11 July, 2021

father in faith : part 1
biographical notes on the life of john bede polding osb

Death has rarely taken from the people of Australia one who will be more sincerely regretted, or whose memory will be more fondly cherished - by men of all classes and all creeds - than the late Archbishop Polding. … Nor was it his rank which inspired the esteem and veneration in which he was held by Protestant and Catholic alike. It was the simplicity, suavity, benignity, and benevolence of his character. … He was a Christian first, and a Catholic afterwards. He was a gentleman in the truest sense of the word before he was a priest, and he never ceased to be both Christian and gentleman during his long and exemplary life. No ecclesiastical boundaries fenced in the native kindness of his disposition. His creed was that of Rome, but his Church was mankind. We have little doubt that his theological doctrines were of the most orthodox character, but the best sermon he ever preached was his daily life. His was a gospel of peace, and its “hidden springs” were not polemics, but benevolence in thought, word, and deed. He lived in amity with all around him, hoping and believing the best of those who differed from him on points of faith, and doing the best for such as needed his counsel and assistance without inquiring into their opinions. It was their necessities which appealed to him, and their belief or unbelief did not repel him. Hence the magnitude of the social influence he acquired, and the feeling of personal attachment which he conciliated, for there are tens of thousands of men to whom dogmas are either indifferent or incomprehensible, whereas character and conduct speak eloquently to the understandings and the hearts of gentle and simple, sceptic and believer.  
EN 1

This beautiful tribute was published by the editor of the Melbourne newspaper The Argus on 17th March, 1877, the day following the death of John Bede Polding O.S.B., Australia’s first bishop. Even allowing for the elevated tone of nineteenth century prose, they are striking. They were the words of a modern and enlightened newspaper man - neither a Catholic, nor particularly religious - but who nevertheless believed that Archbishop Polding was a remarkable Australian leader who epitomised all that was Christian, charitable and noble in his long life. We have chosen this quotation to begin this series of biographical notes, because it captures the deep respect and affection in which the Archbishop was held, even at a time when the Catholic Church in Australia was not much loved by the Australian press. A sectarian age it was, which could be very bitter indeed, yet admiration for the man John Bede Polding somehow rose above the pervasive mistrust of Catholicism in Australian society of that time.  In the 21st century, when we are again in an era where the Catholic Church is held in low opinion, perhaps it is timely to recall the heroic life and work of Archbishop John Bede Polding.

Near-enough to one hundred and fifty years has passed since his death, but the name “Polding” is never far from Australian Catholic consciousness. Through successive generations, his memory has been revived and esteemed. Our aim in these biographical notes, is to try to re-discover how John Bede Polding came to be held in such esteem by the time of his death and why he continues to be remembered. These biographical notes are not intended to be a narrative of what the Archbishop did and when, but rather an outline of the breadth of his vision for the spread of the Catholic Faith in Australia.  Wherever possible, we will tell the tale using the Archbishop's own words and those of his contemporaries.

He was in many respects, a man more liberal than his contemporaries, a discerning champion of what might be called these days “social justice”.   But John Bede Polding was essentially and above all, a man of Faith; every matter he addressed, in private or in public, was directed through his love of God and his fidelity to the teachings of the Church.   But he was also a missionary, deeply imbued with the spirit of Benedictine monasticism. To fail to comprehend these facets of John Bede Polding is to lack the key to the understanding of his life’s work as our first Catholic bishop.  In this series of notes, we will discuss the Archbishop's life in England, his work with NSW convicts, his missionary tours of Australia, his philosophies on Catholic education, his work to develop a Catholic Culture in Australia, his compassionate understanding of the plight of Australia's Indigenous peoples, his attempt to establish Benedictine monasticism in Australia and his approach to building an Australian nation.

When Bishop Polding arrived in Australia in 1835, he was already a mature and experienced man of 40 years - on the young side of a bishop’s age by modern standards. So, since his work in Australia was the product of those forty years of formation and ministry in England, in this post, we will attempt to trace some of what is known of his early years.

John Polding was born on 18th November 1794 in Liverpool, England. EN 2  His father was German, a native of Hamburg, although the circumstances of his being in England (perhaps as early as 1770) are not clear.  At this time, Liverpool was already an important seaport, and people from all over England, from Ireland and from a number of European countries lived there.  It is estimated that Catholics comprised little more than 5% of Liverpool’s population at this time, but not all of these Catholics were of English birth.  The family name was

A portside street of Liverpool, as it appeared in the late 18th century.

