10 June, 2020

Prelude : The Southern Land of the Holy Spirit

In our previous post, we discussed the first Christian Service which was held in the Colony of NSW in 1788.  But what of the first Catholic Mass celebrated on the continent of Australia?  This question has been a matter of some debate for well over a century.  This article describes one theory, which was first expounded in 1895 by the Archbishop of Sydney, Patrick Francis Cardinal Moran (1).

This takes us back long before the voyage of discovery by Captain James Cook in 1770, back to early the previous century to another voyage of discovery by the Spanish seafarer Captain Pedro Fernandez De Quirós.  (2)  Under the commission of King Philip III of Spain and with the blessing of Pope Clement VIII, De Quirós sailed westward from Spain in December 1605 with a fleet of three ships.  Visiting South America firstly, he sailed around Cape Horn and into the Pacific Ocean.

Part of the statue of Pedro De Quiros
erected in Ibero-American Square,
Chalmers Street near Central Station (Sydney).
At the beginning of May, 1606, the De Quirós Expedition reached landfall.  Where precisely that land was has been the debated point.  Most historians and geographers have deemed that he landed in what was called The New Hebrides, but which we now know as Vanuatu.  Cardinal Moran and others (3) have argued convincingly that he was off the East coast of the Australian continent and that he landed in a place now known as Port Curtis, near Gladstone, Queensland.  Upon this contested point rests the date of the First Catholic Mass to be celebrated on the Australian continent. (4)

Upon returning to Spain after a not-altogether successful voyage, Captain De Quirós wrote a number of memorials or accounts of his voyage of discovery.  Other members of the expedition also wrote accounts, whilst others wrote down the verbal accounts of members of the expedition.  In short, there is a great deal of documentation about this voyage, to which we cannot in such an article in the least do full justice.

Cardinal Moran (5) in the following passages summarises accounts of the Sacred solemnities which commemorated the discovery of the New Land :

With the details of the voyage we are not now concerned. Suffice it to say that on the 1st May, in 1606, they entered a magnificent bay, and spread out before them was what De Quiros believed to be the grand continent of which he was in search. Two days later, as they sailed down the bay, they discovered a safe port in which a thousand ships could find anchorage. It was situated between two rivers, which supplied them with delicious fresh water, and they called it the port of Vera Cruz, from the feast of Holy Cross (6) on which it was discovered. On the following days the coasts were explored, and the captain used every effort, but in vain, to engage in friendly relations with the natives.

Pentecost Sunday was now at hand. On the eve all was joy and festivity on board the vessels, for next day would witness the solemn taking possession of the newly discovered land. A special order of Knights of the Holy Ghost was instituted in honour of the event. The camp master and an armed party attended to the preparations on shore. A small fort was equipped with four pieces of cannon. A temporary church was dedicated, under the invocation of Our Lady of Loretto, and in it an altar with a canopy was erected, adorned with palm branches and flowers. Masses were said at an early hour, and the whole expedition, officers and men, approached Holy Communion with the intent of gaining the Jubilee Indulgence granted them by Pope Clement VIII, (7) High Mass was sung by the Father Commissary.

Pope Clement VIII
The J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles.
Two special facts are commemorated. The Father Commissary and his five Franciscan companions, barefooted and kneeling on the beach, received, at the hands of De Torres, the second in command, a large Cross, "made of the orange wood of the country," in which was inserted the Relic of Holy Cross which the captain had received in Rome. This was borne aloft and all in procession, singing the Ecce Lignum Crucis, advanced to the church door, where the Cross, with all solemnity, was set in a pedestal, and the captain announced in six distinct proclamations his taking possession of the newly-discovered land in the name of the Catholic Church, in the name of His Majesty the King, etc.

