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John Bede Polding (1794–1877)

by Bede Nairn

This article was published:

John Bede Polding (1794-1877), by Henry Samuel Sadd

John Bede Polding (1794-1877), by Henry Samuel Sadd

National Library of Australia, nla.pic-an9997459

John Bede Polding (1794-1877), Catholic archbishop, was born on 18 November 1794 at Liverpool, England. His father was of Dutch descent and his mother came from the Brewer family, recusants since the sixteenth century. His family name was also spelt Poulden or Polten. His parents died and at 8 he was placed in the care of his uncle, Father Bede Brewer, president-general of the English Benedictine Congregation. Polding was first taught by the Benedictine nuns of the Convent of Our Lady of Consolation of Cambray, who as refugees from revolutionary France were located at Much Woolton, near Liverpool. At 11 he was sent to St Gregory's Benedictine College, at Acton Burnell, near Shrewsbury, Shropshire. On 15 July 1810 Polding was admitted to the religious community, taking the name of Bede. He received minor orders in 1813 from Bishop Milner at Wolverhampton, was ordained priest by Bishop Poynter at Old Hall College on 4 March 1819, and on the 21st sang his first mass at Downside.

Meanwhile he had undergone the rigorous juniorate of the Benedictines, excelling in philosophy and theology. In 1814 the community transferred to St Gregory's Monastery, Downside, where Polding remained for twenty years, filling various offices in the school and monastery, and in 1826-34 serving as secretary to the president-general of the Benedictine Congregation. As prefect, Polding endeared himself to the boys, one of whom was to recall his prowess as a teacher of drama, his patriotism, and his sympathy for the Irish; 'though a thorough Lancashire man, he always identified himself with Irish boys in their interest for their country and her wrongs'. As became a Lancashire man Polding also had a great interest and some skill in cricket. His boyhood interest in the religious plight of New South Wales took firmer shape when he became novice-master in 1823.

The virtual absence of any Catholic mission in Australia before 1818 reflected the legal disabilities of Catholics in Britain and the difficult position of Ireland within the empire. Nearly all the Catholic convicts transported to New South Wales were Irish; among them were three priests, James Harold, James Dixon, and Peter O'Neil, but they failed to found an enduring mission. After 1815 policies towards Catholics gradually became more tolerant and the English Benedictines, who had prospered moderately since their re-establishment, were in a strategic position to take advantage of the change. The British government retained misgivings about Irish Catholics, but acquired a grudging appreciation of the English attributes of the Benedictines, dispositions that were to play an important part in Polding's career in Australia. Meanwhile the predominant Irish interest in the colony was illustrated in 1817 in the abortive attempt of Jeremiah O'Flynn to establish himself as prefect-apostolic of New Holland with the approval of Rome's Congregation for the Propagation of the Faith (Propaganda). This case helped to clarify the need for Propaganda to adjust its policies to the novel post-1815 international situation, especially in colonial areas. As a result the vicar-apostolic of London, rather than the Irish bishops, became the link between Rome and the British government in relation to Australian affairs. The O'Flynn case also impressed the government with the need for Catholic chaplains in the colony. The formal colonial influence of the English Benedictines was accentuated in 1818 when the Cape of Good Hope was erected by Papal Brief into a vicariate and entrusted to them. In 1819 Polding's cousin, Bishop Edward Bede Slater, was appointed vicar-apostolic with jurisdiction over Mauritius, Madagascar, the Cape, New Holland and Van Diemen's Land.

The Benedictines' inability to spare men for all these missions was to remain a continual check on their work in Australia. In 1819 the government decided to add two Catholic chaplains to the public officers of New South Wales and two Irish volunteers, John Joseph Therry and Philip Conolly, were accepted by Slater and appointed by Bathurst, with a salary of £100 each. Therry's immense energy, tactlessness, and missionary zeal led to his prominent association with groups opposed to official policies, to the withdrawal of his salary in 1826, and to the hardening of feeling against Irish priests both by the British government and the English Catholic authorities. In the 1830s the number of Irish Catholics in the colony continued to rise, though mainly they were convicts and working class people. After Catholic emancipation in 1829, however, a trickle of educated and politically significant Irish migrated to Sydney, notably Roger Therry and John Hubert Plunkett, both of whom were appointed to high legal offices. John McEncroe accompanied Plunkett as an official chaplain, highly recommended by Archbishop James Murray of Dublin.