Polten or Poulten, which was anglicised at some point to become “Polding”.  His mother’s maiden name was Brewer, a family which had remained faithful to Catholicism throughout the three dark centuries after Henry Tudor created his own national church in England in 1536.   It is believed that John Polding’s parents had died whilst he was still young (he later wrote that he had few memories of his father). There were at least two other children of this family - two girls, significantly older than John - of whom little is known.  In 1803,  at the age of 8, his education was placed in the hands of his mother’s brother, Father John Bede Brewer O.S.B., at that time President-General of the Benedictine monks in England.  Father Brewer was a person of great significance in the history of the Church in England in the early 19th century. EN 3

John Polding was first taught by a small community of Benedictine nuns at their house in the village of Much Woolton, near Liverpool, where Father Brewer was a resident missionary priest.  EN 4   Like the Benedictine monks (in circumstances discussed below)  these nuns
A terrace of stone houses
in the old village of Much Woolton,
now a suburb of Liverpool.
had fled their Convent in the district of Cambrai, France in 1794
refugees from the revolutionary Terror.   EN 5   It is ascribed to his first teacher at that Convent school,  Sister Juliana Horseman, that the young Master Polding was “lively and full of pranks”.  EN 6  In 1806, Father Brewer sent his nephew to Saint Gregory's Benedictine College, at Acton Burnell (near Shrewsbury) in Shropshire (UK) and in 1810 he was admitted to the Benedictine community there, taking the name in Religion of "Bede". 

Since we have mentioned so often already the Order of Saint Benedict, of which John Bede Polding was a member, it will be helpful to give a good description of the ethos and life of Benedictines, in which the young Polding was formed from an early age.  Saint Benedict , regarded as the founder of Monasticism in the Western Church, has a firm place in history because of his writing down a Rule or observances for the life of religious communities.  The wisdom which is evident in Saint Benedict’s Rule, caused the seventeenth century French bishop, theologian and orator Jacques-Bénigne Bossuet to describe it in these profound words : “an epitome of Christianity, a learned and mysterious abridgement of all the doctrines of the Gospel, all the institutions of the Fathers, and all the Counsels of Perfection.”  EN 7 

The essence of Benedictinism is the glorification of God through a common life : prayer, work and meals. This concept pervades the entire Benedictine Rule, which binds together the members of a religious community as a family tie.  Each takes upon himself the obligation of persevering in his monastery until death, unless sent elsewhere by his superiors.  The common life secures to the community as a whole, and to every member individually, a share in all the fruits that may arise from being one of a united family, all bound in a similar way and all pursuing the same end.  Everything used by a monk is referred to as "ours" and not "mine" even in the most mundane of items.

A modern icon of Saint Benedict
in the Byzantine style.
Saint Benedict’s Rule is notable for its discretion and moderation, its reasonableness, and its charitable insight into the capabilities, as well as the weaknesses of human nature.  It is a series of sober regulations, based upon sound common-sense, avoiding excesses and narrow-mindedness.  Yet, every craving of the soul is described, every misery of the body foreseen.  Benedictines are instructed tenderly to care for the infirm; they are to console, support and rehabilitate the discouraged and wayward, they are to extend hospitality to guests: and in all cases, the object of their care is to be treated as Christ himself would be treated. 

The centre of the Benedictine’s day is the celebration of Mass and the singing of the Divine Office (The Prayer of the Church). The praise of God through the Sacred Liturgy is seen as an apprenticeship in this life for the Life of the World to come.  In this way, the Benedictine vocation joins the office of the Angels; it is a work of joy and peace, an anticipation of our inheritance and gladness beyond the grave. Consequently, Benedictinism aims at making everything that is beautiful serve its part in the worship of God. And so, in addition to being pious and learned (especially in the Scripture, theology and the spiritual life), the Benedictine is also to have a cultivated sensibility towards art and beauty. 

For fifteen centuries the Benedictine Rule has been the guiding light of a numerous family of religious, men and women, and it is a living code at the present day, just as it was a thousand years ago. Its enduring but adaptable character is the highest testimony to its wisdom. Though modified from time to time to suit the particular necessities and condition of various ages and countries, its principles still remain the same, and have formed the fundamental basis of a great variety of other religious bodies. 

A mediaeval illustration of a schola of Benedictine
monks singing the Gregorian chant.
The Rule, instead of restricting the monk to one particular form of work, made it possible for him to do almost any kind of work, but always as an offering to God. In this lay one of the secrets of its success. Manual labour, which Saint Benedict laid down as absolutely essential for his monks, produced many of those architectural triumphs which are the glory of the Christian world, the work of Benedictine builders and architects. Likewise, the cultivation of the soil, was another form of labour to which Saint Benedict’s followers gave themselves without reserve and with conspicuous success, so that many regions have owed much of their agricultural prosperity to the skilful husbandry of the sons of Saint Benedict. The hours ordered by the Rule to be devoted daily to systematic reading and study, has given to the world many great scholars and writers, Not the least important, the precepts of the Rule regarding the reception and education of children were the germ from which sprang up a great number of famous monastic schools which flourished in the Middle Ages and continue to exist, despite the vicissitudes of the twentieth century.  
EN 8

It is difficult for us to appreciate the situation of Catholics in England at the beginning of the 19th century.  In strict terms, the public practice of the Catholic Faith was illegal. Nevertheless, after the fluctuations and excesses of religious persecution in the 16th, 17th and 18th centuries, the English Government adopted a policy of toleration towards Catholicism.  The acceptance into England of refugees from France following the Revolution of 1789 in part alleviated the situation for English Catholics.  We think now of English Religious Houses, churches, parishes, dioceses, imagining that these things always existed.  In England before the 1790s, there were no Houses of Religious monks and nuns and but a handful of Catholic churches, mainly in major cities. There were very few priests, trying to minister to the Catholic minority whilst operating, as we would say "under the radar". A steady flow of immigrants made their way from Ireland to settle in England, and some of this number found themselves on the wrong side of the law, transported as felons to the Penal Colony of New South Wales.  But there were also Catholics who had remained committed to their Catholic Faith throughout persecutions, but had to practise it covertly. 

