William Bernard Ullathorne: A Different Kind of Monk, by Judith Champ

William Bernard Ullathorne: A Different Kind of Monk, by Judith Champ

Michael Gilchrist

A new biography of one of Australian Catholicism's unsung heroes

A Different Kind of Monk
by Judith Champ

(Gracewing/Freedom Publishing, 2006, 538pp, hardback, $60.00. Available from AD Books)

Few Australian Catholics will have heard of the Yorkshire-born William Bernard Ullathorne, who was a pivotal figure in the history of the Church in this country, and one deserving to be listed alongside such giants as Archbishop Mannix and Cardinal Moran.

The launch in August of a new biography of this unsung hero is particularly welcome as it fills an important gap in our Church's history, even if only a relatively small part of William Ullathorne's long and distinguished career was spent in Australia.

Judith Champ's biography is the first to be written on Ullathorne since 1926 and will surely remain the definitive one, given the depth of the research and insightful analysis of her subject's complex, engrossing character.

This very readable book provides an in-depth view of the Church's 19th century history in both England and Australia, including Ullathorne's key role in setting the Catholic Church in Australia on solid foundations.

Unlikely start

William Ullathorne had an unlikely start. Born in 1806, he was a clumsy, bookish and solitary boy who devoured literature on travel and adventure - Robinson Crusoe being a particular favourite. After working briefly in his father's business William was determined to seek adventure on the high seas and at the tender age of 13 joined a ship's crew, with voyages around the Mediterranean and Baltic Seas.

During his second Baltic voyage, he had what proved to be a life-changing religious experience, as recorded in his autobiography. While the ship was docked in Memel, the mate, Mr Craythorne, said, "William, let us go to Mass."

The Mass at Memel was his first serious religious experience and it drew him enthusiastically into religious reading and ultimately to the Benedictine monastery at Downside. Champ writes, "William arrived at Downside, near Bath, aged almost seventeen, but having seen, heard and experienced more than most men twice his age".

His spirit of adventure later took him half a world away to Australia as the first Vicar General, at the age of just 26. Over the following eight years, he brought order and structure to the struggling, divided and largely Irish Church, later successfully lobbying Rome to appoint his former spiritual director at Downside, John Bede Polding, as Australia's first bishop and later archbishop.

Unlike Polding, who was a far less able and perceptive administrator than himself, Ullathorne soon grasped the fact that Catholicism's future in Australia was not to be a branch of England's, but would have to reflect its predominantly Irish membership. English Benedictinism was a totally unsuitable template for Australian Catholicism, however hard Polding strove to give it effect.

Among Ullathorne's achievements in Australia was his early advocacy of women's religious life as an antidote to the poisonous impact of the convict culture on women. "By 1837," Champ writes, "active uncloistered religious sisters were beginning to emerge onto the Irish and (to a lesser extent) English scene. In Dublin, Ullathorne met two of the leading women in this new phenomenon, Catherine McAuley, foundress of the Sisters of Mercy, and Mary Aikenhead, foundress of the Sisters of Charity".

He was particularly impressed with the latter and "the five Sisters of Charity from Dublin who returned with Ullathorne to Australia were the first women religious to set foot there".

During his later more extended career as a Church leader in England, Ullathorne continued to play a key role in promoting and supporting women religious. "None", says Champ, "became such an advocate of the ministry of nuns in the local Church and its surrounding society, nor did they take such a personal interest in them as communities and individuals. Ullathorne did not take a utilitarian view of women religious, nor did he expect to receive absolute obedience to his will, as was commonplace".


In 1837, Ullathorne had published two pamphlets in Australia on transportation and on the basis of these he was called to England to give evidence at the Molesworth Committee's hearings which took place between 1837 and 1838. Its recomm- endations ultimately led to the ending of transportation to New South Wales.

Ullathorne's social concerns in Australia continued in England over the following years with his advocacy of penal reform. He was convinced, says Champ, "that any worthwhile penal system must be geared towards the possibility of penitence and reform in the individual". He particularly abhorred flogging and the practice of public executions - which were eventually stopped in 1868.

He was also a vigorous campaigner against the evils of excessive drink in both Australia and England.

In 1850, Ullathorne was pivotal in the restoration of the Catholic hierarchy which had last existed in England in the mid-16th century under Mary Tudor. Earlier, given his impressive qualifications and experience, he was a logical choice to lead an Australian diocese, but he continued to resist successive attempts to have him appointed to Adelaide, Hobart and Perth.

Eventually he reluctantly accepted an episcopal appointment to the Western District in England in 1846 and was later moved to Birmingham, where he became its first bishop and later archbishop until poor health forced his retirement decades later in 1887.

During these long years, despite his recurring health problems, Ullathorne was a key player in a succession of important developments crucial to the future of the Church in England. During the 1860s, when the state - as in the Australian Colonies - sought to set up unified secular education systems, Ullathorne was in the forefront of upholding the independence of Catholic schools.

His long association and friendship with his more famous contemporary, John Henry Newman, occupies a substantial and enlightening part of this book. Their "hot and cold" relationship over many decades is a story within a story.

First Vatican Council

The account of Archbishop Ullathorne's active role during the First Vatican Council (1869-1870) provides a fascinating and revealing bird's eye view of the course of that Council, along with the turbulent political events that led to the unification of Italy and the ending of the papal States.

Ullathorne's position on the formulating of a definition of papal infallibility was a moderate one - neither Ultramontane nor Gallican. As Champ puts it, "Ullathorne's view of the papacy and its role in the Church was shaped by the richness and variety of his experience - certainly broader than any other English bishop of his generation. He was devoted to the person and office of the Pope, but his devotion was tempered by his preoccupation with the proper role of the diocesan bishop in the Church. He could never be accused of any lack of loyalty or personal devotion to Pius IX, in return for which he was appointed an Assistant at the Papal Throne in 1859".

Ullathorne, says Champ, "had no doubt about the reality of papal infallibility in the Church, but saw a problem in defining certain occasions as infallible pronouncements". He believed that "reception by the Church can give the weight of infallibility to certain teachings", as was the case earlier with Pius IX's 1854 definition of Mary's Immaculate Conception.

Overall, William Ullathorne emerges as an interesting, gifted and likeable character whose early formative experiences broadened his mind and gave him a rounded view of human nature that was less commonamong his episcopal peers.

Judith Champ concludes: "It is obvious that Ullathorne has been overshadowed by his contemporaries, in the recounting and interpreting of the history of nineteenth- century Catholicism. This does not do him justice. He was at the heart of English Catholic life for over half a century and was a foundational figure in Australian Catholic history. Why has he been neglected?"

By way of explanation, she notes that Ullathorne "has been treated by historians (apart from Butler) through the prism of other men's lives, mainly Newman, Wiseman and Manning, all of whom have received far more biographical and historical attention. He has stood, historically, in their shadow and, while acknowledged as significant, has never received due attention".

This long-overdue attention has arrived via this timely biography which will go a long way towards remedying a serious historical oversight. It deserves a wide readership.

Be the first to comment

Please check your e-mail for a link to activate your account.