During the Australian Catholic Bishops' Conference in May, a special Mass was concelebrated by the bishops in Sydney's St Mary's Cathedral on Sunday 11 May, to commemorate the bicentenary of the first official Mass to be celebrated on Australian soil in 1803. The following is an edited version of Archbishop George Pell's address.
This bicentenary Eucharist to commemorate the first officially permitted Mass in the young colony of New South Wales, celebrated by Father James Dixon on 15 May 1803, is a Catholic celebration of Christian faith, hope and love. We have many reasons to rejoice, to be grateful.
Australian society has been good to the Catholic community and in turn the Catholics over more than 200 years have served well on the highways and many neglected byways of Australian life. This tradition of public service has expanded and flourished with the years.
Despite official requests, no Catholic chaplain was allowed to accompany the First Fleet. There was an Anglican chaplain, the Rev Richard Johnson, a dedicated Evangelical who struggled alone against drunkenness and licentiousness.
A priest from the visiting Spanish expedition of 1793 was astonished that there was not a single church in the colony (an Anglican church was built later that year), adding that the Spanish colonisers always built a house for God before any human habitation and certainly before a gaol.
Father James Dixon was one of the three convict priests transported from Ireland among the 560 Irishmen so punished after the 1798 Rebellion of the United Irishmen - a joint Protestant and Catholic uprising led by the Ulsterman Wolfe Tone and inspired by the French Revolution principles of liberty, equality and fraternity.
Father Dixon was described as a "kind and inoffensive man, rather wanting in energy and decision". A priest of Ferns Diocese, he was not the stuff of rebels, and was friendly with the local Protestant gentry and clergy.
Protestant and Catholic friends attest that Dixon played no part in the insurrection. He was unlucky enough to belong to a family who were heavily involved, such as his cousin Father Thomas Dixon, who had been suspended by his bishop in 1794 for "drinking, dancing and disorderly conduct". Captain Nicholas Dixon, a rebel leader was his brother and another brother or cousin, Captain Thomas Dixon, was accused of a leading role in a massacre of loyalist prisoners on Wexford Bridge. This was the background to his condemnation. He arrived in Australia on 17 February 1800.
The population then was about 5,000 and a couple of thousand larger in 1803. About one-third were Catholics. Philip Gidley King was the Governor. He was a decent man of genuine faith, sometimes bad-tempered and bibulous, capable of cruelty when his high hopes were disappointed. He believed "no description of people are so bigoted to their religion and priests as the Irish".
Local Catholics had petitioned for a priest in 1792 and 1796 and the Governor believed that a steady priest like Dixon would improve convict behaviour and prevent another local rising like that of 1800.
Permission to celebrate the Mass was proclaimed at Government House, Parramatta, on 20 April 1803, and Father Dixon was to receive five shillings a day as well as conditional emancipation.
The site of the first Mass is still disputed; open space, public institution or private home. However, local tradition now favours James Dempsey's Kent Street home.
James Dempsey and Father Dixon had been friends in Ireland and the crucifix and candles on the altar today were those used at that first official Mass, passed down through five generations of the Dempsey family and now on a long-term loan with the Cathedral.
James Dempsey was the architect and head stonemason on the original St Mary's Cathedral which burned down in 1865 and was a generous donor to the Cathedral.
Dempsey family tradition asserts that Father Dixon was forbidden to preach at his Masses and that much of his ministry was underground.
Governor King had hoped that the practice of their religion would do the Catholics "much good or, at least, no harm". He was to be disappointed.
In January 1804 Dixon had been appointed "Prefect Apostolic of all Missions within the territory of New Holland" by the Holy See but, on 4 March 1804, 333 rebels at Castle Hill, under the Irishman William Johnston, began a wild bid for liberty by marching on Parramatta and Sydney. On the next day, Monday, at Vinegar Hill, a detachment of 25 soldiers killed nine of the rebels and put the rest to flight. It was all over.
Only the leaders were tried. Some were hanged, others flogged, some reprieved. Although Father Dixon had ridden out with the New South Wales Corps and unsuccessfully tried to persuade the rebels to surrender, permission to say Mass was withdrawn and he eventually lost his salary. He had failed to prevent seditious talk among his Mass-goers.
We know little of his activity after this until he received his pardon on George III's birthday in 1809. He returned to Ireland that year, becoming parish priest of Crossabeg in 1819 after working as an assistant at New Ross in South Wexford. He died in 1840.
Today, in remembering Father Dixon, we pay particular tribute to all those priests who have served God and their people during 200 years in Australia. Times have changed for the better since 1803. Some things have not changed. The people then wanted the Mass, and the Eucharist remains the centre of Catholic life now, as it was here 200 years ago and as it was everywhere in the Catholic world for nearly 1800 years before that.