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Christopher Vincent Dowling (1789–1873)

by J. A. Morley

This article was published:

Christopher Vincent Dowling (1789-1873), Catholic priest, was born on 24 September 1789 in Dublin, and went at an early age to the famous Dominican College of Corpo-Santo in Lisbon, Portugal. There he joined the Dominican order, returned to Dublin in 1814 and was ordained by Archbishop Daniel Murray. During his eleven years in Dublin he was guardian of the Dominican Charity School in 1821 and sub-prior of the Dublin priory. In 1825, because of ill health, he was sent to France where he became pastor of Salignac in the Bordeaux diocese. Next year he was elected prior of the Dublin priory but did not return to Ireland to take up the office. In 1829 Dr Bramston, the Catholic vicar apostolic of London, appointed him to Newport in the Isle of Wight. After ten months he went to London and was ministering there, when at a request of the Colonial Office Bramston nominated him to go to New South Wales to replace the only official Catholic chaplain, Daniel Power, who had died in March 1830. Dowling arrived at Sydney on 17 September 1831 in the Mary Ann, accompanied by his sister, Mary Theresa; on 8 May 1832 she married David Chambers, a solicitor. Dowling was referred to as an eloquent preacher, an able linguist, speaking French and Portuguese fluently, a good classical scholar and a frequent contributor to the press.

In Sydney he lived at Charlotte Place because John Joseph Therry, who had been dismissed from the official chaplaincy by Governor (Sir) Ralph Darling, refused to vacate the Chapel House at Hyde Park. Dowling secured government funds for the education of Catholic children and gained widespread support. But a bitter encounter between Dowling and Therry, in the course of which Dowling was assaulted, robbed and frequently insulted, continued until John McEncroe arrived in August 1832. Appointed chaplain for the Hawkesbury by Governor (Sir) Richard Bourke, Dowling went to Windsor. There he established a school and won the friendship of John Macarthur who gave the ground and some money for a Catholic chapel at Camden. Dowling performed the first Catholic marriage ceremony and baptism at Windsor on 1 January 1835. In September Bishop John Bede Polding appointed him to Maitland.

In August 1836 Dowling became the only resident priest north of Sydney. His parish covered the whole Hunter River district and extended north indefinitely. He met with mixed official receptions, the commandant at Harper's Hill in Maitland being particularly obstructive, but he maintained good relations with officials in Sydney and when the King died in 1837 signed appropriate letters to Queen Adelaide and Queen Victoria. On 27 February 1838 he attended the Government House levee after Governor Sir George Gipps was sworn in.

Ill health made his duties in the huge Maitland area most difficult and in March 1838 Polding informed Gipps that, as Dowling wished to have a 'less arduous situation', he hoped that the priest would take up the Catholic chaplaincy on Norfolk Island. However, in September Dowling moved to Newcastle as its first resident priest. He lived in a cottage on the Sandhills but for seven years said Mass and ran a school in Croasdill's Long Room above four dwellings in Newcomen Street. Catholic soldiers rented and furnished it for him. When it had to be vacated in 1845, the services took place in his house which had been the first hospital in Newcastle and was close to the old gaol. He regularly attended executions to console the condemned. His Newcastle parish extended from Lake Macquarie to Myall Lakes and included Raymond Terrace and Clarence Town. Owning no means of transport he either travelled by boat or walked. Later he lost the use of his legs and was carried by parishioners to call on sick or dying Catholics. In 1849 he began saying Mass in a government store-room in Watt Street, Newcastle. In 1852 the first Catholic Church of St Mary was built, a temporary structure, in Church Street; it was the only church Dowling built in an era of church builders.

His health continued to fail and despite assistant priests Dowling finally gave up his active ministry in 1863 and retired to his Sandhills cottage. Visited and revered by Catholics and others, he became a living legend in the district. When he died on 14 December 1873 men of all persuasions joined in mourning him. Crowds attended the lying-in-state in St Mary's. All ships in Newcastle Harbour flew their flags at half-mast and many shops closed when, at his own request, he was buried in St Joseph's Churchyard, East Maitland. He was one of the first ten Catholic priests, the fourth official Catholic chaplain and the first member of a religious order, to minister in Australia.

Select Bibliography

  • P. F. Moran, History of the Catholic Church in Australasia (Syd, 1895)
  • E. M. O'Brien, Life and Letters of Archpriest John Joseph Therry, vols 1-2 (Syd, 1922)
  • M. A. O'Hanlon, Dominican Pioneers in New South Wales (Syd, 1949)
  • H. Campbell, The Diocese of Maitland 1866-1966 (Maitland, 1966)
  • J. J. McGovern, ‘John Bede Polding’, Australasian Catholic Record, vol 11, no 4, 1934, pp 291-305
  • J. O'Brien (P. J. Hartigan), ‘In diebus illis’, Australasian Catholic Record, 20-21 (1943-44)
  • Sydney Gazette, 20 Sept 1831
  • Australian, 23 Sept 1831, 17 Feb, 20 Apr 1832
  • Freeman's Journal (Sydney), 20 Dec 1873, 3 Jan 1874
  • Catholic Weekly (Sydney), 28 Aug 1952.

Citation details

J. A. Morley, 'Dowling, Christopher Vincent (1789–1873)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1972, accessed online 19 June 2024.

This article was published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 4, (Melbourne University Press), 1972

View the front pages for Volume 4

© Copyright Australian Dictionary of Biography, 2006-2024

Life Summary [details]


24 September, 1789
Dublin, Dublin, Ireland


14 December, 1873 (aged 84)
Newcastle, New South Wales, Australia

Cultural Heritage

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Religious Influence

Includes the religion in which subjects were raised, have chosen themselves, attendance at religious schools and/or religious funeral rites; Atheism and Agnosticism have been included.