Historical Snapshot – St John's Cathedral precinct

Following the early itinerant ministries of Fr Therry (who founded the first St Joseph's Church at East Maitland in the late 1820s) Fr Dowling and Fr Ullathorne, Fr Watkins (the first resident priest of East Maitland) and Fr John T Lynch arrived in the region in 1838.

After a few months living at East Maitland, Dean Lynch moved to premises in West Maitland where he established a small Mass centre in Plaistowe Street, Horseshoe Bend. From there he ministered to the growing territory of the Church. He served the local community as it grew but also journeyed four times a year on horseback to Tamworth, Armidale and beyond. He arranged the building of the first Catholic churches in Armidale and Lismore during these visits to the "northern reaches".

In October 1840, Bishop Polding and Dean Lynch laid the foundation stone for a more substantial church in West Maitland at Campbell's Hill. In 1844 this stone was moved by Dean Lynch to the current site of St John's Church in Cathedral Street, Maitland. He thought it better to have the church where the majority of people gathered, despite its proximity to the river and the likelihood of flooding.
Meanwhile, the Plaistowe Street property was being used as a church on Sundays and during the week was the first Catholic school in West Maitland.

St John's Church was finally opened by Dean Lynch in 1846. It served the community well as a parish church for the next 20 years.
When the Diocese of Maitland was established in June 1847 it was a very restricted territory, containing only the Borough of East Maitland. It was formed simply to provide a Titular See for the Coadjutor Bishop of Sydney, Bishop Davis. He never visited.

In 1854 a proposal to expand the Titular See into a full diocese was presented to Rome but, due to the untimely death of Bishop Davis, this did not proceed and the territory continued to be part of Sydney for the next 10 years.

In November 1865 Bishop Murray was appointed as Bishop of the Diocese of Maitland. The papal brief defining its new boundaries was issued on 14 April, 1866.
Bishop Murray returned to Ireland for a brief trip to obtain extra priests for his new diocese and whilst there he arranged for a community of Dominican Sisters to follow him to Australia. He departed Cork in July 1866 with Bishop Quinn (Bishop of Bathurst), Fr Doyle, who was to join Bishop Murray in Maitland, and another 8 priests and 16 nuns, and arrived in Sydney in October. He then set out immediately, arriving in East Maitland on 29 October, and took possession of St John's Church, West Maitland as his cathedral on 1 November, 1866, the Feast of All Saints. It continued as the cathedral under Bishops Dwyer and Gleeson until Bishop Gleeson opened the nearby church hall as the Pro Cathedral on 26 November 1933.

At this time Newcastle was still part of the Archdiocese of Sydney and so the expansion of the Catholic faith into northern and north-western NSW was carried out from Maitland, until the Dioceses of Armidale and Lismore were established in 1869 and 1878 respectively.

So Maitland, the only town in NSW to have two Catholic churches, was very much at the heart of the Catholic faith for a large part of the NSW population for many years and St John's as the cathedral was central to the broader establishment of the Church in that territory.

In 1872 Bishop Murray paid his first ad limina visit to Rome and recorded that the Diocese of Maitland had a Catholic population of about 22,000, including those populations of Singleton, Murrurundi, Tamworth, Raymond Terrace, Branxton and the Manning River and districts surrounding those areas. There was one convent (established by the Dominican Sisters), 16 Catholic schools, 18 churches of stone or brick and 26 chapels or churches of wood, many of them being used on weekdays as schools. There were 14 priests with one of them resident in Dubbo in the Diocese of Bathurst but sharing pastoral responsibility for a portion of the vast territory of the Diocese of Maitland.

In 1873, Bishop Murray took possession of the Newcastle end of his diocese from the Archdiocese of Sydney.

After living at East Maitland, Victoria Street, Campbell's Hill and Elgin Street, Bishop Murray moved into his new Bishop's House in Cathedral Street (known then as Charles Street) in 1883.



