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Cathedral Celebrates 150th Anniversary of Pioneering Priest Fr John Therry

Catholic Communications, Sydney Archdiocese,
19 Nov 2014

The 1819 portrait of Father John Therry is among priceless items from the Cathedral Archives that will be put on display in the Crypt for the first time.

Among the treasures to go on display in the Crypt at St Mary's Cathedral this week to mark the 150th anniversary of pioneering Catholic priest, Irish-born Father John Therry is a nine-page letter dated August 1820, handwritten by Governor Lachlan Macquarie outlining exactly what would and would not be permitted in the "performance of your Clerical Duties in New South Wales and Van Dieman's Land."

The letter together with other historically important correspondence written to Fr Therry some of which includes details of the young cleric's plan for St Mary's Church on land he had assigned near Hyde Park and the Convict barracks form part of the fascinating exhibition in the Crypt to be officially opened by Bishop Terry Brady at 6.30 pm on Thursday, 20 November.

The first official Catholic chaplain to be sent to Australia by Britain's Colonial Office, Fr Therry set about building the first Catholic church in Sydney and was responsible for Governor Macquarie, a staunch Anglican, agreeing to lay the foundation stone of St Mary's Church which would later be reconsecrated as St Mary's Cathedral. The land allocated to Fr Therry for the Cathedral was at the time on the eastern limits of the settlement overlooking a brick pit and rubbish dump. However as the city grew it has become a dominant structure in the heart of the city.

Bishop Terry Brady will preside at the Mass to Celebrate the 150th Anniversary of Father John Therry

On Thursday at 5.30 pm, prior to the opening of the Exhibition commemorating Fr Therry and the earliest years of the Catholic Church in Australia, a Mass commemorating the 150th Anniversary of Fr John Therry will be celebrated at St Mary's Cathedral by Bishop Brady.

Among those who will attend the Mass on Thursday evening is Professor Dame Marie Bashir, the much loved former Governor of NSW who retired in September after 13 years in the role.

Professor Bashir will also attend the opening of the Exhibition in the Crypt commemorating Fr Therry's life and his contribution to the founding of the Catholic Church in Australia.

Former Governor of NSW Dame Professor Marie Bashir is among those who will attend Fr John Therry's 150th Anniversary Mass at the Cathedral.

Although a collar and stock worn by Fr Therry during his 44 years of service to the Church in Australia is on permanent display in the Crypt, it will be the first time the modern generation has had a chance to see the sacramental register used by the Irish priest from 1819 until 1838 which has been meticulously restored by Jo Robertson and her talented team of staff and volunteers at the  Sydney Archdiocesan Archives.

Correspondence written to or from Fr Therry has also been painstakingly tracked down by Jo and researchers at the Sydney Archdiocesan Archives. Most of the documents, papers and letters uncovered have never been seen by the public before.

"During the era in which Fr Therry lived almost no one made duplicates. You seldom find duplicates and the fact we found these as well as original letters from Governor Macquarie and a letter to Fr Therry from the Colony's first Anglican bishop, the Rev W.G. Broughton is remarkable. We also found letters written by Fr Therry. That these have survived and can still be read is absolutely thrilling," Jo says.

Governor Lachlan Macquarie set out detailed conditions under which Father Therry would be permitted to perform his clerical duties

Unlike papers and documents in later decades, there was no official storage of Catholic correspondence in the initial years of Fr Therry's ministry in Sydney and it is thought that the letters that survived must have been carefully preserved, and handed down from family to family, before being gifted to the Archdiocese of Sydney's Archives.

Featured in the Exhibition is a handwritten invitation to Fr Therry for dinner with Governor Macquarie at 5 pm on Monday 13 January, 1821. Another was written to Fr Therry by H. C. Antill dated October 26 1821 and enclosing a cheque from Governor Macquarie for £15 as a donation towards the fund "for erecting a Roman Catholic Chapel."

Also on display is a letter from Fr Therry to Governor Macquarie shortly after the priest's arrival at Botany Bay, requesting "an unoccupied room in one of the Government stores be set aside for the purpose of celebrating divine service in Parramatta until some other arrangements can be made."

But of all the documents on display in the Crypt it is the nine-page letter from Governor Macquarie which carefully delineates the parameters within which the Colony's first official Catholic chaplains would be expected to perform their sacred duties.

Fr John Therry was parish priest at St Augustine's Balmain from 1856 until his death in 1864

Dated 14 August 1820, Governor Macquarie asks that Australia's first official Catholic priests " have due regard be given to the Laws of the Mother-Country." He pointed out that the Laws of England marriages could only be legally celebrated by the Clergy of the Church of England, he then goes on to say that as Provisions of the Marriage Act do not extend to the Colonies of Great Britain "you are at liberty to celebrate marriages between parties where both of them are Roman Catholics."

This was then followed by a series of provisos including a warning that Catholic priests were "on no account be permitted to celebrate marriages between Protestants or 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 penalty attached to a Roman Catholic Priest for celebrating the Marriage Ceremony between parties other than those immediately belonging to, and Members of the Church of Rome, must be too well known to you to require me to say more on the subject," Governor Macquarie's letter states.

Fr John Therry built St Mary's Church which was later reconsecrated in 1835 and became St Mary's Cathedral

Included in the letter is circumstances in which Catholic priests can baptise the babies of Roman Catholic parents, preside over the remains of members of the Church of Rome and a stricture that Mass only be celebrated in public on the Sabbath, before the Governor gives his assurance that  "you will ever find me ready to advocate and support the religious liberty of your flock, and to maintain your own just rights and privileges."

"Fr Therry deserves to be honoured," Fr Joe Camillieri parish priest of St Augustine's Balmain says, citing  the 44 years the Irish-born priest spent in Australia building churches, founding schools and fighting for the rights of Catholics, the oppressed and the marginalised.

Fr Therry who was appointed parish priest at St Augustine's in the final years of his life, serving the parish from 1856 until his death in 1864, not only lobbied for the land and raised funds to build Sydney's first Catholic Church but celebrated the first Mass at St Mary's Church in 1833.

Portrait of Fr John Therry by leading Sydney artist Paul Newton

The following year he welcomed the arrival of John Bede Polding, Australia's first Catholic bishop when St Mary's Church became St Mary's Cathedral.

Father John Therry's 150th Anniversary Mass at St Mary's Cathedral will begin at 5.30 pm on Thursday, 20 November.

The Exhibition in the Crypt celebrating the 150th Anniversary of Sydney's first official Catholic priest will be opened by Bishop Terry Brady at 6.30 pm. This unique exhibition charting the earliest days of the Catholic Church in Sydney is open to the public and will remain on display until Thursday 27 November.