The second event was at the close of the High Mass.  I will describe it in the words of De Quiros's secretary: "The three ensigns, who now held the banners in their hands, inclined them to the ground in front of the altar, the Royal Ensign holding the royal standard. The Commissary blessed them with great solemnity; and at a certain signal that was given to the ships, whose mast-head banners displayed the Royal Arms and at the sides the two columns (symbols of the Spanish power) and the plus ultra, with the streamers fluttering; fired off all their guns with full charges; the soldiers discharged muskets and arquebuses, and the gunners sent off rockets and fire-wheels. In the middle of all this noise, all shouted with almost infinite joy, and many times, Long Live the Faith of Christ. And with this the celebration, the festival came to an end."

The festival of Corpus Christi was kept with due solemnity on the 21st May. It was regarded by the Spaniards as "the first festival celebrated in honour of the Most High Lord in these strange and unknown lands."

A 20th century illustration of De Quiros claiming the South Land
for the Holy Spirit and the King of Spain.
The structure of a temporary chapel (at left),
with a canopied altar and the long procession
from the harbour is based on the account given by De Quiros and others.

The secretary of De Quiros gives a minute and detailed description of this beautiful feast.

On the 20th May the camp master, with a hundred soldiers, went on shore to adorn the church, and to mark our the streets for the procession. Before daybreak on the 21st all were ashore. The church was "bravely decorated" with green branches. The altar in particular was richly ornamented; a large oil-painting of the Crucifixion served as the altar-piece, the candles were lighted and the incense burning.

There were three high triumphal arches, enlaced with palms, branches of fruit trees and flowers; the ground was also strewn with flowers. The streets were formed with a variety of trees, and at two angles, under two other arches, were erected two Altars of Repose with their canopies; on these Altars were the images of St. Peter and St. Paul.

In the Church three Masses were celebrated. The day was clear and serene, and as the sun rose over the crowns of the trees, its rays entering through the branches, the difference in the fruits of each plant was shown in great profusion. Here, too, could be heard the persistence with which the birds sang and chanted; the leaves and branches were seen to move gently, and the whole place was agreeable, fresh, shady, with a gentle air moving, and the sea smooth."

The order of procession is minutely described. A soldier went first, holding aloft the heavy Cross of orange wood.  Next came a lay brother bearing a gilt Cross, attended by acolytes and thurifer, all wearing red cassocks and surplices. Then followed the three companies in order, each one bearing its banner in the centre; with its drums sounding a march. As was usual in the Spanish processions, there was a picturesque sword-dance by eleven sailor lads, dressed in red and green silk, with bells on their feet. "They danced with much dexterity and grace, to the sound of a guitar, which was played by a respected old sailor." This was followed by another dance performed "by eight boys, all dressed like Indians in shirts and breeches of silk, coloured brown, blue, and grey, with garlands on their heads and white palms in their hands. Bands of bells were around their ankles, and they danced with very quiet countenances, at the same time singing their canticles to the sound of tambourines and flutes played by two musicians."

Six Magistrates preceded the Celebrant, each with a lighted torch in his hand. The Father Commissary, attended by the other Priests, officiated; the canopy of yellow silk, six yards long, was borne by three royal officers and three Magistrates; and the Pange Lingua was joyfully sung. After the canopy the Royal Standard was borne by the Ensign, attended by two, Justices of the Peace and the Chief Constable.

Philip III
King of Spain 1598-1621

As soon as the canopy appeared outside the church "all the bells rang, and the people who were looking on attentively fell on their knees; the Ensigns lowered the banners three times, the drummers beat the drums for battle; the soldiers, who had the cords ready, fired off the muskets and arquebuses; the constables fired off the guns which were on shore for de-fending the port; and in the ships the artillerymen fired off the bombards and pieces, and those placed in the launch and boats for the occasion. Once more, and once again, they were discharged. When the smoke cleared away, there were seen amongst the green branches so many plumes of feathers and sashes, so many pikes, halberds, javelins, bright sword-blades, spears, lances, and on the breasts so many crosses and so much gold, and so many colours and silken dresses, that many eyes could not contain what sprung from the heart, and they shed tears of joy. With this the procession returned, the church being guarded by four corps de garde. The dancers kept dancing to keep up the festival, and remained within; and the captain at the door said to them: "All the dresses you wear, you can keep as your own, for they are from the Royal Treasury; I would that they were of the best and richest brocade."