An artist's impression of the confiscation of church property
during the Dissolution of the English Houses of Religious.
In the despoliations of Henry Tudor and his ruthless officials after 1536, Houses of Religious life throughout England were closed and their residents scattered or killed.  Some Religious were able to flee to the Continent and entered Houses there, whilst others, after many years had elapsed, established what might be termed Monasteries in Exile.  These were comprised of English men and women who wished to enter Religious Life and retain their affiliation with England itself, although living away from her. 

It is opportune to describe one of these monasteries in exile, mentioned above, Saint Gregory's Benedictine College.  Saint Gregory's was founded in the the year 1607 in the University city of Douai, Flanders, by a handful of Englishmen who wished to enter Religious life.  They had been Professed as Benedictines two years previously by the last-known surviving monk of English Benedictine monasteries before their dissolution at the hands of Henry Tudor seventy years before.  Although initially housed in provisional accommodation, astonishingly, this incipient Benedictine Community was provided in 1611 with a newly-built monastery, through the generosity of the Benedictine Abbot of Arras.  This establishment quickly became a well-regarded monastery and school for both English and French boys.  Gradually, new buildings were constructed to house the monks and schoolboys.  Wealthy English Catholics, during the 17th and 18th centuries, sent their sons to study at Saint Gregory's College and some of them entered monastic life, even though English law forbad this.  

An 18th century drawing of Saint Gregory's College and Monastery in Douai, France.

There were also other English religious Houses and Seminaries at Douai and perhaps the most notable characteristics of them all was that many of those in formation fervently desired to return to England as missioners.  Some hundreds of men who were formed in the Monasteries in Exile in France and elsewhere made their way back to England to minister to those faithful who remained true to the Catholic Faith in the face of persecution.  Quite a number of these missionaries were hunted down, imprisoned and put to death under the severely anti-Catholic English laws.  In the case of the Benedictines, a decision from Rome clarified that those who were intended to live a Community life in a monastery may be sent on missionary work at the discretion of their Superior.  That solicitude which the Rule of Saint Benedict enjoined upon monks in their support for wayward and infirm monks could be adapted to the pastoral care of the English Catholic faithful who lacked the ministry of priests.  So it was that the re-establishment of Monasticism in England had the particular charism of not being confined to Religious Houses, but also had quasi-parishes or "Missions" attached to them.

The policies spawned by the French Revolution, however - antithetical as they were to Religion - resulted in these Houses at Douai and elsewhere being forcibly closed and their property confiscated by the State.  Once again, Religious men and women were the undeserving victims of hostile government policy  The English students and some of the monks at Saint Gregory's Benedictine College were fortunate enough to be able to escape to England, but six monks were imprisoned by the French State for an entire year (October 1793 - November 1794).  The grisly end of Robespierre's Reign of Terror however, was a blessing for the imprisoned Douai Benedictines and they petitioned the French Authorities for their release.  Thereafter, the remaining members of the community secured safe passage to England.  Very few of the possessions of their monastery survived the despoliation and the monks returned to England with very little.   EN 9 The Douai Community had a friend in the person of a former student, the Catholic baronet Sir Edward Smythe, who generously offered them the use of part of his residence Acton Burnell Hall in Shropshire.  It was there in March 1795 that the Saint Gregory's Community commenced its residence of almost 20 years and where John Polding entered Religious Life.

It was into this centuries-old Benedictine milieu that the teenager John Polding (Brother Bede) was admitted.  But it was into a very small community of mostly younger men and with a monastic observance somewhat different from European Benedictinism.  It had to be adapted to the circumstances of living in a house not intended for Observance and to life in a country where the practice of Catholicism was still, officially, illegal.  We know, for example, that at this period members of the Community did not wear religious habits, but the breeches, waistcoat, jacket and white cravat worn by clergymen in this period.  EN10
Acton Burnet Hall, the residence of the Catholic Smythe family.
The Hall was reconstructed after the Benedictine Community left
there in 1814.  On the right can be glimpsed the chapel associated
with the estate.