In 1832 the Benedictine William Morris, who had replaced Slater as vicar-apostolic, appointed William Ullathorne as his vicar-general in New South Wales, with British government approval. Ullathorne arrived, capably put the affairs of the church in order with McEncroe's help, and soon saw the need for episcopal control in Sydney. His representations to Rome and England had been anticipated in 1832 by McEncroe's recommendation to Archbishop Murray: 'There are 16,000 or 18,000 Catholics in this colony, not one half of whom hardly ever see a Priest … The Holy See should provide this place with a Bishop'. Rome responded to the Irish and English pressure by detaching Australia from the Mauritius vicariate. Negotiations were carried out with the vicar-apostolic of London rather than with the archbishop of Dublin, and the government was informed of each step. By Papal Briefs in 1834 Polding was appointed bishop of Hiero-Caesarea in partibus infidelium and vicar-apostolic of New Holland, Van Diemen's Land and the adjoining islands. He had declined earlier appointments for Mauritius and Madras but he accepted the Australian office on 14 June. Two weeks later in his private chapel Bishop Bramston, the vicar-apostolic of London, assisted by Bishops Griffiths and Rouchouze, consecrated Polding. On 20 February 1835 Governor Sir Richard Bourke was notified of the appointment and advised that 'it is very desirable that Dr Polding should be enabled to exercise a salutary influence over the Roman Catholic chaplains'. On 6 August Polding and his party arrived at Hobart Town, where he left a priest and a student; and on 13 September at Sydney, with one priest, Father Corcoran, and five students, three of whom were Benedictines, including Henry Gregory. In that month Polding's stipend was increased from £150 to £500.

New South Wales, although still formally a penal colony with convicts about 38 per cent of its total population of 71,662, was experiencing the effects of parliamentary reform in Britain. Bourke, a Whig appointee, gave practical form to the new order with able assistance from J. H. Plunkett. The British government, aware of the advantages of religion for an orderly society, was now prepared to allow other denominations to share in state aid which hitherto had been monopolized by the Church of England in New South Wales. Bourke's Church Act of 1836 gave effect to this new policy, much to the annoyance of William Grant Broughton, the Anglican bishop, though Polding quickly adapted himself to the liberal changes of Bourke. He was now in middle age and had come from the upper ranks of English Catholic society. He belonged to an ancient order lately re-established in England after centuries of banishment but still uncertain of its role in English society, as were Catholics generally. Although his innate sympathy for the Irish was naturally accentuated by their common bond of religion, he nevertheless regarded them with at least a minimum of the disquiet felt by nearly all Englishmen of his class irrespective of creed. Though he did not owe his position to the British government, he had its approval and was paid from public funds. These were factors that had a pervasive influence on his long episcopate in New South Wales.

Polding was a man of deep and abiding sanctity, generous and warm-hearted though not without some reserve, and a born missioner who scorned every personal hardship to bring religion to his widely-scattered and underprivileged flock. His vicariate included the whole of Australia and in time he visited nearly all its major centres. In 1839 the Weekly Orthodox Journal quoted a letter from Sydney: 'His labors are incessant, his zeal unbounded, Protestants as well as Catholics revere him as a saint'.

On reaching Sydney Polding had seen the need far an intensive mission to the convicts and arranged with Bourke for all Catholics among the newcomers, about one-third and mostly Irish, to be put in his charge for a few days. Ullathorne later recorded that Polding took the leading part in instructing and giving the Sacraments to them; 'it was a touching sight', he wrote, 'to see the Bishop with one of his criminals kneeling by his side in the sanctuary, and by word and action, instructing all through one how to make their confessions, or how to receive the Holy Communion'. By 1841 some seven thousand convicts had undertaken these exercises. This example of pastoral care set an enlivening tone that was never absent from Polding's episcopate, even in times of conflict with members of his flock, clerical and lay.

