Confounding Father: Bishop Bill Wright on JJ Therry

Rebel with a cause

This year marks 150 years since the death of JJ Therry, who was "virtually the first" Catholic chaplain to the colony of New South Wales. Fr Therry confounded his colleagues but won the hearts of the common people, writes Bishop Bill Wright.

When he arrived in 1820, he was no "Archpriest"; he was simply the Rev Mr Therry, even the title 'Father' for priests in general not yet having come into use.

And he was virtually the first" because he was one of two. The Rev Mr Connolly, however, soon departed for Van Dieman's Land, the first of a series of clergymen who couldn't work in close proximity to Fr Therry.

The people of my Diocese in the Hunter region especially ought to honour JJ Therry as the founder of the Church in these parts.

We know of early instance of his presence. He had heard that some convicts were to be executed at Maitland and, being refused passage on the government steamer, he set out on horseback.

Riding continually through a day and a night, he arrived in Mailand at 5am, said Mass, and took Communion to the prisoners whose hanging he then attended.

The church at East Maitland is where it is today because that is where Therry would camp, near the gallows on Stockade Hill.

Therry also attended convicts and others at Newcastle. There is an 1827 newspaper account of his basing himself there for a couple of weeks, during which time he also ventured up the valley.

By this time Fr Therry had lost his official position and salary as chaplain, for persistent breaking of the rules.

Still people sent for him and he turned up, or he went searching for his scattered flock. A decade or so later, he gave his new boss, Vicar-General Ullathorne, a tour of the Hunter.

Ullathorne later described how they would arrive in a settlement and then spend the day riding around the countryside persuading property owners to allow their convicts or workers to come in to Mass and instriction the next day.

The Vicar-General himself was a remarkable man, as evidenced by the fact the he was a boss even Fr Therry more or less respected. 

It was just impossible for Fr Therry to be in just one place. The people wanted him everywhere. For years he had been the only priest.

The poor, the felons and the Aboriginal people knew and loved him. He was their priest, the one who would be dragged across rivers to attend the dying, who would dash up to the gallows at the last moment waving the pardon he had secured from the governor, who would, against all orders, attend the sick in the hospital, marry people without government permission, baptise Aboriginal people, write letters to wives in Ireland, lend money...

Read full article: Founding Father (Aurora)

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