Irish at Castle Hill and Parramatta and was retransported to Norfolk Island on October 18, 1800. He remained there until 1807 when he was sent to Van Diemen’s Land. He returned to Sydney in 1809 during the interregnum that followed the 1807 Rum Rebellion and, on August 10, 1810, left Sydney for the United States. He eventually returned to Ireland.

Fr Dixon, a mild mannered man, kept clear of any trouble in Sydney and obviously impressed Governors Hunter and King as a person who could be trusted.

King also obviously believed that Dixon, given a degree of freedom, could keep the Irish convicts from plotting and staging rebellion.

First intimation of the Government’s more tolerant attitude towards its Catholic subjects reached Governor King when the then Home Secretary, Lord Hobart, replied on August 29, 1802, to a letter King had written on August 21, 1801, to Hobart’s predecessor, Lord Portland.

Lord Hobart wrote: ‘The Catholic priests Dixon, 0’Neal [sic] and Harrold [sic] and a man named Abraham Gough, have been represented to me as persons who might not be undeserving of conditional emancipation, If their conduct should have justified this representation, and you should be of the opinion that the priests may be usefully employed either as schoolmasters or in the exercise of their clerical functions, you may avail yourself of their services and allow them such moderate compensation as, under the circumstances of their case you may judge reasonable’. The letter arrived on March 11, 1803. King wasted no time in acting on it.

On Tuesday, April 12, he issued this Government Order (this was published in The Sydney Gazette on Sunday, April 17):

“Every person throughout the Colony professing the Roman Catholic Religion is to attend at Government House, Parramatta, on Wednesday, the 20th instant, at ten o’clock in the forenoon, previous to which, those residing about Sydney are to give their names, places of abode, &c, to The Rev Mr Dixon, to the Magistrate’s Clerk at Parramatta and to Thomas Arndell, Esq, at Hawkesbury.”

No record has been found of either the gathering at Government House, Parra-matta, or the statistics to have been compiled by Fr Dixon, the Parramatta Magistrate’s clerk or Thomas Arndell.

However, on April 19, Governor King issued his historic Proclamation Respecting The Toleration Of The Roman Catholic Religion, in which he said:

Whereas I have judged it expedient and admissible, in consequence of a communication from His Majesty’s Principal Secretary of State for the Colonies and War Department, to grant unto the Rev Mr Dixon a conditional emancipation to enable him to exercise his clerical functions as a Roman Catholic priest, which he has qualified himself for by the regular and exemplary conduct he has manifested since his residence in this colony, and having taken the oath of allegiance, abjuration and declaration, prescribed by law

Such permission shall remain in full force and effect so long as he, the said Mr Dixon (and no other priest), shall strictly adhere to the rules and regulations which he has this day bound himself by oath to observe as well as all other regulations which may hereafter be made thereon by His Majesty’s Governor of this territory for the time being; and in case of any deviation therefrom by the said Rev Mr Dixon or any of his congregation it will remain with the Governor of this territory to suspend such religious assemblies, and to deal with the offenders according to law.

The Proclamation and a set of seven Regulations to be observed by the Catholics at Dixon’s services appeared, in The Sydney Gazette of April 24, 1803.

Most significant was King’s assertion that Fr Dixon had “taken the oath of allegiance, abjuration and declaration prescribed by law”.

The form of the oaths and declaration is not clear. The particular Act containing the oaths and declaration is not quoted.

That leaves the form of the declaration allegedly made by Fr Dixon open to conjecture. It is beyond belief that he took the oaths and the Declaration against Transubstantiation which British Acts (the Acts of Uniformity and the Test Act) required.

But, as an Officer of the Crown, he would have been required to comply with the provisions of the Test Act, which included subscribing to the Declaration against Transubstantiation.

The original document of the Regulations, signed by Fr Dixon and two witnesses, Judge Advocate Atkins and Surgeon Thomas Jamison, is in the NSW State Records.

However, exhaustive research in NSW and England has failed to find any document to prove that Fr Dixon took and subscribed to the oaths and the declaration.

There is anecdotal evidence that he acted upon King’s Proclamation and began to minister openly.

