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Backhaus, George Henry (1811–1882)

by A. E. Owens

This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 3, (MUP), 1969

George Henry Backhaus (1811-1882), Catholic priest, was born on 15 February 1811 at Paderborn, Prussia, one of nine children of a boot merchant. He made his early studies with distinction in Paderborn, going then to Rome to study for the priesthood at the College of the Propagation of the Faith (D.D., 1836). He was ordained priest on 24 August 1836. His missionary zeal drew him to India; he sailed from Ireland as chaplain to some troops, and later worked at Berhampur in the vicariate of Bengal under Dr Carew. He laboured in that area for several years and in 1841 visited Ireland, whence he brought some Loreto Sisters from Rathfarnham to his vicariate.

In 1846 a liver complaint and poor health caused him to leave India in search of a cooler climate. After visiting Singapore and Batavia he came to Australia, and spent eleven months in Sydney, finding scope for his musical ability with the Sydney Metropolitan Choir. Life was congenial there, but on learning that the Bishop of Adelaide was unable to obtain a priest for the German Catholics in his area, he decided that his place was with them. He left Sydney on 20 October 1847 and worked hard in poor conditions in the Adelaide diocese for more than four years. In that time he decided to make the Australian mission his life work, and took the oath of allegiance in June 1849. In 1851 a group of influential citizens at East Adelaide petitioned him to stand for the Legislative Council but he declined.

Many struggling settlers left South Australia when they heard of the gold discoveries in Victoria and on 19 February 1852 Bishop Francis Murphy wrote to Backhaus suggesting that he return to Sydney as it was no longer possible to find sufficient revenue to support him. The suggestion must have been tempting, but the pioneer priest decided instead to go where he was needed most, to the Victorian goldfields. He sailed from Adelaide in the Marshal Bennett on 4 March, arrived in Melbourne eleven days later, and volunteered to make the diggings his mission field. An entry made by him in a family Bible states that on Sunday, 25 April 1852, he, 'having been appointed the first priest to take charge of the Catholic population on the Victorian goldfields, celebrated the first Mass in the Gold Commissioner's camp at Forest Creek diggings'. He said the first Sunday Mass in the Bendigo area on 2 May.

In those first months he travelled constantly round the various diggings, his base of operations being at Mount Alexander. Later that year another priest was stationed at Kyneton, leaving Backhaus free to concentrate on the area along the Bendigo Creek. The original Mass site in that district was at Golden Square, but before the end of 1852 he pitched his tent at the site where St Kilian's Church now stands. The first church was a tent; a slab-walled chapel with a canvas roof was built by the miners one hot Sunday in 1853. A Catholic school was started in it, the first of many he established in the district over the next few years.

In 1855 Bishop James Goold on a visit from Melbourne insisted that a church be started. A contract for a stone church was signed within a few months and despite difficulties with foundations and materials it was in use early in 1858, though not completed for another five years. Backhaus, a German missionary to predominantly Irish people, decided to dedicate the church to St Kilian, an early Irish missionary to Germany and one of the patron saints of Paderborn.

He was unremitting in his work as a priest, and in addition was most active in public affairs; his considerable medical knowledge was also in constant demand. When he announced in 1863 that he was resigning and returning to Europe for personal reasons, the leading citizens arranged a banquet to fête this 'scholar and gentleman' who was so universally respected. A valuable set of church plate arrived at St Kilian's in 1865 as a gift from him, and next year he returned to his adopted country and resumed work in Adelaide. He went to Bendigo in May 1867 and, eight years later when it became a diocese of its own, Bishop Martin Crane made him vicar-general.

Feeling the weight of years he retired from parish work in 1881 and after another big public farewell lived in a house he had bought at Brighton near Melbourne. When he became seriously ill in August 1882 he insisted on returning to Bendigo; he died there on 7 September and was buried in the churchyard at St Kilian's with a funeral which seems to have been without parallel in the town's history.

Tall and ascetic looking, he was the complete example of the educated man who chose to share the hardships of the early gold diggers so that he could best minister to their wants. Frugal in his own requirements, he constantly carried out surreptitious acts of charity. He had the rare distinction of being esteemed by the poor as well as the rich, by his own parishioners and by members of other denominations. Forthright and of an independent spirit, he combined a confidence in his own judgment with a ready obedience to ecclesiastical authority. He was a talented musician who maintained a high standard in his own church choir, and who also produced some notable compositions of his own. For his sound business acumen he was sometimes called 'Rev. Corner Allotments' because of the valuable properties he acquired in the early days. In carrying out a promise in 1863 to make St Kilian's his heir, he left real estate, valued for probate at more than £75,000, to accumulate for twenty years and to assist in carrying on the development he had begun. Perhaps his epitaph could best be written in his words at the farewell function in 1881: 'We have succeeded in living such useful lives, that of our existence on Bendigo, imperishable memorials will remain'.

Select Bibliography

  • G. Mackay, The History of Bendigo (Melb, 1891)
  • P. F. Moran, History of the Catholic Church in Australasia (Syd, 1895)
  • A. E. Owens, Henry Backhaus D.D. (Bendigo, 1952)
  • Bendigo Advertiser, Backhaus memorial supplement, 15 Sept 1882
  • Argus (Melbourne), 15 Sept 1902
  • Advocate (Melbourne), 19 Feb 1947
  • private papers (St Kilian's).

Related Entries in NCB Sites

Citation details

A. E. Owens, 'Backhaus, George Henry (1811–1882)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/backhaus-george-henry-43/text4199, published in hardcopy 1969, accessed online 31 October 2014.

This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 3, (MUP), 1969

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