With capable assistance from Ullathorne, Polding established a firm administration. He consecrated St Mary's as his cathedral and surveyed the need for more church buildings. He successfully directed J. J. Therry's energy into the Campbelltown area, and built up other centres at Parramatta, Windsor, Maitland and Wollongong. He also became involved in the control of schools; by 1836 he had thirteen primary schools, seven for boys, six for girls, all with government support, and had begun a steady programme to build and staff others. They never became as numerous or efficient as he wished and always provoked controversy of some kind, for colonial society was then peculiarly fluid, with settlement expanding and free immigration increasing. In consolidating his church Polding found his administrative duties a general trial and a restriction on his missionary work; more and more he came to rely on others for planning policy and organization, and gave much thought to starting an Australian Benedictine monastery that would train priests and provide culture and learning to a frontier society.

In 1836-38 Ullathorne went to Europe on a recruiting mission. He obtained only one Englishman out of fifteen priests and religious recruits. But he did win Rome's approval for Polding's monastery. Meanwhile Polding's zeal had aroused the Protestants, especially Broughton and the judges, (Sir) William Burton and John Willis; this opposition decided him to approach Rome to have the Australian mission reorganized, as suggested by Ullathorne especially, and William Duncan, editor of the Catholic Australasian Chronicle. Polding was also anxious to obtain new priests, and to pay his ad limina visit to the Pope. The British government granted him leave and on 16 November 1840 he left Sydney with Ullathorne and Gregory.

The major event of his journey was Rome's approval on 5 April 1842 for the establishment of an Australian hierarchy. Sydney was made a metropolitan and archiepiscopal see; his later proposal that it be restricted to Benedictines was not approved. Adelaide and Hobart were separated from the original vicariate and made episcopal sees. Polding retained his status as vicar-apostolic and on 9 April was elevated to the archbishopric, with the title of 'Archbishop of Sydney and Metropolitan of Australia, Van Diemen's Land, and the Gambier Islands, etc.'. The British government gave tacit approval; before his departure Polding was received at the Colonial Office by Lord Stanley and given 'a grand dinner' by the earl of Derby. Polding's party of nineteen included four priests of the Passionist Order, who were to establish a mission to the Aboriginals, and three Christian Brothers. They reached Sydney on 9 March 1843. Two weeks later Broughton wrote to London protesting against Polding's assumption of the title of archbishop, but Stanley declined to discuss it. In 1847 Earl Grey advised Governor Sir Charles FitzRoy that since Irish archbishops and bishops could be addressed as 'Your Grace' or 'Your Lordship', colonial Catholic prelates should be similarly recognized.

Polding pursued tenaciously his idea of making his archdiocese Benedictine, with the priests and religious bound to him as superior of their order as well as archbishop. On 19 October 1843 he wrote, 'My residence has become a monastery … my desire is to establish two priests and a lay brother in each mission … Of course the Archbishop will be always the principal Superior. Thus the grievous inconveniences which have sometimes occurred from the meeting of two orders of clergy will be avoided'. This optimistic vision contrasted sharply with Ullathorne's realistic assessment in 1838 that Benedictinism had little hope in Australia, for Polding virtually ignored not only the increasing number of Irish secular clergy and Catholic population, but also the changing political and social conditions of the colony now that the convict transportation had ended. With a strong note of 'self-improvement' prevailing among the 'lower orders', politics had become the interest and prop of the many as well as the vocation of the few. The Irish, most of them Catholics, joined in with gusto, often stimulated by memories of Daniel O'Connell or the Young Ireland movement. Several radical newspapers reflected the ferment, among them Duncan's Weekly Register. Polding's English Benedictinism idea could hardly survive in these circumstances. It was part of the 'old' style Benedictinism, romantic and alien to a society conscious of its thrusting egalitarianism. But Polding held to his ideal against all portents and odds, including recruitment difficulties in New South Wales and England and the reform movement within English Benedictinism.

