03 September, 2020

Pious, Zealous and Obstinate
Father John Joseph Therry (1790 - 1864)

The forty-four years in which Father John Joseph Therry (pronounced "Terry") laboured as a missionary in colonial Australia may be summarised in several paragraphs, but how inadequate such a summary would be in encompassing the fundamental contribution he made in planting and nourishing the tree of the Catholic Church in Australia from the time of his arrival in 1820; two hundred years ago.  

We must start somewhere, however, and the following article, giving an outline of the course of his life and work, is a comprehensive and fair account.  It was written for the Australian Dictionary of Biography in 1967 by the historian Father John Eddy SJ.  Father Eddy's article has been substantially edited for inclusion here.  Over a period of time, further articles about Father Therry will be posted to this blog, which we hope will tell anew the remarkable story of this indefatigable Apostle of Australia during the bi-centenary year.

a photograph taken in the early 1860s.
Note the eye-glasses being held in his left hand.
Digital restoration by the Saint Bede Studio

John Joseph Therry was born in the city of Cork, Ireland in 1790, and was educated privately before he studies for the priesthood at St Patrick's College, Carlow.  Ordained a priest in 1815, he was assigned to parochial work in Dublin and then Cork, where he became secretary to the bishop, Dr Murphy. Father Therry’s interest in the colony of New South Wales, aroused by the transportation of Irish convicts and the publicity surrounding the deportation from Sydney of Father Jeremiah O'Flynn in 1818, came to the notice of Bishop Edward Bede Slater, the Vicar-Apostolic of the Cape of Good Hope, Madagascar, Mauritius, and New Holland with the adjacent islands. At the same time, the British Colonial Office had consented to send two official Roman Catholic chaplains to New South Wales. Recommended by his own bishop as a capable, zealous and “valuable young man”, Father Therry sailed from Cork with Father Philip Conolly, in the Janus, which carried more than a hundred prisoners. They arrived in Sydney, authorised by both Church and State, on 3rd May 1820.

Father Therry described his life in Australia for the next forty-four years as “one of incessant labour very often accompanied by painful anxiety.” Popular, energetic and restless, he appreciated from the beginning the delicacy of his role. He had to be at once a far-seeing pastor making up for years of neglect, a conscientious official of an autocratic British colonial system, and a pragmatic Irish supporter of democratic freedoms. Though respectful of authority and grateful for co-operation, he was impatient of any curtailment of what he considered his own legal or moral rights as a Catholic priest in a situation governed by extraordinary circumstances. The two priests immediately immersed them in their duties of instruction, visitation and administration of the sacraments.

The Colony’s Governor, Lachlan Macquarie, although not hostile, was initially abrupt in his regulation of the activities of the two priests. In 1821, Father Conolly, after a series of disagreements with Father Therry, left Sydney for Hobart, leaving Father Therry for five seminal years as the only priest in the Colony. 

A panorama of Sydney in 1821 looking north from Observatory Hill.
Fathers Therry and Conolly arrived in a well-established township.

Image : The State Library of NSW. 

Articulate and thorough, Father Therry set himself the task of attending to every aspect of the moral and religious life of the Catholics. He travelled unceasingly, living with his scattered people wherever they were to be found, sometimes using three or four horses in a day. His influence was impressive among the Protestant settlers and outstanding among the convicts. His correspondence shows the trust they placed in him. For the rest of his life he was banker, advisor and arbitrator to many of them as well as spiritual director and community leader. He also early formed a lasting interest in the Aboriginals, who became very attached to him. He also pleaded the cause of aboriginal education to a later Governor, Sir Ralph Darling.

The building of a church in Sydney, planned from the first days of the chaplaincy, was one of Father Therry's main preoccupations. The assistance or substantial tolerance of the leading colonists was assured, and on 29th October 1821 Governor Macquarie laid the foundation stone of St Mary's chapel on a site he had assigned at the edge of Hyde Park, near the convict barracks. The convict artist and architect Francis Greenway made himself available for consultation on the architecture and construction. Government help was promised, but Father Therry was criticised for the elaborate design and size of the building, and the project quickly got out of hand financially. His accounts - never very coherent though always scrupulously maintained - became progressively more chaotic as his charities multiplied and the financing of schools and churches in Sydney, Parramatta, and the outlying townships involved him in attempts to raise funds by farming and stock-breeding. The scattered and casual nature of his dealings, the absence of a reliable and able book-keeper and his own sanguine character made financial crisis inevitable. His failure to separate private and public matters hampered and indeed later crippled his apostolate. But demands for his service came from the hospital, gaols, farms, the government establishments, his own day and Sunday schools, and from road-gangs and assigned convicts. He went, whenever summoned, to Wollongong, Goulburn, Maitland, Bathurst, Newcastle with their neighbouring districts.