The monks referred to each other as “Mr” not “Brother” or even “Father”.  Perhaps they were privileged, in a certain sense, but the life of the Benedictine Community was hard.  Although what is now well-known as the Gregorian chant was always sung at the Acton Hall College, the Saint Gregory's Community also had their own melodies for the singing of the psalms and for the chants of the Mass. 
EN 11  Brother Bede was formed in this different observance of monastic life.  He studied philosophy, theology, the scripture and the Rule of Saint Benedict with great diligence and was a most able student.  It has been suggested that the teacher who had the greatest impact on him was Father Peter Kendal, a priest-member of the Benedictine Community renowned for his great kindliness, zeal and sanctity, and from whom Brother Bede developed a love for missionary work.  EN 12  

In 1814, this Benedictine community of Saint Gregory left Shropshire and purchased a property with its house near the city of Bath, which later became the well-known Catholic establishment Downside Abbey.  The three storey house which housed the Community did not have anywhere near the advantages of the College at Acton Burnell.  Monks and students could not be adequately housed.  Periods of solitude were scarce and the full Horarium of the Divine Office could not be completely observed.  The Benedictine historian Dom Norbert Birt described the temporary chapel at the new Downside Monastery in the following terms:
A room 16 feet square was fitted up for the celebration of Divine worship, it was at that time wainscotted in oak up to the ceiling. The altar stood between the other two windows facing eastwards towards the village of Stratton, and on the wall above hung a picture of the Resurrection. On the altar itself were placed two plated branch candlesticks, and a pair of small silver ones. On Sundays, when the neighbouring Catholics came for "prayers" (as the directories of those days cautiously indicated the celebration of Holy Mass) and venturesome Protestants, overcoming their fears by their curiosity, stole in to see what it was all about, they were accommodated in the room itself, while the community and the boys overflowed into the passage. A priest clad in an unadorned vestment before a make-shift altar, at his heels a thurifer and two acolythes in the only three cassocks, men [monks] standing along the sides of the room in double-breasted cutaway coats and profuse neckcloths, boys in various attire on benches in the middle, and at the back the orchestra, the piano — a piano of 1814, remember —and two grave signores working away at the 'cellos. To us it is bizarre, but it has its pathos ; it was a part of the beginnings.  EN 13
It was in the temporary Chapel thus described that Father Polding offered his first Holy Mass at Downside after being ordained on 4th March, 1819. New buildings completed at Downside in 1823 included a fine new chapel in the Gothick style, as well as much-needed accommodation for the schoolboys.  After this time, the Observance at Downside became a little more Benedictine.

Father Polding was part of the Downside Benedictine community for twenty years, filling various offices in the school and priory. After his Ordination, he was given charge of the boarding school at Saint Gregory’s Priory. Although capable of sternness when the situation warranted it, Father Polding endeared himself to his students for the quality of his teaching, his kindliness and good humour.  Years later, one of the boys he taught wrote an appreciation of him : 
…Highly to be esteemed was such a teacher, for his was not merely the accurate knowledge and scholastic ability of a good professor, but the wise and generous spirit of sympathising and appreciative perception, which knew how to improve every opportunity in the lesson of educating the feelings as well as the mind. […} But it was not only in the time of class that he used to speak to boys of high and improving subjects. Of course, I do not refer to his religious intructions on the catechism, or on some special festival; I allude to unexpected moments when perhaps he found some pupil reading by himself in recreation time, and when he used to encourage so often any indication of an earnest love of knowledge and of its highest end.” On one such occasion, the writer well remembers what impressive feeling Father Polding spoke to him of Mary Queen of Scots, telling him she was a saint and a martyr. His very tone of voice at such moments bespoke the truthful heart of the speaker. He was often in tears when he preached from the altar. [….} As infirmarian … none ever surpassed Father Polding; and it was, perhaps, peculiarly an office in accord with his natural humanity and benevolence. [ … ] Among his many engaging characteristics, he was an ardent patriot, and though a thorough Lancashire man, he always indentified himself with Irish boys in their interest for their county and her wrongs, and presided himself, as well as I recollect, at the festive supper on St. Patrick’s Day, at which none but the Irish members of St. Gregory’s were present.  EN 14 
This old photograph shews the "old" chapel at Downside Monastery
and buildings constructed together with it between 1820 and 1823.
The four-storey building on the right became Saint Gregory's Monastery in 1814.
Image : Downside Abbey website.

Father Polding’s gifts were further recognised in 1823 when he was appointed as the Master of Novices at the Downside Priory.   He continued in the role until his appointment to Australia in 1834.  One of the novices from that period, William Bernard Ullathorne (who would later become a missionary in Australia) wrote of Father Polding :
Our master was a man of warm and tender heart with true religious instincts, who formed our souls to detachment and the spirit of the Rule with unction and with genuine solicitude. We were devotedly attached to him and affectionately united with each other.   EN 15

An even more profound and touching insight into the capacities of Father Polding in the formation of young scholars and monks is found in this Address, which was presented to him by four novices from Downside in 1874.  It is a long address, which not only gives us important detail about his approach to formation - both spiritually and intellectually - but the positive and long-lasting effects this had on his students. 