At the practical level Polding's episcopate continued auspiciously. On 8 September 1844 he consecrated Francis Murphy bishop of Adelaide, the first episcopal consecration in Australia, and in October he presided at the first Catholic Provincial Synod held in Australia, attended by Bishop Robert Willson of Hobart, Murphy and senior priests from New South Wales, Van Diemen's Land, South Australia, the Port Phillip and Moreton Bay Districts, and Norfolk Island. Under Polding the Benedictine Monastery had some success; St Mary's was recognized as a monastic cathedral, and for about three years the monks lived the complete regular life, with full choral recitation of the Divine office at the canonical hours. But the pressure of his missionary work increased his reliance on Gregory who, as vicar-general and prior (later abbot) of the monastery, found difficulty in doing justice to both positions and was temperamentally unsuited for either. With ill discipline gradually spreading among the monks, Benedictinism appeared to breed inefficiency in archdiocesan affairs.

The Catholic laity displayed a talent for politics in the new democratic era ushered in by the part-elective Legislative Council in 1843: but they were not alone in this. As a religious minority suspected of a subversive bias towards the empire, they found certain prejudices operating powerfully against them and did not meet this opposition with a united front. The Catholic Church was anything but a political monolith during Polding's rule. One divisive issue was in Van Diemen's Land, where Willson for fourteen years held J. J. Therry personally responsible for a church debt of £3300. In 1844 Polding and McEncroe went to Hobart but failed to settle the matter. Next year Therry arrived in Sydney in hope of raising funds to pay the debt. Polding wrote to London about this visit: 'the people here are beginning to talk and canvass this unfortunate business; parties are again forming which we had well-nigh extinguished. The utmost prudence is required to steer aright. If I am kind to Therry, Dr. Willson will misinterpret it as upholding him in opposition; if I am not, all my people will lose confidence in me'. The parties thus formed were neither firm nor permanent, but the incident reflected a general lay instability which was related as much to general colonial politics as to ecclesiastical policy. The latter influence stemmed from Polding's enthusiastic but extemporized Benedictine experiment, now coming to be resented by increasing numbers of clergy and laity as promotions and full respect were denied the one, and outlying missionary service became more difficult for the other. A more discerning type of criticism could also be noted, well illustrated by Duncan, a complex Scot, erudite and cantankerous. Although loyal to Polding, he feared that the archbishop's policy might result in a completely subservient and inarticulate laity. By 1846 when he left Sydney for Moreton Bay, he had shown that the growing opposition to Polding was by no means wholly Irish. Jabez Heydon, an English convert, began to press this same point after 1848.

Colonial politics inevitably overlapped religion. The Presbyterian, John Dunmore Lang, railed against the Pope as 'the man of sin' and claimed to perceive in Caroline Chisholm's humane and ecumenical immigration work a Popish plot to take over Australia. Polding could be sure of Catholic and much Protestant support against such tirades, but not on 'the question of questions', as Lang aptly described education. Its deficiencies were forcibly driven home in 1844 by the report of a select committee: 'There are about 25,676 children between the ages of 4 and 14 years; of these only 7,642 receive instruction in public schools, and 4,865 in private schools, leaving about 13,000 children who, as far as your Committee know, are receiving no education at all. The expense of Public Education is about £1 per head; an enormous rate after every allowance has been made for the necessary dispersion of the inhabitants … a far greater proportion of the evil has arisen from the strictly denominational character of the private schools'. Polding had given evidence to the committee, and had crystallized the Catholic dilemma when he agreed with the chairman that, while salvation was man's fundamental objective, the ability to read and write contributed greatly to its attainment. The growing demands of salvation, efficiency and economy were to remain as basic governors of Catholic education policy. The problems they thrust up were deep and wide socially and politically, and mocked the overlapping Catholic divisions of minority Benedictines versus majority seculars, Irish versus English, and ex-convict versus free. Duncan and Plunkett favoured a National scheme of education as the most balanced solution; Polding and McEncroe favoured a denominational scheme. But other Catholics did not divide as laity versus clergy on this issue or any other. Public opinion, despite Polding and Broughton, came slowly but firmly to support a National scheme.