The Hyde Park Barracks  : a watercolour from 1820.
This place of confinement for the settlement's convicts was built in 1817.  All the pioneers priests
(including Bishop Polding) regularly visited this Barracks to bring Christ to those imprisoned.

Image : State of Library NSW

Oppressive behaviour by officials or settlers towards the soldiers or convicts angered him, particularly where religious issues were involved. He was bitterly resentful of his exclusion from certain government institutions, especially the Orphan School, where he was unhappy about children whose parents were Catholic being baptised and instructed by the Anglican chaplains. By 1824, however, the patronage of Governor Sir Thomas Brisbane and his own growing experience encouraged him to hope for impartiality and support. He was confident that, with the arrival of new priests to share his work, a remarkable expansion of Catholic practice and activity was possible. With the aid of his committees, trustees and friends, and the advent of what he termed “a free, liberal and talented press”, he began to feel secure. Father Therry had even been held up by the Governor as a model of discrimination and good judgment to the zealous (and horrified) Presbyterian minister, John Dunmore Lang.

The formal withdrawal of Government support for his ministry in 1825 – the result of his being misquoted in the press in his opinion of Anglican ministers - caused Father Therry continual prohibitions and hindrances in the exercise of his priestly work, especially in the visitation of the sick and dying in gaols and hospitals, and in the celebration of marriages. Nevertheless, Father Therry remained 
their pastor in the eyes of the colony’s Catholics.

In December 1826, another Catholic Chaplain arrived from Ireland, Father Daniel Power. The two priests had more work than they could deal with, but Father Therry's impetuosity and Father Power's inadequate health led them into a series of collisions, particularly when the building of St Mary's Chapel came to a standstill and Father Therry demanded more vigorous action. Father Power died in March 1830 and Father Therry was again left alone with his mounting debts and worries. His genius for publicity and organisation is illustrated in the repeated representations made on his behalf by the principal officials and magistrates, and supported in March 1830 by over 1400 householders. The Colonial government permitted him to continue to act as chaplain – but without status or salary. A further Chaplain, Father Christopher Dowling OP, arrived from Ireland in September 1831.

Old Saint Mary's Cathedral (at right) founded by Father Therry and Governor Macquarie in 1821.
The adjacent buildings of the Hospital & Hyde Park Barracks are also shewn in this 1840 aquatint.

Image : The Sydney Museum.

The arrival of Sir Richard Bourke as the new Governor of the Colony (1831), the news of the British Government’s Catholic Emancipation Act (1829), and the appointment of the Irish Catholics Roger Therry as Commissioner of the Court of Requests (1829) and of John Hubert Plunkett as Solicitor-General (1832), both loyal friends of Father Therry, offered new opportunities for Catholic progress. Yet Father Therry was still frustrated and unrecognised when a further Chaplain, Father John McEncroe arrived in June 1832. Father McEncroe was quite capable of managing the indomitable but stubborn veteran and the two became lifelong colleagues and confidants. A dispute about the land on which St Mary's Chapel was being built had become deadlocked through Father Therry's obstinacy. Disastrous litigation was in prospect when Bishop Morris, the Vicar-Apostolic of the Cape of Good Hope, Madagascar, Mauritius, and New Holland, appointed the English Benedictine, Father William Ullathorne, as his Vicar-General in the Colony. Despite his youth, Father Ullathorne's confidence and ecclesiastical authority enabled him to take over the reins from Father Therry when he arrived in February 1833. The first bishop, John Bede Polding, came in 1835 and Father Therry went willingly as pastor of Campbelltown, with an area extending beyond Yass in his immediate care. By Governor Bourke's Church Act of 1836, the principle of religious equality had been accepted in the Colony, and in April 1837 Father Therry was restored to a government salary.

Since by 1838 several others priests had arrived to minister to the Colony’s Catholics, Bishop Polding was able to send Father Therry to Van Diemen's Land as Vicar-General. In Hobart, Father Conolly had become estranged from his people, and the all-too-common difficulties about jurisdiction, salaries and the deeds of church land 
had arisen. Father Therry reconciled Father Conolly before the latter's death in August 1839. He visited the interior of Tasmania and attended to the convicts. His church building at Hobart and Launceston was assisted by the Governor of Van Diemen's Land, Sir John Franklin's spasmodic patronage, but on St Joseph's Hobart, and on the schools demanded by the free settlers, he overreached himself. Loneliness, responsibility, illness and debt pressed heavily on him and he found himself again struggling for justice and religious equality in the government institutions. In July 1841 he visited Sydney briefly to get help and to try to clear up some of his business entanglements. There he was consulted by Caroline Chisholm, whom he was able to help and advise about her first plans to work among the emigrants. Though sick, he was thinking of a mission to New Zealand and perhaps the Pacific Islands, and formed an interest which in 1860 prompted him to implore Governor Sir William Denison to put an end to the Maori wars and to offer his own services as mediator.