To the father who trained us in the rule of St Benedict, come four of his old disciples in this Memorial of their gratitude.  United once more before God's altar on this festival of St Gregory, we commemorate our 50th year in the religious habit, and celebrate our jubilee. ... Besides the vivid image of our old master that is imprinted on our minds, and the affectionate remembrance of his spirit as is it dwells in our consciousness, we could have wished that in person who might have recited over our spiritual festival, and that we might again have heard the accents of that voice, which first awakened in us the knowledge and love of the religious life. 

... Our minds are busy on this auspicious day in reviving long past memories in which your Grace is the principal figure; memories that unite the beginning with the end of our religious life; memories that speak the influence of your Grace's spirit upon ours. 

We were among those that first entered the new College of St Gregory's, when it replaced the old mansion, a College that has since given place to one yet newer and more spacious; and, whilst students there, you were our vigilant prefect and well-trusted spiritual guide. Thanks to your paternal supervision, those were happy days of our expanding youth.   And well do we recall that period of transition, beginning with the year 1824, when as postulants, though still students in the College, we were summoned early each morning to Matins and meditation. Nor can we forget the awe not unmixed with sweetness which the choral office, then new to us, inspired our opening minds. 

A photograph of the Gothic interior of the "old" chapel
at Downside Monastery, completed in 1823.
When this photograph was taken, it had begun to be used as the
Monastery Museum.

Vividly do we remember that Sunday in March, it was after Vespers, when our Prefect leaving the college with us to become our Novice-Master in the monastery, conducted us first of all to the sacristy, and there touched our hearts with his first discourse on the regular life we were entering upon. Amongst other things, he told us that the novice should be as docile and ductile in the hands of the master as wax in the plastic hands of the artist. That all depended upon these susceptive and responsive qualities of the soul, ready in its obedience to be remodelled by the mind of the master into those habits of holiness that Saint Benedict had drawn in his Rule from the Gospels.  Pride, we were taught is the one resisting element that lurks in our human nature, and that incapacitates us for receiving pure light and greater grace from God.  Pride was, therefore, the one adverse element to be extracted out of us, and that by our own untiring effort, in the course of time, and with our Master's help; ever remembering that God is the strong helper of good will.  Such was the key-note struck on the day we entered the novitiate. 

It would be long to tell of the vigorous vitality of that novitiate, and of the work it accomplished in your disciples.  Nor does it befit us to do more than a glance at that work, even though it was more yours than ours; still we hope that a few general recollections will re-awaken others more specific to your mind, that will not be ungrateful.  Led into the narrower path by an affectionate heart, yet rudely tried on right occasions, we practically learned to comprehend how silence strengthens the understanding, and how obedience invigorates the will. For a stronger will brought ours into action, until we learnt to respond to each call of duty with promptitude, and to abide in peace when duty gave no sign ...

Into the daily study of the Holy Rule you put light, after which we committed it to memory. The daily morning Chapter was the application of its keener discipline, and the school of self-knowledge and correction.  In the instructions on the art of meditating divine things, we first learnt the right use of the mental faculties and the internal senses. And, hardest hardest task of all - however beneficial - was the injunction sometimes given to write out the meditation made with all its incidents, the task easier to do, nevertheless. than to present for inspection when it was done. And that daily study of the Psalms of David, those wonderful interpretations of the human heart under all its conditions, that lit up the Divine Office of the Church to our intelligence.  And those ascetical principles imbibed under your direction from the great rudimentary masters.  And to these we may add the recollection, how happily study alternated with prayer and the Choral Office, study giving light to prayer and prayer giving life to study, so that nothing was long, or dry, or strained, or tedious, but everywhere prevailed what the Rule calls the fervor novitiorum. And the hours of relaxation were happily interchanged with manual labour, after the old Benedictine spirit, at one time in the grounds, at another in the fields, contributing as much to the practical sense as to the health of mind the body. 

We recall likewise to memory those never-to-be-forgotten conferences in the evening hours of recreation, where you were the speaker and we the listeners and questioners.  Sometimes they expanded our knowledge; sometimes they raised our sense to higher things; often they sprang out of some anecdote or some incident of the day: always they refreshed us.  Not infrequently with those conversations directed to inspire us with the missionary spirit and the love of souls and to instruct us in the self-denial and self-sacrifice that the serving of souls demands. It was in those conferences at the thirst of your own heart became known to us - that thirst to see that then collected missions of Wales [UK] and of Australia worked by self-denying men in the apostolic spirit.
Downside Monastery and part of its grounds in the 1830s.
The students and monks illustrated are shewn wearing the Downside cap and gown, 
a form of over-dress used before the re-introduction of the Benedictine habit.
Image : Downside Abbey website.

...You pictured such missioners to us as trudging from place to place like Saint Paul, and carrying in a pack on the back whatever was needful for the Sacrifice [of the Mass] and the Sacraments.  It was our privilege that the latent fire of that missionary zeal was first brought forth for our intruction, whilst now the whole Church throughout the world beholds the fruits of it.

