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John Joseph Therry (1790–1864)

by J. Eddy

This article was published:

John Joseph Therry (1790-1864), Catholic priest, the son of John Therry, of Cork, Ireland, and his wife Eliza, née Connolly, was educated privately and at St Patrick's College, Carlow. Ordained priest in 1815, he was assigned to parochial work in Dublin and then Cork, where he became secretary to the bishop, Dr Murphy. His interest in Australia, aroused by the transportation of Irish convicts and the publicity surrounding the forced return of Father Jeremiah O'Flynn in 1818, came to the notice of Bishop Edward Bede Slater, whom Pius VII had appointed vicar-apostolic of the 'Cape of Good Hope, Madagascar, Mauritius, and New Holland with the adjacent islands'. At the same time the Colonial Office had consented under the pressure of radical demand, the increasing influence of the Irish hierarchy and the somewhat diffident promptings of Bishop Poynter, vicar-apostolic of the London district, to send two official Roman Catholic chaplains to New South Wales. Recommended by his own bishop as a capable, zealous and 'valuable young man', Therry sailed from Cork under a senior priest, Father Philip Conolly, in the Janus, which carried more than a hundred prisoners. They arrived in Sydney, authorized by both church and state, in May 1820.

Therry described his life in Australia for the next forty-four years as 'one of incessant labour very often accompanied by painful anxiety'. Popular, energetic and restless, he appreciated from the beginning the delicacy of his role. He had to be at once a farseeing pastor making up for years of neglect, a conscientious official of an autocratic British colonial system, and a pragmatic Irish supporter of the democratic freedoms. Though respectful of authority and grateful for co-operation, he was impatient of any curtailment of what he considered his own legal or social rights as a Catholic priest in a situation governed by extraordinary circumstances.

The immediate tasks of instruction, visitation and administration of the Sacraments went ahead, and Governor Lachlan Macquarie's initial attitude of executive peremptoriness combined with abrupt, detailed regulation gave way to a gruff but friendly trust. Commissioner John Thomas Bigge was courteous and helpful. In 1821 Father Conolly, an eccentric temperamentally incompatible with his companion, went to Van Diemen's Land, leaving Therry for five seminal years the only priest on the mainland. Articulate and thorough, he set himself the task of attending to every aspect of the moral and religious life of the Catholics. He travelled unceasingly, living with his scattered people wherever they were to be found, sometimes using three or four horses in a day. His influence was impressive among the Protestant settlers and outstanding among the convicts. His correspondence shows the trust they placed in him. For the rest of his life he was banker, adviser and arbitrator to many of them as well as spiritual director and community leader. He also early formed a lasting interest in the Aboriginals, who became very attached to him. He pleaded the cause of their education to Governor (Sir) Ralph Darling and in 1834 wrote to the governor's private secretary renewing his offer of services and accommodation.

The building of a church in Sydney, planned from the first days of the chaplaincy, was one of Therry's main preoccupations. The assistance or substantial tolerance of the leading colonists was assured, and on 29 October 1821 Governor Macquarie laid the foundation stone of St Mary's Church on a site he had assigned at the edge of Hyde Park, near the convict barracks. Francis Greenway made himself available for consultation on the architecture and construction. John Campbell, John Piper and Frederick Goulburn were regularly involved in the organization of subscriptions. Government help was promised, but Therry was criticized for the elaborate design and size of the building, and the project quickly got out of hand financially. His accounts, never very coherent though always scrupulously maintained, became progressively more chaotic as his charities multiplied and the financing of schools and churches in Sydney, Parramatta, and the outlying townships involved him in attempts to raise funds by farming and stock-breeding. The scattered and casual nature of his dealings, the absence of a reliable and able book-keeper and his own sanguine character made financial crisis inevitable. His failure to separate private and public matters hampered and indeed later crippled his apostolate. But demands for his service came from the hospital, gaols, farms, the government establishments, his own day and Sunday schools, and from road-gangs and assigned convicts. He went, whenever summoned, to Wollongong, Goulburn, Maitland, Bathurst and Newcastle.