To bring the ceremonies to a close a fourth Mass was said to satisfy the devotion of the sentries "who were posted to keep a look-out for any approach of the natives, though they were far off on the beach and on the hills."

The narrative adds that, "having given the soul such sweet and delicious food," the tables were now laid under the shade of tall and spreading trees, where all were gladdened with a welcome and joyous repast.

The colourful and pious language of this account is in stark contrast with the matter-of-fact reporting of the first Divine Service at Sydney Cove in February 1788. History records, however, that not all the members of De Quirós Expedition were as enthusiastic as the account suggests.  With hostility from the indigenous and growing unrest from his crew, Quirós brought the Settlement to an abrupt end after less than two months and the vessels sailed away.  After a few days at sea, De Quirós ship became separated from the other two vessels and he sailed across the Pacific alone.

When he left the settlement, De Quirós took with him the timber Cross of local orange wood with him and presented it to the Church of the Franciscan Friars in Acapulco Mexico.  Cardinal Moran (8) describes this, with reference to De Quirós own writings : 

It was on the 8th of December; feast of the Int. Conception, that the captain, "with the greatest solemnity possible, took the Cross from the ship to the sea shore and delivered it to the Father Guardian." It was fastened to the High Altar, and to mark the occasion there was "ringing of bells, sound of trumpets, and discharge of guns and arquebuses and muskets by the soldiers. All the people showed their joy; and not less did the captain, although he desired to go to Rome and put this cross in the hands of the Pontiff, and tell him that it was the first that had been raised in those new lands in the name of the Catholic Church."

We should mention here that there is some divergence in what De Quirós is reported to have proclaimed when planting the Cross and the banner of the King of Spain.  Some accounts claim he called the place Tiera del Australis del Spiritu Santo (The Southern Land of the Holy Spirit) whilst others suggest that he acclaimed Tiera del Austriailis del Spiritu Santo (being a reference to the Austrian Royal House of the King of Spain).  He did not, however, use the adjective "Great" which seems to have been an addition of a later time.  What is certain is that, no matter where De Quirós was when he made land in May 1606, he did place the Australian continent and adjacent islands under the patronage of the Holy Spirit.  

De Quirós wrote in the ship's journal for 14th May:

I take possession of all these lands that I leave sights and I am seeing, and of all this part of the south up to its pole, which from now on has to be called AUSTRALIA of the Holy Spirit.

In a later publication, de Quirós claimed :
For the happy memory of VM and for the surname of Austria, I gave the name (to that land) the Australia of the Holy Spirit, because on the same day I took possession of it. (9)



(1) The History of the Catholic Church in Australasia, Patrick Francis Cardinal Moran, Sydney, 1895.

(2) We cannot in this article trace various explorations undertaken previously by French, Dutch, Spanish, Portugese and other sea-farers, since our purpose is to suggest when the first Mass on Australian soil was celebrated.

(3) The following on-line articles were studied in the preparation of this post :



(4) An extended bibliography covering the debate on this matter, see Celsus Kelly, ‘The Narrative of Pedro Fernandez de Quiros’, Historical Studies Australia and New Zealand, vol. 9 (May 1960), pp. 192–193, note 54.

(5) Discovery of Australia by de Quiros in the Year 1606 by Patrick Francis Cardinal Moran, Archbishop of Sydney, Catholic Truth Society, 1906.

(6) The Feast of the Finding of the Holy Cross was commemorated in the Old Roman Calendar on 3rd May.

(7) Pope Clement VIII died in March 1605, unbeknownst (it seems) to De Quiros.  When he reached the Southern lands, the reigning Pope was Paul V (1605-1621).

(8) Moran, Discovery of Australia by de Quiros in the Year 1606, op.cit.

(9) "Because on the same day, I took possession of it", namely Pentecost Sunday 1606.  George Collingride, The Discovery of Australia, Golder Press, 1987.

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