16 April, 2019

First Australian Catholic Historian

Apart from the short reminiscences of some Catholic pioneers, Australia's first book of Catholic history was published in 1886 by a senior priest of the Archdiocese of Sydney.  This was the Very Reverend John Kenny.  Dean Kenny's book was titled A History of the Commencement and Progress of Catholicity in Australia up until the Year 1840.  These days, we would use the word Catholicism in place of "Catholicity".

He began this work with the following explanation :

The object that I had in view in writing the history of Catholic events in Australia, was to correct the mistaken notions in the minds of many, in regard to our history, and to reduce them to something like chronological order ; and to show the wonderful progress of Catholicity in Australia in such a short time.  I have been witness of many events recorded in the history.  I came to the colony in the year 1835, with Bishop Polding, as an ecclesiastical student : it will soon be fifty years ago ; and I was not unobservant of what was passing.  I was ordained a priest with four others, by Archbishop Polding, in the year 1843, and have laboured ever since on the Australian Mission.

Dean Kenny 1816 - 1886.
A carte-de-visite photograph of the 1870s.
John Kenny was born in Fife, Scotland in 1816.  In 1834, whilst still an ecclesiastical student, he was selected by Bishop Polding to be among the small party that accompanied him to the colony of New South Wales.  Amongst this party, John Kenny seems to be the only one who was not himself (nor did he become) a Benedictine.  In Australia, whilst still a student for the priesthood, he was mostly engaged as a catechist, whilst living at the seminary attached to Saint Mary's Cathedral.  But after his ordination, Father Kenny was appointed to Queanbeyan (1843) and afterwards to Penrith (1844-45), Macdonald River (1845-47), Geelong (1847-48), East Maitland (1848-67) and finally North Sydney (1867-78), where he lived until his death in 1886.

Although not in any respect a comprehensive account of the formative years of the Church in Australia, Dean Kenny's History is nevertheless much more than a mere curiosity.  Perhaps its principal value is where it records events which Dean Kenny witnessed at firsthand during the first five years following the arrival of Bishop Polding in Australia, and the inclusion in the volume of sermons and speeches of Archbishop Polding and Father William Ullathorne, the Vicar-General, which otherwise might have been lost to posterity.

As an appendix is included A Short Essay on the Aborigines of Australia.  If nothing else, the inclusion of this Essay demonstrates that the culture and welfare of the Aboriginal peoples of Australia was not something ignored by the Catholic Church in the nineteenth century.

Because Dean Kenny's History is such a rare volume, we take the opportunity to include some photographs of it.  AMDG.

Dean John Kenny
Title page of Dean Kenny's History.

Dean John Kenny
Conclusion of the Preface.
Dean Kenny was resident at Saint Leonard's in Sydney when he wrote his historical volume.

Dean John Kenny
This particular copy of Dean Kenny's History bears his autograph :
"With the Author's Compliments John Kenny Dean."

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