The Sydney Gazette of May 15, 1803, contained this news item: “Married: Yesterday fe’night by the Rev Mr Dixon of the Church of Rome. Henry Simpson, shipwright, to Catherine Rourke, of the Rocks, Widow.”

What Catholic historians have taken to be the record of Fr Dixon’s celebration of the first official public Mass in NSW is this report in The Sydney Gazette of Sunday, May 22, 1803:

“On Sunday last the Roman Catholic Congregation assembled, for the first time, at Sydney; this morning the Rev. Mr Dixon performs the duties of his function at Parramatta, and on Sunday next at Hawkesbury; in which succession the meetings are to be held at sthese three principal settlements.”

The locations of the services in Sydney, Parramatta and the Hawkesbury are unknown.

Exhaustive research in NSW, Ireland, England and Rome has found no documentary evidence.

Archbishop Eris O’Brien (Archbishop of Canberra and Goulburn 1953-66) wrote in his The Dawn of Catholicism in Australia: “Fr Dixon celebrated the first public Mass in Australia on 15th May, 1803 probably [my emphasis] in the house of James Meehan.”

The archbishop was obviously referring to a paper J P McGuanne read at the Royal Australian Historical Society on May 13, 1916, in which McGuanne said: “It was a joyous though small congregation that assembled in James Meehan’s house in Sydney to hear Mass on May 15, 1803.” McGuanne gave no documentary proof of his statement, which, like other assertions in his paper, may have been a figment of his imagination.

Eris O’Brien wrote in The Church in Australia (1788-1830), published in the Official Souvenir of the 1953 Australian National Eucharistic Congress: “Various conjectures have been made concerning the place in which the first Mass was offered.

“It has been suggested that it was where James Meehan lived, which it is assumed was at the corner of Argyle and George Sts. It could have been in the Court House in Essex St.”

Journalist-historian Brian Doyle, then associate editor of The Catholic Weekly, covered all possible sources then available in The First Mass, published in The Catholic Weekly of April 16, 1953.

None of them gave the location of the first Mass.

He most convincingly put a case for a former public granary building “roughly at the intersection of George and Jamison Sts”, which had been converted into a church in which the Anglican chaplain Samuel Marsden conducted services every Sunday.

King’s Proclamation was the centrepiece of the congress in Sydney in May 1953 to mark its sesquicentenary.

Sourced from:

A listing of Australia’s Influential Catholics

Some early Catholics

James Dixon (1758 – 1840) Catholicism priest, convict (political)
Peter O’Neil (1757 – 1846) Roman Catholic priest
James Harold (1744 – 1830) Catholic priest

The convict priests
Leave a Reply, comments are welcome.

One thought on “Australia’s first Catholic Mass, 15 May 1803”

  1. Thank you for this fascinating website. I have Sr. Vvienne Keely’s biography on James Dixon which fails to identify where the Masses where said but the very respected historian Collinridge Rivett – alas no sources but many clues in his illustrations and we know he researched in different countries and would have come across many sources at the London Missionary Society and British Museum – made this statement in the Parramatta Bicentenary booklet and I wonder if you have more information on this- “George Evans, the early explorer, became storekeeper In the original Government store near the wharf in 1802. The following year the Catholic convict priest, Father James Dixon, celebrated Mass in the store. Evans, although not a Catholic, became very friendly with the pioneer priest.” This would indicate that James Meehan, the Governors all played a huge role in early Catholicism in Australia but not “officially” My original point of research was the “Nowhere Here Inn” referred as a place where the Irish convicts met and would have been on the grant to my ancestor John Hillas – hence one of my interest in early Catholicism, Pubs and especially James Meehan the famous surveyor and friend of James Dixon. I believe they all link to a different story than one that has been told. I have many books on this subject but none are conclusive. Thanks for any further information and I will be happy to share what I have,
    with very best regards
    Jane Knox – Kiepura
    Littleton NH 03561 USA
    PS I realize HMS Stores would have been in Parramatta and therefore the 2nd Mass but the Stores would have held the very huge number of people who would have been attending.


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