With some relief Polding decided to visit Europe again. He needed a coadjutor bishop, more Englishmen for his monastery, and Benedictine nuns to complement the structure of his order. Another pressing need was to have Rome decide on the disagreement between himself and Bishop Willson of Hobart. Polding left Sydney on 16 February 1846 leaving Gregory, his vicar-general, to administer the archdiocese. For his coadjutor Polding hoped to recruit Ullathorne, but arrived in London to find that he had already accepted a mitre. Polding appealed widely for financial support for his seminary, stressing his goal of training native-born Benedictines. In a circular he stated that he had twenty-five clergy in his diocese, which altogether included 60,000 Catholics, 14,000 of them in Sydney. He succeeded in obtaining a group of Benedictine nuns from the Stanbrook convent. In Rome he failed to have his differences with Willson resolved, but won approval for the establishment of Melbourne as a separate see, and for a coadjutor bishop for himself. On 24 September 1847 Charles Henry Davis of the Downside Benedictines was appointed bishop of Maitland, but his duties were to be confined to helping the archbishop. Polding returned to Sydney on 6 February 1848. He brought with him two young English Benedictines, but within fifteen months they were sent back to England because, as Polding wrote, they 'disturbed almost to destruction the peace and well-being of my infant community'.

In Polding's absence Gregory in his high-handed and well-meaning way had eroded the prestige of Benedictinism. In order to raise funds to help to Benedictinize the archdiocese, he took up a plan, abortive and provocative, to tax the salaries paid by the government to Catholic chaplains. He tried to persuade the Christian Brothers and the Sisters of Charity to detach themselves from their congregations and to adopt either a form of Benedictine rule or the status of a diocesan organization. Both orders refused, the Christian Brothers returning to Ireland, and most of the Sisters of Charity going to Hobart in June 1847. These mistakes, for which Gregory was not rebuked by Polding, reflected the archbishop's deepening dependence on his vicar-general, and the indigence of his educational policy. The results were clear in the early 1870s when only about five schools staffed by religious orders were left in Sydney. Benedictinism neither produced a crop of eminent theologians in New South Wales nor encouraged the logical teachers of Catholic children, the teaching orders of sisters and brothers, to set down roots in the archdiocese. Polding was thus handicapped in promoting Catholic primary schools despite his objections to the religiously neutral National system. Although he encouraged the Benedictine nuns at Subiaco near Parramatta to establish a convent that would provide 'the better, that is, the richer classes of society with the means of education', its struggle for survival was as arduous as that of St Mary's Benedictine College, Lyndhurst, which was open for boys in 1852-77. Neither school fitted harmoniously into a society excited by gold discoveries and the growth of democratic government, and neither achieved Polding's élite designs. In 1850 the archbishop added his weight to the successful campaign against the proposal to exclude clergymen from the senate of the proposed University of Sydney. Polding was a member of the senate in 1856-77, and contributed considerably to the foundation of St John's College within the university in 1857-58 to counterbalance the contemporary 'conspiracy against [Christian] truth'.

By 1850 Polding's dream of Benedictinizing his archdiocese was fading. The experiment had brought him pain and accentuated dissension among his flock, but it was by no means the only cause. Dissension had been endemic since the colony's foundation in 1788 and the Catholics were no exception to the rule of strife. The quickening approach of responsible government gave new forms to colonial discord, but there were also unifying bonds in the colony and among the Catholics. Polding exemplified Catholic unity amidst the conflict; his sanctity and missionary journeys, continued at great strain and no small risk to himself as he aged, inspired a devotion to him personally, softened ill-feeling and obtruded the realities of Christian life irrevocably before all men. His relationship with McEncroe reflected the whole complex situation. The upper-class Englishman and the tough-minded Irishman understood one another; mutual affection and respect were the keynotes of their association, despite serious differences of opinion, and McEncroe's almost inspired capacity of correct analysis. So the progress of the Catholic Church in New South Wales, revealed in Gregory's 1851 report to Rome, points to the fundamental success of Polding in the important things, as far as statistics could reflect them: there were thirty-five priests, ministering to about 55,000 people, about half of them Irish born and most of the rest of Irish descent, in thirty-three parishes and thirty churches; in addition there were about fifty monks, nuns and religious students. The essential part of the remainder of Polding's episcopate from 1850 to 1877 was the consolidation of this successful ministry, yet marked by the conflict inherent in the movement that aimed at the appointment of Irish bishops to newly-erected country sees, the replacement of an English archbishop by an Irishman and the consequent attainment of harmony in a human situation vital to religion and all else, as the general English ascendancy declined.

