Pioneer Priest a Man of the People

Catholic Communications, Sydney Archdiocese,
21 Nov 2014

John Therry 1790-1864

Australia's first official Catholic Chaplain, Irish-born priest Fr John Therry may not have excelled in diplomacy or financial matters but he was certainly a man of the people who came to the fledgling colony for four years - and stayed 44 years.

A Mass at St Mary's Cathedral celebrating the 150th Anniversary of the pioneering priest brought people from parishes  far and wide, school students and even the former Governor of NSW, Prof  Dame Marie Bashir.

Fr Therry arrived in the colony in 1820 and immediately began helping the poor and oppressed and establishing schools where he could.

Never one to step back from a clash with authority when he thought treatment was unjust he often got himself into trouble and five years after his arrival the Government removed him as official Catholic Chaplain. That meant cutting off his meagre salary but he was supported by those who Pastoral care and concern.

Bishop Terry Brady said at the Mass Fr Therry "must have worn out a few horses with all the travelling he did to visit the growing number of Catholics in the colony"

Bishop Terry Brady and Bishop Peter A. Comensoli pray at the tomb of Fr John Therry following the Mass

"He was a real pioneering priest, a true man of the people," he said.

St Mary's Cathedral was certainly the appropriate place to celebrate the 150th anniversary. Soon after his arrival in Sydney Fr Therry began planning to build the first Catholic Church in the colony and was responsible for Governor Macquarie, a staunch Anglican, agreeing to lay the foundation stone of St Mary's Cathedral which would later be consecrated as St Mary's Cathedral. At the time the land allocated to Fr Therry was very much "on the wrong side of town" being close to a rubbish dump and brick pit. Today the Cathedral is a major attraction for all in the heart of the city.

For the final years of his life Fr Therry was the parish priest at St Augustine's Catholic Church at Balmain.

Bishop Peter, the former Governor of NSW, Prof Dame Marie Bashir and Bishop Terry at the 150th Anniversary celebration

The current parish priest, Fr Joe Camilleri, who was also concelebrating at the Mass said; "We want to commemorate his life and the 44 years he spent in Australia building churched, schools and fighting for the rights of Catholics and the oppressed and marginalised."

A number  of students, parents and teacher from the Fr John Therry Catholic Primary School at Balmain were also at the Mass. They were joined by students from St Ignatius College Riverview and St Aloysius' College Milsons Point.

Following the Mass everyone was invited to visit the tomb of Fr Therry in the Crypt of St Mary's Cathedral and see a special exhibition commemorating Fr Therry's life and his contribution to the Catholic Church in Australia.

A number of items of historical significance on display for the first time include the sacramental register used by the Irish priest from 1819 to 1838 which has been carefully restored by Jo Robertson and her team of staff and volunteers at the Sydney Archdiocese Archives.

Fr John Knight and Patsy Healy enjoyed the Commemorative Exhibition

Correspondence to and from Fr Therry has also been tracked down and restored and is now on display.

Also on display is a nine-page letter from Governor Macquarie which carefully sets out the parameters under which the colony's first Official Catholic Chaplain could operate - what he could and could not do including on no account to celebrate marriages between Protestants of where one of the party is Protestant, or where one or both of them is of any other religious persuasion than that of Roman Catholic.

The early days of Sydney were challenging at the least but as Fr Gerry Gleeson said in his homily at the Mass, Fr Therry provided unity and stability in what was a very divided and tumultuous convict settlement.