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Australian Dictionary of Biography

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Gregory, Henry Gregory (1813–1877)

by Mary Shanahan

This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 1, (MUP), 1966

Henry Gregory Gregory (1813-1877), Benedictine abbot, was born at Cheltenham, England. He was educated by the Benedictines at Douai and Downside, and entered the order at Downside in 1833. When the Benedictine John Bede Polding came to Sydney as its first bishop in 1835 Gregory accompanied him and until his ordination to the priesthood in 1837 worked as a catechist. In 1838 he went for a year to Norfolk Island as assistant chaplain to John McEncroe and showed great courage in quelling a mutiny there. Polding, who had already great confidence in him, took him to Europe in 1840. After studying in Rome, he received a doctorate in divinity. They returned in February 1843, Polding bringing with him a rescript to set up a Benedictine monastery of which Gregory was made prior and later abbot. Polding relied on Gregory's support in establishing the Catholic church in the colony on Benedictine lines, making the monastery the source of supply of missionaries and a centre of culture and scholarship. But Polding's idealism was impracticable.

The English Benedictine congregation was not prepared to send fully trained men to supplement the few Benedictines already working in the country, so the needs of the mission had to be met by other priests, mainly Irish. Irish Catholics came mainly from the lower classes with little or no education, and did not understand the English Benedictine who could associate with government officials as a gentleman among gentlemen and whose Catholicism was not closely allied to his nationalism. Gregory, as vicar-general to Polding from 1844, became the symbol of all that the Irish distrusted.

Though loyal to Polding in all his enterprises, and hard-working and self-sacrificing as a missionary, Gregory was not suited by temperament or training for positions of authority. Although he had had only two years of monastic life before coming to Australia, he found himself while only 30 in charge of a monastery. From 1846 to 1848 he was in charge of the archdiocese while Polding was in Europe, and offended the Christian Brothers, who all returned to Ireland, and the Irish Sisters of Charity, some of whom went to Van Diemen's Land rather than submit to his interference in their government. Yet at this time his sister, who came to the colony as one of the first Benedictine nuns, wrote to friends in England, 'It is most gratifying to me to see how much my dear brother is beloved and respected, not only by the clergy and community, but by the majority of inhabitants, both protestant and catholic. He holds a most responsible place'. As a Benedictine his chief work was as abbot of the monastery which had been built up as a centre of culture in the colony. The school established by the Benedictines at Lyndhurst turned out young men who distinguished themselves at the university in their subsequent careers.

Gregory was in Europe in 1850 and again in 1854. At this time reports were coming to Rome from some discontented clergy and laity. Anti-Benedictine feeling in the colony came to a head in 1859 when Gregory appointed the consultant doctor of the Catholic orphanage, a Protestant, to its board. A number of Irish laity made use of the incident to turn public opinion against Gregory as 'the dilettante Vicar-General'. Personal attacks on him were attacks on what he stood for: Polding and the establishment of a church without a strong Irish influence. Gregory with his autocratic English manner and in a less exalted position, was more readily open to public censure than the fatherly and popular Polding. Disaffected monks of St Mary's monastery also used Gregory as the excuse for their discontent and in 1854 had petitioned Rome for his removal from office. He was recalled in 1861 as monks, Irish secular clergy and laity blamed him for the troubles in the archdiocese. Gregory proved the injustice of these accusations and was given permission to return, but felt it wiser to remain in England. He died at Broxwood, Herefordshire, on 19 July 1877.

Polding, who felt that lay interference in the administration of the church had gained a victory in Gregory's recall, wanted him back but not as vicar-general; he had not the diplomacy needed to handle the difficult situations created by a strong national group within the church, and it was diplomacy, not devotedness, that was called for.

Select Bibliography

  • H. N. Birt, Benedictine Pioneers in Australia, vols 1-2 (Lond, 1911)
  • Freeman's Journal, 1859
  • T. L. Suttor, Hierarchy and Democracy in Australia 1788-1870 (Melb, 1965)
  • John Bede Polding papers (Catholic Archives, Sydney)
  • Gregory papers (Downside Abbey, copy held at Sancta Sophia College, Sydney).

Citation details

Mary Shanahan, 'Gregory, Henry Gregory (1813–1877)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1966, accessed online 21 October 2020.

This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 1, (MUP), 1966

View the front pages for Volume 1

© Copyright Australian Dictionary of Biography, 2006-2020

Life Summary [details]


Cheltenham, Gloucestershire, England


19 July 1877
Broxwood, Herefordshire, England

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