This development demanded the end of the concept of a Benedictine abbey-diocese. The end came naturally from inner contradictions and social incompatibility, clear enough before 1850. While Gregory was in Europe in 1850-53 Davis took over the monastery. His efficiency and charitableness contrasted with Gregory's autocratic control, and for a time he seemed likely to restore at least tranquillity, even though he too realized, as he wrote in August 1850, that it would be 'some years before we shall be able to supply the wants of the mission from the monastery'. But the coadjutor's chronic ill health (he died in 1854) and Gregory's return in 1853 precipitated a climax. Several monks, headed by Patrick S. Farelly and J. Sheridan Moore, petitioned Rome to be allowed to leave the order to become secular priests. Their submission traversed the deficiencies of Benedictinism in New South Wales; they saw no hope of a native-born clergy, for none had yet been ordained, and claimed that monastic discipline created popular opposition and conflicted with missionary work. Above all, they complained about Gregory, his severity, his vindictiveness, his influence over Polding. In 1854 Rome decided that the abbey-diocese must go. Polding was in Rome to receive the decision. He had left Sydney abruptly with Gregory in March and had a painful audience with Pius IX, at which Gregory appeared unexpectedly and broke down. In the upshot the archbishop resigned his see, but was appeased by the Pope. In January 1856 Polding and Gregory returned to Sydney. McEncroe had administered the archdiocese in their absence. Next year the Benedictine community was transferred from the cathedral to Lyndhurst, to be finally wound up in 1877.

In March 1851 McEncroe, with a clear realization of the Church's colonial needs, had written to Bishop James Goold of Melbourne, seeking his help in Rome for a petition he was about to send to the Pope: 'It is obvious that the “Infant” Benedictine Monastery cannot [supply priests for the colony]. Irish students or priests will not come. In this state, thousands must perish. I suggest that two new Dioceses be formed … both to be placed under “Irish” Bishops who will soon get subjects from Ireland, the only country that can spare them'. Rome had been clearly impressed but, although no immediate steps were taken, events in Sydney together with more action by McEncroe, eventually contributed to the decisions that brought greater efficiency and harmony to the Catholic Church in New South Wales. McEncroe did not attempt to hide his work. He told Polding that he had written to Rome and emphasized that the great immigration after the gold discoveries demanded additional priests; 'otherwise the Catholic faith and Christian morals of the colony will be smothered in this cloud of gold-dust'; and that these priests ought to be Irish.

Catholic laymen were inevitably involved in these vital adjustments. McEncroe had founded the Freeman's Journal in 1850. It played an essential part in the lively decisions and happenings affecting the Catholics in the following decade. McEncroe himself acted equivocally towards the Journal, even after he relinquished control to Heydon in 1857. Effectively if not harmoniously the Journal gathered together all the dissident elements: those who sought greater lay influence in church affairs, those who opposed the Benedictines or the English, and those who were simply disaffected. This mixed opposition was by no means entirely Irish. Duncan, for example, in 1857-58, made powerful criticisms of Polding and his administration, providing unmistakable evidence that beneath the undignified and uncharitable clamour lay a hard core of serious and necessary censure. However, the archbishop saw the criticism as a danger to discipline as well as to doctrine and on 11 June 1858, with the support of Goold and Willson, issued the salutary Monitum Pastorale, which pronounced against public discussion by the laity of matters properly belonging to church authorities. This checked the pressure but did not stop it, for clerics as well as laity were indulging in public criticisms.