Nor did our relations with our spiritual father come to an end with our novitiate. As the Master of our juniorate you continued our spiritual formation, conducting us at the same time through the elements of mathematical and physical science. After this course was concluded, you taught us the parts of speaking and thinking; and after an ample course of Rhetoric and Logic, introduced us to the more profound difficult science of metaphysical thought and speculation. Of that abstruse science, the one who holds the pen in this address may venture to say that, having pursued it in most directions, more or less, from that time to this, he does not think that in the course of a single year he could have received a better preparation.  Of all the mental discipline received from our Master up to our entering the school of theology, that of habitually fortifying the memory was one of the most solid. And perhaps the most valuable training he gave us, as bearing on our ecclesiastical duties, was the long continue study of Saint Paul’s Epistles, and the diligent committing them to memory. And to this we may add the similar treatment of our Blessed Lord's discourses.

Yet after all else is said, the best of our teaching was the spiritual unction that flowed in happy moments from your heart to ours. And that inculcation ... that we should cherish the divine operation within us; and again that the True Master is within the soul, and there holds the chair of His teaching. But then how accurately did the outward Master interpret to us the light of the inward Master until in some degree we learnt to comprehend that inward language ourselves ...

In reviving these memories of the long past time, we add new gratitude to the old.  And how many incidents intertwine themselves with these memories that are not written here!  ... We give our poor thanks to your Grace, God's chosen instrument for so many of our blessings.   EN 16

As part of their formation, Father Polding expected the novices to read each day a chapter of the Scripture and from other classic works on the spiritual life, such as Thomas a Kempis’ The Imitation of Christ and the Introduction to the Devout Life of S Francis de Sales. As was the norm for monks, he set them to commit to memory sections of the Gospels, most of the epistles of Saint Paul, and the Rule of Saint Benedict. Since he was formed in this Benedictine way himself, he believed that saturating the mind with these works was the first step to the contemplative life. Similarly, he instructed the novices to follow the morning meditations with a written report on their progress in prayer, including the distractions and obstacles encountered during that period, so that they would learn the way of silence and recollection.  EN 17  

Father John Augustine Birdsall OSB
President of the English Benedictine Congregation
1826 - 1837
and a mentor of John Bede Polding.
In addition to his duties at Downside, a new Superior of the English Benedictines, chose Father Polding to be his personal secretary.  This appointment took place in 1826 and continued until his selection as a bishop eight years later.  In the handling of his Superior’s routine business, Father Polding became known to some of the English bishops and members of the Catholic nobility; in short, he was introduced to that circle where important ecclesiastical decisions in England were made.  The Superior, Father John Augustine Birdsall soon recognised and admired his secretary’s abilities, his zeal, wisdom, piety and loyalty. EN 18  

From boyhood, stories of Botany Bay and of the convicts sent there fired the imagination of John Polding; we cannot know now quite why this was the case.  Even whilst still a school boy, his eagerness made his companions dub him “Archbishop of Sydney” or “the Bishop of Botany Bay.”  

After his ordination, the absorbing thought of Australia’s needs was something that returned to him again and again; nor was he oblivious to the life of sacrifice and hard labour which the call to such a mission demanded. William Bernard Ullathorne, one of his novices, later recounted a particular episode when some of the young Downside monks were riding in a carriage with Father Polding to Bath. He turned the conversation to the spiritual destitution of the convict population of the colony of New South Wales. “Nowhere in the world was there a greater field for missionary labour” Father Polding said and spoke to them of the great desire which he had felt for many years of devoting himself to the salvation of souls in New Holland. He outlined what he himself would do if he were a missionary there and then asked whether, if he went, any of those present would join him.  EN 19 

Father William Bernard Ullathorne OSB
in a portrait of later life when he 
was the Bishop of Birmingham UK.
At least one of the novices present in the carriage that day, William Ullathorne, said he would also serve as a missionary there and, not many years later (1833), preceded Father Polding to New South Wales as a missionary chaplain. We should describe here the circumstances that led to that appointment.  EN 20   In the colony of New South Wales, there were two distinct lines of authority for Catholic clergymen.  The first was the Colonial Government which appointed and paid chaplains to minister in the Colony.  They also had the full authority to dismiss chaplains, as they saw fit.  For reasons of social and political stability, the British Government preferred Catholic chaplains to the colony to be English, rather than Irish.

The second line of authority was, of course, the the Holy See.  In 1818, Rome created a Vicariate at the Cape of Good Hope (Africa) and entrusted it to the care of the English Benedictines.  The following year, Father Edward Bede Slater, a monk of the English Benedictine Monastery at Ampleforth, was appointed Vicar Apostolic with jurisdiction over Mauritius, Madagascar, the Cape, New Holland and Van Diemen's Land.  Father Slater was John Bede Polding's cousin.  This Vicar Apostolic's care of the Colony of New South Wales, however, was largely nominal throughout the decade of the 1820s.  When a new Vicar was appointed in 1832 -  another English Benedictine,  Father William Placid Morris - he understood more fully the growing spiritual needs of Catholics in the Colony of New South Wales.  Father Morris was a confrere of Father Polding at Downside, the two having entered Religious life at the same time.  Because of the vastness of his new responsibility, Bishop Morris decided to appoint a Vicar General who, although responsible to him, would be resident in Sydney with ecclesiastical jurisdiction over the Colony of New South Wales.  For the role of Vicar General, Bishop Morris chose a fellow Benedictine, the young priest, William Bernard Ullathorne.   EN 21

