Celebrating two hundred years

Writing these words from the Bishop’s House in Barrack Street, Hobart, I am able to overlook the property on which St Mary’s Cathedral stands. This hillside property bordered by Brisbane Street and Patrick Street and extending from Harrington Street further up the hill above Barrack Street was given to Fr Philip Conolly, the pioneer Catholic priest of Tasmania.

He arrived in Tasmania from Sydney aboard the Prince Leopold on April 14, 1821. Along with Fr John Joseph Therry he was the first official Catholic chaplain approved by the British Government for service to the Catholic community in the Penal Colony of New South Wales. Having spent nearly a year in Sydney he, though the senior priest and Vicar General, decided to take responsibility for the Catholics in Van Diemen’s Land.

Though there was a small group of Catholics who were free citizens, including some soldiers, the bulk of his ministry was among the convicts transported from England. One of his early duties, a week after his arrival, on April 28, was to prepare four convicts to face death by hanging. This remained a necessary task in his priestly ministry.

Four times each year for the next fourteen years he would take the long and arduous overland trip to Launceston to provide Mass for the Catholics there, often going further on to Fort Dalrymple, George Town, at the head of the Tamar River. He said his first Mass there for a small number of soldiers on June 1, 1821, after having attended to four convicts who were executed the previous day.

In July 1821 he appealed for donations so that he could build a church on the Harrington Street property which had been granted to the Church by Lieutenant-Governor Sorell. The first church in Tasmania was a very modest building made of rough wood which he obtained from the government and built on a simple stone foundation. He named it in honour of the medieval astronomer, St Virgil. It stood a little higher up the hill from the location of the present cathedral where St Virgil’s Primary School is currently situated.

Bishop Poynter in London sent out a set of vestments, chalices and books for his use at Mass. Later he obtained a set of six large candlesticks and an altar cross. He continued to use this chapel for the duration of his ministry, though he did attempt to construct a larger church further up the hill. However, this never eventuated.

He built a house next to the church which he named “Killard” and in which he would live for the duration of his time in Hobart. Fr Conolly died in 1839 and was buried in the Catholic cemetery above Barrack Street, where Guilford Young College is today.

The beginnings of the Catholic Church in Tasmania were humble indeed. Fr Conolly’s ministry was difficult and he felt that he had made little spiritual progress with the people. He carried out his ministry as the only resident priest in Tasmania for eighteen years. His faithful service laid foundations upon which others would build.

Today when we survey the works of the Catholic Church in Tasmania we can rejoice in what has been achieved over the past two hundred years. Hundreds of priests have continued the pastoral work begun by Fr Conolly, particularly in local parish communities. They have been joined by hundreds of consecrated religious who have made their own remarkable contribution to Catholic life and mission particularly in education, care of the sick and social welfare. The work of the Church continues to be enriched by the dedicated service of so many lay Catholics in our parishes and agencies.  

From the humble wooden church on Harrington Street we are now blessed with many beautiful churches which serve the spiritual needs of our twenty-seven parish communities. We have an impressive number of Catholic schools and colleges. Through CatholicCare we provide a vast array of social services. We are the leading non-government provider of social and affordable housing in the State. We have many organisations, like Southern Cross Care and St Vincent de Paul Society, which serve the needs of the broader community, as well as our own Catholic communities. Tasmanian Catholics have made and continue to make a significant contribution to the life and wellbeing of our island state.

For all of this we give thanks to God. As we celebrate this very significant anniversary it is important to recognise the sacrifice and pastoral service of our founding priest, Fr Philip Conolly, who Fr Terry Southerwood described in his biography of this pioneer priest as the “Lonely Shepherd in Van Diemen’s Isle”.

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