The beginnings of St John’s Church

Rev John Thomas Lynch was born in Dublin, educated at Maynooth Seminary and followed Dr Ullathorne to Australia in 1838.

He was appointed to the Hunter River in company with Fr Mahony. The first baptism recorded by Fr Lynch in East Maitland is dated 30 August 1838.

In early 1839 Fr Lynch had set up a centre in West Maitland in Plaistowe St, Horseshoe Bend but continued to reside in East Maitland until 1841 when he acquired living quarters in Maitland.

‘John O’Brien’ writes of Fr Lynch:


“John T. Lynch was the type that works best by himself, and throughout his career he was a ruler who suffered no rival near the throne, be it bishop or curate. He was an organizer with a head full of schemes and a determination to carry them out in his own way, and he was a tireless worker throughout a remarkable pastorate of over thirty years….He thoroughly searched the upper reaches of the Hunter and Paterson valley, and there was not a settler, Catholic or non-Catholic, whom he did not call upon. He was a first class horseman and as hard as the horse that bore him. He pioneered the Liverpool Plains, went further north than Armidale and combed the whole of the intervening country. His rounds from Maitland and back to Maitland often meant a journey of a thousand miles, and there were times when on his return a sick-call was waiting which brought him half-way round the map again. The registers which he left behind show that during his twenty-four years at Maitland he baptized 4,100 persons …… in places scattered as widely as the Manning River, Kempsey, Port Macquarie, the Upper Hunter and Armidale.” John O’Brien. Op.Cit. A.C.R., April, 1944


The first work undertaken by Fr Lynch was to provide a Mass centre in Maitland. This he did in Plaistowe Street. When opened it was only a slab hut, with a bark roof and an earthen floor. Over the next few years improvements were made to the building by the work of volunteer labourers. The Plaistowe Street Church served the Maitland community as a place of worship on Sundays but it was not long before Fr Lynch had it used as a school during the week.

Fr Lynch made constant visits to the North and during these absences his brother priest at East Maitland carried on the work at Maitland.

An excellent depiction of the work undertaken by Fr Lynch can be found in the first directory of the Australian

Church, published in 1841 by W. A. Duncan, foundation editor of the first Catholic newspaper, “The Australasian Chronicle”:


West Maitland: Rev. John Lynch.

“There is a temporary chapel at West Maitland containing nearly 300 persons. The foundation stone of St John Baptist was laid by the Bishop. It is expected to cost £5,000 when completed.

At Black Creek there is a wooden chapel, roofed, and will soon be completed; to cost about £120. Site given by Mr Bowen, a Protestant, will contain more than 200 persons.

At Paterson there is also a wooden chapel, roofed, and a very excellent building, cost £150. Mr Keily and Mr Clarke gave three acres of land to this church, which contains nearly 300 persons.

At Patrick’s Plains the collection is progressing and the site promised by Mr John Brown. It is expected to be a

respectable church and to cost about £1,000.

At Wollombi the foundation stone of St Michael’s Church is laid; to be of stone, and will cost £600; to contain at least 300 persons.

Mr Haydon has offered a site at Murrurundi, nearly 100 miles from Maitland.

The number of Catholics at West Maitland is at least 500, of communicants average per month 40; at Black Creek,

Catholics 120, communicants 10; Paterson, Catholics 120, communicants 10; Patrick’s Plains, Catholics 300; Jerry’s Plains, Catholics 40; Merton, Catholics 30; Muswellbrook, Catholics 120, Wollombi, Catholics 80, communicants 10; Luskintyre, Catholics 30, communicants 6.

Fr Lynch also visits the stockades.”

And all the time there was the constant work of ministry, baptisms, marriages, burials and instruction.


The foundation stone of St John’s Church was laid by Bishop Polding at Campbell’s Hill (on the site of the present Maitland Hospital) on Thursday, 8 October 1840.

It was an eventful day for the Catholics of Maitland who had gathered at the little church in Plaistowe Street and proceeded via Plaistowe, Hunter and High Streets to the site at Campbell’s Hill. There were over 1,000 people present of all religious denominations.

A tent had been erected on the high ground and Mass was celebrated before the Bishop conferred the Sacrament of Confirmation on 70 candidates, both children and adults.

The church was never built on the original site, but four years later the foundation stone was carried to the present site in Cathedral Street and the building proceeded. The brass plate was also brought down and was inserted between the stones under the tower of the church.

The question could be asked; why did Dean Lynch move from the Campbell’s Hill site and come down on to the flood plain to eventually build St John the Baptist Church? The most that can be said is that he built where he did for the same reason that so many others did and are still doing. He came to where the people were. In the 1840’s the building area of Maitland was between Elgin Street and what was known as “The Old Store”.

When St John’s was built it is said that it stood 300 yards (274 meters) from the river bank, but over time, with the incursion of the river, the distance would now be scarcely more than 100 yards (91 meters).


One of the best known facts about Dean Lynch is that he promoted the Temperance Movement. He set about to do what he could to alleviate one of the greatest social diseases and social problems of his

time. The “Rum Rebellion” is a well-known term in Australia’s history and indicates the major role that rum played in the formation of our nation. Dr Ullathorne, in his pamphlet, “The Catholic Mission in Australia”, published in England in the 1830’s, gives some indication of the influence rum and spirits had over the whole population: ‘An always sober servant in a town would be a phenomenon. I have known 14 public houses in full employ in a small township of 1800 inhabitants. In Sydney there are 224 licensed taverns in addition to sly-grog shops; and they line every roadside at short intervals…..’ Rum was even given as payment for labour or goods.

Maitland was no exception to this national degradation: “A formidable array of ‘grog houses’ graced both sides of High Street from Campbell’s Hill right through to its eastern extremity.”

Many of Dean Lynch’s parishioners were involved in the selling part of the drink trade and many more were on the drinking side. This encouraged the Dean to do what he knew was his duty. He started his own Temperance movement, no doubt encouraged by the success of his fellow Irishman Fr Matthew who had begun a similar venture in Cork in 1838.

The Temple of Concord was opened in Maitland on 15 August 1841, the movement later extending to Singleton, Muswellbrook and Wollombi. Fr Lynch lectured his disciples and converts to sobriety and to total abstinence. There were no half measures with the great “Temperance advocate”. He was promoting total abstinence.

Dean Lynch was resident priest in Maitland for 24 years, leaving in November 1862 for Armidale where he remained for eight years. He then returned to Sydney where he was first stationed at Pyrmont, later becoming the parish priest of Campbelltown. In 1874 Pope Pius IX made him a Domestic Prelate with the title of Monsignor, the first in Australia. He died at Campbelltown on 7 February 1884.


To be continued………


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

Read Part One – The Catholic Church in Maitland

Read Part Two – Who was Fr Therry?

Read Part Three – Who followed Fr Therry to Maitland?

Read Part Four – Ship wrecks and close calls with cannibals

Read Part Five - Fr Mahony’s sacrifice for the people of East Maitland

 Resources used: Centenary-The Diocese of Maitland 1866-1966 by Rev Harold Campbell

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