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Gsell, Francis Xavier (1872–1960)

by Peter Donovan

This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 9, (MUP), 1983

Francis Xavier Gsell (1872-1960), by unknown photographer, c1947

Francis Xavier Gsell (1872-1960), by unknown photographer, c1947

Herald & Weekly Times Portrait Collection, State Library of Victoria, H38849/1716 [detail]

Francis Xavier Gsell (1872-1960), missionary and bishop, was born on 30 October 1872 at Benfeld, Alsace-Lorraine, Germany, son of Laurent Gsell, spinner, and his wife Josephine, née Jehl. He grew up in Sainte-Croix-aux-Mines where he was apprenticed as a cotton-spinner. From 15, at Issoudun, he studied for six years at Le Petit-Oeuvre, run by the Missionaries of the Sacred Heart. In 1892 he took his vows and entered their society, after which he studied theology and philosophy at the St Apollinaire University in Rome. Eugene Pacelli, the future Pope Pius XII, was a colleague. Gsell was ordained in 1896.

Next year he went to Sydney and taught future missionaries at the Order's mother-house at Kensington. He was relieved to begin active missionary work in 1900 in Papua. His next appointment was as apostolic administrator of the Northern Territory at Palmerston (Darwin) in 1906, where he re-established the Catholic Church. In 1909 Gsell became a naturalized Australian. At first he concentrated on the Christian education of Catholic children; he then took up the conversion of the Aboriginals. He had the humility to become his own anthropologist: 'I had to establish contact with the natives, alone, slowly, prudently; I had to … learn gradually their habits and customs so as to penetrate into their minds without hurt or shock'.

He persuaded the South Australian government to grant him 10,000 acres (4047 ha) for an Aboriginal mission on Bathurst Island in 1910. He studied the intricate laws and customs of the local Aboriginals and carefully chose for his central site an area which none of them claimed. In 1912 the island was proclaimed an Aboriginal reserve, and Gsell lived and worked here, apart from a visit to Europe in 1920, until 1938. He understood Aboriginal life, spiritual values and rituals and sought the people's advancement; at this time even some anthropologists believed that they would become extinct. He worked patiently: during fifteen years the mission performed only 113 baptisms; after thirty years he did not claim a single adult convert.

He was concerned to alter the polygamous nature of Tiwi society. Once, to save a girl from having to live unwillingly with an old man to whom she had been promised at birth, Gsell was inspired to 'buy' her. Thereafter he 'bought' 150 wives and, through their education and marriage to young men who accepted the Christian concept of marriage, he spread his religion. However he knew the Tiwi too well to entertain illusions. Their comprehension of the new marriage pattern probably represented a modification of traditional ways, but not a fundamental break.

In 1936 Gsell was appointed O.B.E. Two years later he left Bathurst Island to be consecrated bishop of Darwin. He established a mission at Arltunga in Central Australia, and a settlement for part-Aboriginals at Garden Point, Melville Island. His imperturbability belied his tenacity and forcefulness. In 1946 the Commonwealth government sought to resume all freehold land in Darwin and to remove the Catholic cathedral and school to another site. He fought the move—and won.

Next year he visited Rome. In 1950 he was awarded the Légion d'honneur; he retired to the Sacred Heart Monastery, Kensington, Sydney. Here he dictated his perceptive autobiography, The bishop with 150 wives; this was published in French in 1954, and in translation next year. In 1951 Pope Pius XII created him bishop assistant at the pontifical throne. He died on 12 July 1960 at Kensington and was buried in the Catholic cemetery, Douglas Park.

Select Bibliography

  • F. Flynn, Distant Horizons (Syd, 1947) and Northern Gateway (Syd, 1963)
  • C. W. M. Hart and A. R. Pilling, The Tiwi of North Australia (New York, 1960)
  • Northern Territory News, 12 July 1960 supplement, 24 June 1971
  • V. Krastins, The Tiwi. A Culture Contact History of the Australian Aborigines on Bathurst and Melville islands, 1705-1942 (B.A. Hons thesis, Australian National University, 1972)
  • J. O'Carrigan and J. Morris, Christian Marriage and Family Life on Bathurst Island Mission [1964], and J. F. Murphy, ‘Bathurst Island. A Mission Station for the Aborigines’, Australia, Mar 1920 (typescript and photocopy held by Australian Institute of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Studies)
  • AA 20/21513 (National Archives of Australia).

Citation details

Peter Donovan, 'Gsell, Francis Xavier (1872–1960)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/gsell-francis-xavier-6502/text11151, published in hardcopy 1983, accessed online 26 October 2014.

This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 9, (MUP), 1983

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