As we have seen, Father Ullathorne was one of the Downside novices whom Father Polding encouraged to undertake missionary work.  There can be little doubt, furthermore, that the well-known zeal of Father Polding for the spiritual needs of Catholics in Australia, influenced the mind of new bishop William Morris OSB to make provision for Australia.  Arriving in Sydney in 1833, Father Ullathorne had only been resident for a year before recognising that the needs of colonial Catholics could only be adequately provided for if a bishop were resident in Australia. The British Government continued with their particular view that any such Catholic bishop for Australia was to be an Englishman. At this time, the Colony of New South Wales was still a penal colony and its governance was directly controlled by the British Government through its Colonial Office and a Governor resident in Sydney. 

Discussions between the English Benedictine President, the Vicar Apostolic of London, the Holy See and the British Government led to the selection of John Bede Polding as the first bishop for Australia. There were no other candidates for the position; Father Polding was deemed thoroughly suitable by all parties. 
 EN 22  

A document signed by Pope Gregory XVI established the Australian mainland, together with Van Diemen’s Land and the adjoining islands as an ecclesiastical territory and appointed Father John Bede Polding as its Vicar Apostolic.   EN 23 On 29th June 1834, Bishop Bramston, the Vicar-Apostolic of London, consecrated Father Polding as a bishop in the private chapel of his residence in London, and in this way, Australia received its first Christian bishop.  

To be continued



Although a large number of scholarly articles and specialised studies have continued to be written about the life of Archbishop John Bede Polding, it has been 40 years since the last biography of him was published by Angus and Robertson, titled The Bishop of Botany Bay.  A new printed publication is planned, but in the meantime, In diebus illis  will publish a series of articles focussing on aspects of the Archbishop's work and writings.  This is the first post in this series titled Father in Faith.  So much has been written about the Archbishop and so many primary and secondary sources have become more accessible to scholars, that the task of researching his life has been made less burdensome.  I acknowledge the research of so many whose publications I am consulting in the process of assembling these biographical notes.  Their work is carefully noted in end-notes and in a bibliography.  For particular assistance in the preparation of this article, my thanks to Dr Graeme Pender and Dr David Birch, both of Melbourne.

Michael Sternbeck
Feast of S' Benedict 2021
Ut in omnibus Deus glorificetur.


This article is under the copyright of the author and may not be reproduced in any form without permission.



EN 1 Part of an editorial in The Argus 17th March 1877.

EN 2 There is some dispute over the date of his birth. He was baptised as “John” in St. Mary’s Catholic church, Highfield Street, Liverpool on 23rd November 1794. As noted in Frances O’Donoghue, The Bishop of Botany Bay, Sydney, 1982, p.2.

EN 3 It is thought that John Polding the Elder died in or after 1805 and his wife Elizabeth perhaps as late as 1817. John Brewer, born into a respected and devout family of Catholic recusants, entered Religious life in 1758 at Saint Laurence’s Benedictine Priory, Dieulouard in the Lorraine and took the Religious name of “Bede”. When he completed his novitiate, he was sent to St Edmund’s Monastery in Paris. Subsequently, he was awarded a doctorate from Sorbonne. He was distinguished both for his learning and his pastoral zeal. In the later 1770s, he returned to England and took up residence in the old village of Much Woolton, outside Liverpool, where he ministered to the needs of local Catholics for most of the rest of his life. In 1799, he was elected as President of the English Benedictine Congregation, whilst continuing his parish work. He died in 1822 at the age of 80.

EN 4 At this time in England, there were no Catholic “parishes” as we would recognise such ecclesiastical entities. The few priests lived and ministered to Catholics privately. They were known as missionaries or missioners in age when the practice of Catholicism was - officially – illegal.

EN 5 Father Brewer OSB assisted these nuns, who arrived in England in impoverished circumstances. He found a residence for them in the village where he lived and they opened a small school there. In later years, when they had re-established themselves, these nuns formed a new convent at Stanbrook, in Worcestershire. As a bishop in Australia, John Bede Polding called on these Stanbrook Benedictine nuns to make a foundation in Sydney, and this foundation continues to this day at the Jamberoo Abbey in the Diocese of Wollongong.

EN 6 Cited in Henry Norbert Birt OSB Benedictine Pioneers in Australia, London, 1911 vol. I. p. 234.

EN 7 Cited in an essay by George Cyprian Alston OSB on Saint Benedict of Nursia in The Catholic Encyclopaedia, New York, 1907, volume 2, p. 439.