On 26 July 1858 a number of laity met to accept Polding's invitation to systematize their grievances and submit them to him through J. J. Therry. A committee of seven prominent laymen was appointed. Their statement stressed the role of the laity in parish administration, the need for equality of secular and regular clergy and for competent religious and lay teachers. Polding was not responsive to it or to an appeal from a conference of secular clergy who cautiously sought equality in promotions with the Benedictines. But the force of change gathered momentum. The inevitable crisis was precipitated by the hapless Gregory, who appointed a Protestant to replace Plunkett on the Parramatta Catholic Orphanage Board. The appointment was quickly cancelled, but the outcry provided the occasion for a large meeting at the Victoria Theatre on 26 February 1859, at which all the resentments against Polding's policy found expression, with Gregory as the focal point. Polding acted firmly by demanding that the leaders of the meeting repudiate their behaviour or face excommunication. The case went on appeal to Rome. An anti-climax followed, but a vital one to Polding. In May 1859 it was reported that Sister de Lacy, the Irish head of St Vincent's Hospital, was returning to Ireland because Gregory, after the removal of copies of the authorized version of the Bible used by Protestant patients, had allegedly tried to discipline her in such a way that she resigned. She was supported by Plunkett in Sydney, and later by Archbishop Paul Cullen in Dublin. Polding again backed Gregory; but he had shaken the confidence of most of his prominent laymen and at least some of the most influential bishops in Ireland.

Polding's vision of the archdiocese and his administration were now virtually shattered. His comments on the appeal of the leaders of the Victoria Theatre meeting were inaccurate in some details and tinged generally with an unwonted lack of charity. Yet the comments illuminated some of the essential Polding: his aristocratic aloofness and injudicious reliance on Gregory. The whole dispute had been paralleled by contemporary constitutional changes that substantially reduced British control in the colony. McEncroe inexorably gave Catholics the necessary impetus for change. In November 1858 he left for Europe. In Dublin he requested the bishops of Ireland to send priests and religious teachers to Australia and in Rome he won the personal interest of Cullen in his search for bishops and priests. In 1861 Rome's recall of Gregory without discussion with Polding showed clearly the extent of McEncroe's influence and the new trend of policy, with its doubts about the 'old' Benedictinism.

Polding had taken a leisurely view of the need for new sees in New South Wales. He was not opposed to them, rather he saw them gradually evolving and filling with bishops, preferably English Benedictines. As metropolitan of Australia he believed himself responsible for guaranteeing to the British government 'the loyalty and good feeling' of any bishop appointed in the province. In 1859 he wrote to Goold, who was in Rome, naming his choices for the proposed sees in the colony. However, when the four new dioceses of Maitland (hitherto titular), Goulburn, Bathurst and Armidale were erected in the 1860s, an Irish bishop was appointed to each.

These rebuffs had continued from Polding's visit to Rome in 1854. Though personally disheartening to him, they were related to the dynamic changes in colonial society since the introduction of representative government in 1843. The era of the paternal and benevolent representatives of the British government ruling by right had gone forever with the coming of responsible government in 1856. Polding belonged to that past era as his predominantly Irish flock continually reminded him. But the rebuffs were not meant to reflect on the quality of his ministry; not could they, for the general religious progress of his archdiocese continued unabated. New forms of administration emerged but the strong bonds of affection stemming from Polding's zealous toil for his flock were strengthened by his trials. This was symbolized by his reconciliation with Plunkett, who died in 1869 soon after acting as lay secretary of the second Provincial Synod. In 1862 the New South Wales government withdrew its aid from all churches. Polding had been worried by voluntaryism; he now had full support from his flock. But he ignored the need for far-reaching changes in colonial education, and was unprepared for the Public Schools Act of 1866, which replaced the dual control of the National and Denominational Boards with a Council of Education. These alterations clearly foreshadowed the end of state aid for denominational schools, and could have been counteracted to some extent had Polding adopted a vigorous policy of recruitment of religious teachers. But he was now 72 and could not adapt himself to intensified and novel requirements in this vital field.

On 29 June 1865 St Mary's Cathedral was burned to the ground. It seemed like the final blow to Polding, but instead, it revealed to him not only the devotion of his flock, but also the respect and admiration of the colony at large, for the immediate response of Catholics to rebuild was matched by the generous support of all classes irrespective of creed. He left on his last visit to Rome on 22 November 1865; he failed to obtain a coadjutor bishop and in Ireland on a visit to Cullen was alarmed by Fenian activity. He returned to Sydney on 8 August 1867, where 'the Irish question' was playing some part in colonial politics. In October he wrote to Gregory, with whom he corresponded affectionately, that the so-called 'importation of Irish Bishops' had revived the ancient cry of 'No Popery!' Confusion was increased by a near-tragedy on 12 March 1868 when Prince Alfred was shot by 'a demented Fenian', Henry O'Farrell, at Clontarf near Sydney. The ensuing passionate excitement made Polding yearn for retirement in a monastery cell, although he was comforted by an invitation to visit the prince, who attempted sensibly to allay the bitterness.