Robert Willson arrived as first Bishop of Hobart Town in May 1844. He had not expected the church debts to be so great or so complicated, and he and Father Therry fell out. A long and dreary dispute arose, defying resolution and the efforts of a number of intermediaries. In September 1846, Father Therry went to Melbourne as pastor and remained there until April 1847.

The old church of Saint Augustine at Balmain circa 1870.
This was Father Therry's last Parish and he died in the adjacent presbytery in 1864.

Image : The State Library of NSW.

Father Therry was at Windsor NSW as pastor until June 1848 when he returned to live in Tasmania for a further six years. His efforts to settle affairs there were unsuccessful and he subsequently was appointed in May 1856 to Balmain where he spent the rest of his life. Mellowed and serene, he continued to be an energetic pastor, watching the growth of the church in whose establishment he had played such a definitive part, the coming of the Religious orders, and the enlargement both of the Pugin-designed church at Balmain and of the first St Mary's Cathedral, generously contributing whenever he could to every new development. He became spiritual director to the Sisters of Charity at St Vincent's Hospital, and in 1858 he was accorded the dignity by Pope Pius IX of Archpriest. In 1859 he was elected a founding fellow of the Council of St John's College within the University of Sydney. He had been given or had bought a number of properties which he tried to develop for the provision of more schools and churches for the growing Catholic community. Notable among these were his farms at Bong Bong and Albury, another property, which is now the suburb of Lidcombe, and 1500 acres (607 ha) at Pittwater, where he tried unsuccessfully to mine coal.

This Gothic Revival monument
was erected over the graves
of Archpriest Therry and 
Archdeacon McEncroe in
the former Devonshire Street
Both priests are now buried in 
the crypt
of Saint Mary's Cathedral.
Simple and unselfish, a firm democrat and a zealous priest, John Joseph Therry was a man of large notions and considerable achievement. He was an unsophisticated man with no clear ideas of social systems or political reform. Yet his energy and persistence proved a continual source of trouble to those who opposed his ideas of what was right or possible. “Pious, zealous, and obstinate”, despite his peculiarities and limitations he undertook many obligations and responsibilities which would in the circumstances have crushed greater men. His enthusiasm and sincerity assure him of a firm place among the founders of the Catholic Church and in the history of civil liberties in Australia. He firmly believed in a distant future for which he built, often regardless of existing conditions. Truly legendary in his own lifetime, Father Therry died peacefully on 25th May 1864, at the Balmain Presbytery and was buried from old Saint Mary’s Cathedral in the Devonshire Street Cemetery (now the area of Central Station). His was the largest funeral Sydney had seen to that date. His remains are now in the crypt of St Mary's Cathedral.



1. Amongst prominent historians who have written books or articles detailing the life of Father Therry are : Sir Roger Therry, Dean John Kenny, PF Cardinal Moran, Archbishop Eris O'Brien, "John O'Brien", Father James Murtagh, Timothy Suttor, Patrick O'Farrell, James Waldersee, James Hugh Donohoe, Father Ralph Wiltgen, Monsignor Con Duffy. This list is very far from complete.

2. Three photographs of Father Therry are known to have been taken.  The first was a daguerreotype from a sitting at the studio of Wheeler & Co in Sydney in 1853 or 1854. From this daguerreotype, an engraving was made and prints published; consequently, this 1853-54 image is frequently reproduced.  Two photographs were taken in one sitting in the studio of the Freeman Brothers in Sydney.  One of those photographs was in Father Therry's own collection, the other, having been in private hands, is now in the Archives of the Archdiocese of Sydney.  Of the Freeman's Studio sitting, there might have been more photographic prints produced which have since been lost. All these photographic images were used after the time of Father Therry's death to paint portraits of him.  Sad to say, none of the artists was up to the task and the various 19th century paintings of Father Therry are unremarkable.  A more recent effort by Sydney artist Paul Newton is also based on the Freeman Brothers photographs and adorns the walls of Domus Australia in Rome, along with those of other Catholic pioneers.

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