Ship wrecks and close calls with cannibals

The adventures of Fr James Watkins.

The first resident priest in East Maitland was Fr James Watkins. He arrived late 1835 and remained in East Maitland for nine months. His last entry in the parish register was made on 24 July 1836 when he officiated at the marriage of Johnson Brothers and Mary Ann Hernyns at Morpeth. His activities were mainly confined to the Maitland, Black Creek and Morpeth area and during his time in the area, he performed 55 baptisms and officiated at 4 marriages.

When Fr Christopher Dowling arrived in August 1836, Fr Watkins left the Maitland area for Hobart where he took over from Fr Connolly. He remained in Hobart until he then handed over to Fr Therry in 1838.

It was seven years before any known whereabouts of Fr Watkins could be ascertained. It appears that he was aboard the brig “Mariner” which was outward bound from Melbourne but was wrecked near Maria Creek on 7 November 1845. Fr Watkins survived and made his way to Adelaide from Kingstown (240 kms southeast of Adelaide) arriving on 20 November where he offered his services as a priest to Bishop Murphy, the first Bishop of Adelaide.

Bishop Murphy wrote to Bishop Geoghegan of Melbourne giving this account; “…his clothes were a little mildewed but otherwise safe and sound. He is now under my roof, and from what I have seen of him I hope he will be a credit to the Church and a blessing to the mission.”

Fr Watkins left Adelaide in 1849 bound for the Cape of Good Hope where he worked for some years before returning to his birthplace, Abergavenny, Monmouth, Wales. He died there in 1869 aged 75 years.

Towards the end of his life he used to tell that he was twice shipwrecked and was once stripped to be eaten by cannibals, “but I was too fat for pork and not fat enough for bacon”.

Fr Dowling having been appointed to East Maitland as an official chaplain by Dr Polding in October 1835 became the second priest to take up residence at East Maitland when he arrived in August 1836 and was then the only resident priest north of Sydney.

“The chaplain stationed at Maitland has to extend the sphere of his duties to Newcastle, across the Hunter, up to the whole of the Williams River, and over to Paterson’s Plains on the one side, and on the other, to the distant parts of the Upper Hunter, the Patrick’s and Liverpool Plains.”

The official census in 1836 showed that the Catholic population of NSW was 21,898. The ordinary attendance at Mass at St Joseph’s East Maitland was 250. Quoted from “History of Catholic Church in Australia” by Cardinal Moran.

At the same time, there is a record of the first Catholic school at Maitland. It was totally supported by the Government and therefore had to report to the Governor. Bishop Polding reported that the school had 36 boys and 25 girls with expenses of 62 pounds.

It seems that Fr Dowling said Mass at St Joseph’s Church, East Maitland on Sunday and at Newcastle on a week day. As there was no church building in Newcastle or anywhere else north of Sydney, except at East Maitland, Mass was said in the Court House or an inn or a private home.

Fr Dowling had to contend with the conditions of the time. The lack of transport and communications and housing conditions, even in the towns, was crude. Coping with the attitude of the authorities was also difficult which is highlighted in a letter written by Bishop Polding to the Governor.

“Sydney, October, 1837.

Sir, The Rev Mr. Dowling, chaplain at Maitland, has represented to me that the Commandant of the stockade at Harper’s Hill would not permit the prisoners of the Crown to attend Divine Service when he visited that station in August last, alleging that he could not allow the men to attend on any other day but Sunday. Your Excellency is aware that it is impossible for the chaplains to attend the spiritual instruction of the several chain-gangs on the Sunday without the omission of the essential duty of performing Devine Service in the churches or chapels of their districts. At the same time the instruction and Christian consolation of the unfortunate men condemned to the irongang is a duty of great importance. I have, therefore, the honour to solicit Your Excellency to direct that all reasonable facilities shall be granted for the performance of spiritual duties when the Roman Catholic chaplains visit the stockades, and that the men may be allowed to attend their ministry.

I have the honour to be, etc.,

 (Signed) J.B.Polding.”

In 1838 a team of young Irish priests came to Australia and a general re-organisation took place. Fr Edmund Mahony and Fr John Thomas Lynch came to Maitland and Fr Dowling was transferred to Newcastle. This heralded the real beginning of Catholicity in the Hunter Valley.

Fr Ullathorne, though an Englishman himself, saw the necessity of bringing Irish priests to Australia to minister to the Catholics here who were predominantly Irish.

On 23 March, 1838, the barque “Cecilia” set sail from Gravesend for the Colony of New South Wales arriving in Sydney on 15 July. On board were eight priests; two others had arrived in February 1838 and on the last day of that year three more priests arrived in the company of the Vicar-General Dr Ullathorne. Two of those on board the “Cecilia” were Fr Edmund Mahony and Fr John Lynch who were appointed by Bishop Polding to the Hunter River. Their arrival in the Hunter together with Fr Dowling’s work at Newcastle was the real foundation of what was to become the Diocese of Maitland.

The first baptism recorded by Fr Lynch was on 30 August and the first By Fr Mahony was on 5 September. It was the endeavour of Bishop Polding to send out his priests, two by two as did Our Lord when He sent out the seventy-two disciples, and always to have his priests at least as near as a day’s ride from each other.

In the beginning of their ministry, the two priests, Fr Mahony and Fr Lynch, lived together at East Maitland. In early 1839 Fr Lynch, although he continued to reside at East Maitland, set up a base in West Maitland. Fr Lynch moved to West Maitland in 1841 when other living quarters were set up. As Fr Mahony remained at the older established Catholic centre he was appointed as Dean. When Fr Mahony died the title went to “Dean” Lynch.

Resources used: Centenary-The Diocese of Maitland 1866-1966 by Rev Harold Campbell; St Joseph’s Parish East Maitland 150 years 1835-1985; Australian Dictionary of Biography

This is part of a series about the history of the church in the Maitland area:

Read Part One

Read Part Two

Read Part Three

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