Oppressive behaviour by officials or settlers towards the soldiers or convicts angered him, particularly where religious issues were involved. He was bitterly resentful of his exclusion from certain government institutions, especially the Orphan School, where he was unhappy about children whose parents were Catholic being baptized and instructed by the Anglican chaplains. By 1824, however, the patronage of Governor Sir Thomas Brisbane and his own growing experience encouraged him to hope for impartiality and support. He was confident that, with the arrival of new priests to share his work, a remarkable expansion of Catholic practice and activity was possible. With the aid of his committees, trustees and friends, and the advent of what he termed 'a free, liberal and talented press', he began to feel secure. He had even been held up by the governor as a model of discrimination and good judgment to the zealous and horrified Presbyterian pioneer, the recently arrived Dr John Dunmore Lang.

When the British government decided on a major religious adjustment to ensure the stability and increase the influence of the straining overseas branches of the state Church, Therry along with other Dissenters found himself fighting once more for permission to carry out vital services of his ministry. In New South Wales the appointment of Archdeacon Thomas Scott was accompanied by the creation of the Church and School Corporation in 1825. In its provisions the Church of England was overwhelmingly favoured. Therry was proud of his friendship and contacts with non-Catholics and irenical rather than sectarian by conviction, but found it hard enough to cope with the demands of the ten thousand Catholics for assembly, instruction and burial without the added unwelcome prospect of perpetual disputes with the privileged Anglicans over precedence, registration, fees and access to colonial funds. Already a rallying point for religious grievance, he now became prominent in a possible opposition party. On 14 June 1825 the Sydney Gazette misquoted him as having but 'qualified' respect for 'the other Revd. Gentlemen of the Establishment'. The incident was magnified in a time of tension. Bathurst was shocked at Therry's pragmatic approach to those regulations he regarded as unjust or petty and at his open assault on religious monopoly. He was removed from his official situation as chaplain and his salary was withdrawn soon after the arrival of Governor Darling. Despite frequent and general protest he was not reinstated until 1837. However, Therry had grown accustomed to fend for himself and saw that the generosity of his friends and his countrymen would enable him to carry on much as he had done. He decided to stay and to represent his claims. His criticisms were enthusiastically taken up by William Charles Wentworth and Robert Wardell in the Australian, and Edward Smith Hall in the Monitor. Darling distrusted Therry's influence among the convicts, but decided to ignore rather than to expel him, chiefly because his removal 'would in all probability have called forth some expression of the public opinion in his favour'.

The withdrawal of government approval involved Therry in continual disabilities and hindrances in the exercise of his priestly functions, especially in the visitation of the sick and dying in gaols and hospitals, and in the performance of marriages. But even after the arrival of Father Daniel Power as official chaplain in December 1826 Therry remained the chief influence. The two priests had more work than they could deal with, but Therry's impetuosity and Power's inadequate health led them into a series of collisions, particularly when the building of St Mary's came to a standstill and Therry demanded more vigorous action. Father Power died in March 1830 and Therry was again left alone with his mounting debts and worries. His genius for publicity and organization is illustrated in the repeated representations made on his behalf by the principal officials and magistrates, and supported in March 1830 by over 1400 householders. Grudgingly he was permitted to act as chaplain without status or salary. His popularity and energy made it impossible for Father Christopher Dowling, who arrived in September 1831, to replace him in the public estimation, much to the chagrin of both newcomer and governor.

The arrival of Governor Bourke, the news of Catholic emancipation, the collapse of the Church and School Corporation, and the appointment first of Roger Therry as commissioner of the Court of Requests in 1829 and of John Hubert Plunkett as solicitor-general in 1832, both loyal friends of Therry, offered new opportunities for Catholic progress. Yet Therry was still frustrated and unrecognized when Father John McEncroe landed in June 1832. McEncroe was quite capable of managing the indomitable but stubborn veterans and making them lifelong colleagues and confidants. A dispute about the St Mary's land had become deadlocked through Therry's obstinacy, and disastrous litigation was in prospect when Bishop Morris, Slater's successor, appointed the English Benedictine, Father William Ullathorne, as his vicar-general in the colony. Despite his youth, Ullathorne's confidence and ecclesiastical authority enabled him to take over the reins from Therry when he arrived in February 1833. The first bishop, John Bede Polding, came in 1835 and Therry went willingly as parish priest to Campbelltown, with an area extending beyond Yass as his immediate care. By Bourke's Church Act of 1836 the principle of religious equality had been accepted in the colony, and in April 1837 he was restored to a government salary.