On 6 January 1869 the temporary wooden structure at St Mary's was burnt down. Again the calamity was met with grim determination by Catholics and many others, to rebuild the cathedral, this time on a massive scale. But Polding was almost desolated; he confided to Gregory, 'I am completely bereaved, stript of all except two mitres and the stole the Pope gave me … I begin to consider myself a Jonah to be flung into the sea for the well-being of others'. He set out for the first Vatican Council on 9 October, but found the heat too much for him and returned from Aden.

He continued to press for a coadjutor. In 1871 he asked the Pope for an Englishman, 'because in a … See like this, which is the great [southern British] centre … and where there are such bitter animosities between the Irish and the Orange Societies, a man superior to all party spirit, and exalted by mental accomplishments and social virtues above the ordinary level, would be more acceptable, and, should difficulties arise, more conciliatory'. The British government agreed with the Pope's choice of Roger Bede Vaughan, a 'new' Benedictine, who arrived in Sydney late in 1873 as titular archbishop of Nazianus and coadjutor to the archbishop of Sydney. Polding slowly transferred the administration to the coadjutor, animated the archdiocese with a fresh spirit of dedication, and returned with renewed zeal to his missionary work, even travelling to Tasmania in January 1875. In 1874 he had the comfort of the heart-felt gratitude and devotion of Ullathorne and his fellow-jubilarians, who recalled how he had inspired them at Downside, 'you pictured such missioners to us as trudging from place to place like St Paul, and carrying in a pack on the back whatever was needful for the Sacrifice and the Sacraments', and after reminding him of his teaching of mathematics, physical science and metaphysics concluded, 'the best of our teaching was the spiritual unction that flowed in happy moments from your heart to ours'. In the last stages of his fatal sickness in 1877 the compassion of the whole colony went out to him, symbolized perfectly by the tears of J. D. Lang as he left the archbishop's sick-room. Polding died at Sacred Heart Presbytery, Darlinghurst, in Sydney, on 16 March 1877. He was buried in Petersham cemetery, and his remains were transferred to St Mary's Cathedral on 17 March 1901.

Select Bibliography

  • Historical Records of Australia, series 1, vols 17-26
  • P. F. Moran, History of the Catholic Church in Australasia (Syd, 1895)
  • H. N. Birt, Benedictine Pioneers in Australia, vols 1-2 (Lond, 1911)
  • T. L. Suttor, Hierarchy and Democracy in Australia, 1788-1870 (Melb, 1965)
  • M. M. Shanahan, Henry Gregory and the Abbey-Diocese of Sydney, 1835-1861 (M.A. thesis, University of Sydney, 1965)
  • Gregory papers (Downside Abbey, copy held at Sancta Sophia College, Sydney)
  • John Bede Polding papers (Catholic Archives, Sydney).

Related Entries in NCB Sites

Citation details

Bede Nairn, 'Polding, John Bede (1794–1877)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1967, accessed online 26 June 2024.

This article was published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 2, (Melbourne University Press), 1967

View the front pages for Volume 2

© Copyright Australian Dictionary of Biography, 2006-2024

John Bede Polding (1794-1877), by Henry Samuel Sadd

John Bede Polding (1794-1877), by Henry Samuel Sadd

National Library of Australia, nla.pic-an9997459

Life Summary [details]

Alternative Names
  • Poulden, John Bede
  • Polten, John Bede

18 November, 1794
Liverpool, Merseyside, England


16 March, 1877 (aged 82)
Darlinghurst, Sydney, New South Wales, Australia

Cultural Heritage

Includes subject's nationality; their parents' nationality; the countries in which they spent a significant part of their childhood, and their self-identity.

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.