Over the coming months we would like to share with the community a little of the history of the Catholic Church in the Maitland area.
Let’s begin with excerpts from the work of Father Lex Levey, Parish Priest of St Joseph’s, East Maitland, at the time of its sesquicentenary 34 years ago. The Preface by Fr Levey in the booklet St Joseph’s Parish East Maitland 150 years 1835-1985 published for the sesquicentenary, acknowledges the resources that were used in the publication and highlights the significance of the region in Australia’s history.
It begins …
Catholicism in Maitland
We pass over the coming and going of the “convict priests” and the deportation of Rev Father J. O’Flynn as none of these ever came to the Diocese of Maitland. But Father O’Flynn’s deportation to England by Governor Macquarie raised such a storm in the British Parliament that two Catholic chaplains, Father Philip Connolly and Father John Joseph Therry, were appointed to NSW. They arrived in Sydney in May, 1820.
It is certain that each of these priests visited the northern settlements and that they were the first to do so.
The first priest ever in the Newcastle-Hunter Valley area was the unsung Father Connolly, who visited Newcastle and then Port Macquarie in 1822.
This was the first visit of any priest to our Diocese and the first and only visit of Father Connolly. He chose to go to Hobart and spent many years there in what was then the more difficult situation. Father Therry remained in NSW and became the founder of the Church in this state and really in this continent.
We say Father Connolly was the first priest in the Diocese of Maitland. Whether he said Mass here is a matter of debate. He would certainly have said Mass at Port Macquarie and fulfilled the other duties of the official chaplain at that place.
Concerning Newcastle and his activity there, we have no record. The commandant was not friendly and that would probably exclude his visiting the convicts, but it would not prevent the priest saying Mass.
Probably then, to Father Connolly, must go the honour and credit of saying the first Mass in the Diocese of Maitland as we know it.
Father Therry and the Hunter River Mission
Whatever the unsupported assumptions of Father Therry’s visits to so many other places in NSW, there can be no doubt about his visits to Newcastle, Maitland, Singleton and the Hunter River. The first of these visits certainly took place in the late 1820s and very likely in the early years of that decade.
The two chaplains, Father Connolly and Father Therry, arrived in Sydney in May 1820. There is evidence that Father Therry was in Maitland before 1829.
The first resident Bishop of Maitland, Bishop Murray, speaking on one occasion, repeated a conversation he had with a resident of East Maitland, who told him that his mother had been baptized by Father Therry before the town had been established on the site chosen by Major Mitchell who surveyed the area for the two townships.
That would set the date as early as 1829 at the latest.
We will show later that he had established the Church of St Joseph at East Maitland by 1830.
Many of the early visits were rushed and hurried. The so-called modern grapevine was working then perhaps even better than it is today; the word would come through that the priest was needed here or needed there, that an execution was scheduled to take place; a soul was about to meet its Maker. It is not for no reason the church of St Joseph at East Maitland faces Stockade Hill, the place of execution.
The first St Joseph’s stood on the same spot and the Catholic Chapel and the gibbet faced each other across the narrow valley bisecting Stockade Hill.
Before the chapel was built, it was on the same spot that the condemned man could confidently expect that Father Therry would be waiting to meet him before the gallows did their ghastly work.
To be continued …