Australian Dictionary of Biography

  • Tip: searches only the name field
  • Tip: Use double quotes to search for a phrase

Serra, Joseph Benedict (1810–1886)

by E. Perez

This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 6, (MUP), 1976

Joseph Benedict Serra (1810-1886), Catholic bishop, was born on 11 May 1810 at Mataró, Spain, youngest son of Joseph Serra Fuster, merchant, and his wife Teresa Julia. Orphaned at 11, he was educated at Barcelona and at 16 became a Benedictine monk in the monastery of St Martin of Compostela, taking the name of Benedict. Completing his education at the Benedictine colleges, Irache in Navarre, and St Vincent in Oviedo, Spain, he was ordained priest in May 1835. A few months later, when the first Spanish Republic declared religious life in common illegal, Serra left Spain and entered the abbey of La Cava near Naples. In 1844 with R. Salvado he offered himself for work in foreign missions. Both were accepted and were intended originally for New South Wales, but were later appointed to Bishop Brady's missionary party bound for Western Australia where they arrived in the Elizabeth on 8 January 1846.

After initial difficulties Serra, as superior of a community of four Benedictine monks, began missionary work among the nomadic Aboriginals of Victoria Plains where the foundation stone of the monastery of New Norcia was laid on 1 March 1847. Next year, after the first diocesan synod, he left for Europe to raise funds and recruits for the mission. In Rome he was consecrated first bishop of Port Victoria but representations from Brady changed his appointment to coadjutor of Perth. With ample funds from Italy, mainly from his many influential friends in Spain, he returned in December 1849 with forty religious and artisans for New Norcia. Sharp differences arose with Brady, who refused to accept him as coadjutor of Perth and tried to obtain control of his funds. The conflict was only resolved by legal action and the disciplinary visit of Archbishop Polding in 1852.

During his administration of Perth diocese in 1850-62 Serra enlarged the existing church and collected money for the erection of a new one; he also built churches in Fremantle, Guildford, Toodyay, York, Dardanup, Albany and Bunbury. He built a magnificent residence for the bishop and his priests in Perth, and provided schools and teachers for Perth and Fremantle. He also showed great interest in the welfare of prisoners at Rottnest Island and newly arrived convicts. His impetuous zeal in these and other controversial issues did not increase his popularity among many local residents.

In 1853-55 Serra visited Europe for his health and returned with more missionaries and four sisters of the French community of St Joseph. In the mid-1850s he took a firm stand against Governor Kennedy on the question of education and the rights of independent schools. He left it to Salvado to smooth the difficulties created but Serra's individualistic character and attitude caused dissension between them. Salvado resented his disregard for their common foundation of New Norcia and his concentration of attention and missionaries on the monastery he had founded at Subiaco, three miles from Perth. Salvado was dedicated to the Aboriginals at New Norcia, but Serra stressed the immediate and future needs of the diocese of Perth, of which he was now the undisputed administrator.

The monastery of New Norcia was given autonomy on 1 April 1859. Serra returned to Europe expecting that the decision would be reversed; he wanted to carry out his ambitions for Subiaco and to build a new cathedral for Perth, for which he sent a Carrara marble altar. As no change was made by 1862, he resigned from 'all the titles which bound me to the Church of Perth'. He returned via England to Spain, where he founded the Oblates of the Most Holy Redeemer, a community of nuns devoted to the care of lapsed and destitute girls and based on female social work he had observed in London; it spread rapidly through South America as well as Spain and in recent years has extended its work to Boston and New York in the United States of America.

Serra died on 8 September 1886 in a rest home in Guadalajara, Spain, and was buried at the mother house of his foundation at Ciempozuelos, Madrid. The suburb of Subiaco in Perth takes its name from his monastery.

Select Bibliography

  • P. F. Moran, History of the Catholic Church in Australia (Syd, 1895)
  • J. T. Reilly, Reminiscences of Fifty Years' Residence in Western Australia (Perth, 1903)
  • H. N. Birt, Benedictine Pioneers in Australia, vol 2 (Lond, 1911)
  • Centenary of the Catholic Church in Western Australia (Perth, 1946)
  • Serra letters and papers (New Norcia Archives and Roman Catholic Archdiocesan Archives, Perth).

Citation details

E. Perez, 'Serra, Joseph Benedict (1810–1886)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/serra-joseph-benedict-4560/text7481, published in hardcopy 1976, accessed online 3 September 2014.

This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 6, (MUP), 1976

© Copyright Australian Dictionary of Biography, 2006-2014