St John's Church prior to restoration



The Bishop of Maitland that wasn't

By Bishop Bill Wright
Catholic Diocese of Maitland-Newcastle

This year we are celebrating the 150th anniversary of the diocese, dating its beginning from the arrival of Bishop James Murray in 1866. There are, however, many erudite readers of Aurora who are aware that Bishop Murray is generally accounted the second bishop of Maitland. Indeed, in the corridor outside my office, the small gallery of portraits of my predecessors begins with English Benedictine, Charles Henry Davis osb, the first to bear the title of 'Bishop of Maitland'. So who was he, and when did the diocese really begin?

First, let's note that the Reformation of the 16th century had swept away the Catholic hierarchy in England and this was still the situation when the British arrived in Australia. There were no 'bishops of' any place in England or Scotland since there were no dioceses, only 'vicars apostolic'. Accordingly, when Bishop John Bede Polding osb was sent to Sydney in 1833, he came as 'Vicar Apostolic of New Holland and its adjacent islands'. On the other hand, as the ancient discipline of the church was against having bishops floating around as free agents, Polding had to be at least nominally bishop of somewhere, and so he was by title 'Bishop of Hierocaesarea', an ancient town in Turkey that had its own bishop until the Muslim conquest. Its site is now lost, but it retained a titular bishop as late as 1994.

In 1839/40, when Bishop Polding and his vicar-general, William Bernard Ullathorne, journeyed back to England via Rome, they had a radical plan to put to the Roman and British authorities. They wanted to establish a formal Catholic hierarchy in Australia. Amazingly, they succeeded. Polding returned to be Archbishop of Sydney and other bishops were established in Hobart, Adelaide and Perth in the following years. In that context the idea of the Diocese of Maitland was born.

In 1847 Polding was in Rome again, urging the establishment of dioceses in Melbourne and 'Victoria' (now Darwin). In April he became aware that the Anglicans were proposing to set up a diocese in Morpeth. He quickly wrote to the Cardinal Prefect of Propaganda Fidei, in the third person, "Therefore he requests that another Bishopric be set up in Maitland, a short distance from Sydney and Morpeth, the site of one of the proposed Anglican Bishoprics; and that, without fixing any definite boundaries for the time being, the new bishop be named as Coadjutor of the writer."

The idea was a curious hybrid. A coadjutor bishop required a 'titular' see, but rather than an ancient bishopric that no longer existed, Polding proposed as a 'title' a diocese that did not yet exist. And he proposed establishing a new see without any territory and with a bishop who lived in Sydney. Yet the plan was approved in two months. Oh well, there was a new young pope of perceived modern ideas (Pius IX) and Rome was in negotiations with the British government about re-establishing a hierarchy in Britain itself. Perhaps anything seemed possible.

When Bishop Davis arrived he took up his duties in Sydney, as expected. He was a likeable, capable young man of 33, a great organist and choir master and a good contributor to the early days of St John's College at the university and to Lyndhurst, the Sydney Benedictines' grammar school. But he never came to Maitland. In fact, I have been told by a much later auxiliary bishop of Sydney that the rules are that a titular bishop must not go to his titular see, lest he try to establish himself as a local bishop. Perhaps something of that understanding was also in Davis', or Polding's, mind.

Nevertheless, in 1854, with Polding once again in Rome, it was proposed that the anomaly of the titular see should cease. Boundaries of the new diocese of Maitland were discussed, and apparently settled. At that point, however, news arrived from Sydney that Dr Davis had died, aged just 39. Polding thereupon advised that Maitland should continue to be administered from Sydney. Polding had already been told that his scheme for Australia to be a Benedictine mission was dead, following a great deal of agitation from both Sydney and Ireland. Very probably, by not suggesting a new bishop of Maitland or a new coadjutor for himself, he was seeking to avoid having an Irish bishop, not of his choosing, thrust upon him. And so for ten years Maitland had no bishop. Then, in 1866, the boundaries of the diocese were established and Dr Murray, former secretary to Cardinal Cullen of Dublin and relative of the new bishops of Brisbane and Bathurst, was appointed. The age of Irish Catholic hegemony in Australia had begun, and with it the real beginning of the Diocese of Maitland.

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