EN 8 The preceding paragraphs were freely adapted from Dom Cyprian Alston’s essay op.cit., in The Catholic Encyclopaedia, volume 2, p. 436 – 441, in addition to a number of other commentators on the Rule of Saint Benedict.

EN 9 The birth of John Polding in Liverpool in November 1794 coincided with the release of these Benedictine monks from prison.

EN 10 The Benedictine habit was not worn at Downside until 1848, although a form of College gown was adopted from the early 1820s; c.f. “Some Account of the History of the Monastery and College of Saint Gregory the Great” The Downside Review  July 1881, p. 193.

EN 11 An article in The Downside Review (vol. I, 1880-82, pp.458-460) “An Old Gregorian”, is an interesting set of reminiscences on the music of Saint Gregory’s covering some of the period at Douay up until the 1840s.

EN 12 Francis Aidan Gasquet OSB “Memoirs of Distinguished Gregorians : Most Reverend John Bede Polding DD OSB”, The Downside Review , vol. I, 1880-82, pp. 91-93.

EN 13 Cited in Henry Norbert Birt OSB Downside, the History of St Gregory’s School from its Commencement at Douay to the Present Time, London, 1902 pp. 178-79. Another series of reminiscences cites the cellists as being monks.

EN 14 Quoted in Gasquet, op.cit., “Memoirs of Distinguished Gregorians”, The Downside Review , vol. I, 1880-82, pp. 95-97.

EN 15 William Bernard Ullathorne, From Cabin Boy to Archbishop, London, 1943 p. 31-34.

EN 16 Cited in  Birt, op.cit. Benedictine Pioneers in Australia,  pp. 384-388. The monks who signed this 1874 Memorial were William Bernard Ullathorne OSB (at that time Bishop of Birmingham UK); Richard Francis Davis OSB, James Nicholas Kendal OSB, John Austin Dowding OSB. It is almost certain that it was W B Ullathorne who drafted the address, since so many words and phrases which appear in his Autobiography are found also in the Memorial.

EN 17 O’Donoghue op.cit., The Bishop of Botany Bay, passim, p.4-5.

EN 18 O’Donoghue op.cit., The Bishop of Botany Bay, passim, p.7-8.

EN 19 Autobiography of Archbishop Ullathorne (3rd edition) London, 1891, p. 53

EN 20 The beginnings of Catholicism in Australia is not something to be traced in this article and will be described in full in other articles on this weblog.

EN 21 William Bernard Ullathorne, having completed his formation at Downside, was ordained in the year 1831 and lost no time in volunteering for missionary work in 1832.  The remarkable story of Father Ullathorne's work for the Church in Australia will be told in another post on this blog.

EN 22 From 1827, an unpleasant dispute over property and the canonical legitimacy of the Downside Community arose between the monks and the local bishop. As the secretary to Father Birdsall (the President of the English Benedictine Congregation), Father Polding was deeply involved in defending the rights of the monks. He was part of overtures to curial officials in Rome to support Downside and accordingly, his name became known at the Vatican. One of these officials was the Benedictine Cardinal Cappelari, who in 1831 was elected as Pope Gregory XVI. The new Pope admired the prudence and piety of Father Polding and readily supported his appointment as a bishop. C.f. O’Donoghue, The Bishop of Botany Bay, op.cit., passim, p.8-10.

EN 23 As was the custom with the establishment of the church in missionary lands, the Holy See did not appoint Australia’s first bishop to a city, but to a territory (in fact, a continent). Such ecclesiastical territories were created as Vicariates Apostolic. Father Polding was appointed Vicar Apostolic of New Holland &c and in addition, given the title of a moribund diocese, namely Hiero-Caesarea. The city of Hierocaesarea was located in the Roman Province of Lydia (near present-day Sazoba in Turkey) and dates from the Hellenic period. In the Christian era, for several hundred years it was the seat of a Bishop. With the depopulation of the city, however, the episcopal seat was left vacant. In later centuries, it was used by the Holy See as a title for bishops who did not have ordinary residential dioceses. The last bishop given the titular diocese of Hierocaesarea was the Brazilian Ernesto de Paula, who died in 1994. Lastly, there never was a Bishop of Botany Bay, this was always intended as a jest and had no relationship to formal ecclesiastical structures.



ALSTON, George Cyprian OSB "Saint Benedict" in The Catholic Encyclopaedia, New York, 1907, volume 2, p. 439.

BIRT, Henry Norbert OSB Benedictine Pioneers in Australia, London, 1911.

BIRT, Henry Norbert OSB Downside, the History of St Gregory’s School from its Commencement at Douay to the Present Time, London, 1902.

GASQUET, Francis Aidan OSB “Memoirs of Distinguished Gregorians : Most Reverend John Bede Polding DD OSB”, The Downside Review , vol. I, 1880-82.

McGOVERN, John, "John Bede Polding" in numbers of The Australasian Catholic Record, vols. 11-15, 1934-38.

O'DONOGHUE, Frances RSM The Bishop of Botany Bay, the Life of Australia's First Catholic Archbishop, Sydney, 1982

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