In April 1838 he was sent by Polding to Van Diemen's Land as vicar-general. It was intended also that he should visit Port Phillip on his way, but he did not do so, going to Launceston and thence to Hobart Town, where Father Conolly had become estranged from his people, and the usual difficulties had arisen about jurisdiction, salaries and the deeds of church land. Therry reconciled Conolly before the latter's death in August 1839. He visited the interior and attended to the convicts. His church building at Hobart and Launceston was assisted by Sir John Franklin's spasmodic patronage, but on St Joseph's Hobart, and on the schools demanded by the free settlers, he overreached himself. Loneliness, responsibility, illness and debt pressed heavily on him and he found himself again struggling for justice and religious equality in the government institutions. In July 1841 he visited Sydney briefly to get help and to try to clear up some of his business entanglements. There he was consulted by Caroline Chisholm, whom he was able to help and advise about her first plans to work among the emigrants. Though sick, he was thinking of a mission to New Zealand and perhaps the Pacific Islands, and formed an interest which in 1860 prompted him to implore Governor Sir William Denison to put an end to the Maori wars and to offer his own services as mediator.

Dr Robert Willson, the first bishop, arrived in Hobart in May 1844. He had not expected the church debts to be so great or so complicated, and the two men fell out. A long and dreary dispute arose, especially about the St Joseph's property. Neither man had much humour, and not all the goodwill they certainly possessed, or the good offices of Polding, McEncroe, Charles Swanston of the Derwent Bank, the colonial secretary or Rome itself could bring an end to the quarrel, which smouldered for fourteen miserable years. The affair became an idée fixe with Therry, who stayed on for fear that his lay trustees would be victimized or that his debts would not be met in a time of depression. In September 1846, however, he went to Melbourne as parish priest in the place of Father Patrick Geoghegan who had founded the church there. He remained until April 1847.

Therry was at Windsor in New South Wales as parish priest until June 1848 when he returned to live in Van Diemen's Land for six years. His efforts to settle affairs there were unsuccessful and, after a period of adjustment in New South Wales, he went in May 1856 to Balmain where he spent the rest of his life. Mellowed and serene, he continued to be an energetic pastor, watching the growth of the church in whose establishment he had played such a definitive part, the coming of the religious Orders, and the completion of his own church at Balmain and the first St Mary's, generously contributing whenever he could to every new development. He became spiritual director to the Sisters of Charity at St Vincent's, and in 1858 was made archpriest, taking precedence after the vicar-general. In 1859 he was elected a founding fellow of the council of St John's College within the University of Sydney. He had been given or had bought a number of properties which he tried to develop for the provision of more schools and churches for the growing Catholic community. Notable among these were his farms at Bong Bong and Albury, a property which is now the suburb of Lidcombe, and 1500 acres (607 ha) at Pittwater, where he tried unsuccessfully to mine coal.

Simple and unselfish, a firm democrat and a zealous priest, Therry was a man of large notions and considerable achievement. He was an unsophisticated man with no clear ideas of social systems or political reform. Yet his energy and persistence proved a continual source of trouble to those who opposed his ideas of what was right or possible. Of the middle class, gentle, 'pious, zealous, and obstinate', he admired but lacked the education and ability of his more vivid contemporaries. But despite his peculiarities and limitations he undertook many obligations and responsibilities which would in the circumstances have crushed greater men. His enthusiasm and sincerity assure him of a firm place among the founders of the Catholic Church and in the history of civil liberties in Australia. He firmly believed in a distant future for which he built, often regardless of existing conditions. A legend in his own lifetime, he died on 25 May 1864, and his funeral was 'certainly the most numerously attended' ever seen in Sydney to that date. His remains are now in the crypt of St Mary's Cathedral, where the Lady Chapel was erected as his memorial.

Select Bibliography

  • Correspondence Relative to St Joseph's Church, Hobart Town (Hob, 1850)
  • P. F. Moran, History of the Catholic Church in Australasia (Syd, 1895)
  • H. N. Birt, Benedictine Pioneers in Australia, vols 1-2 (Lond, 1911)
  • E. M. O'Brien, Life and Letters of Archpriest John Joseph Therry, vols 1-2 (Syd, 1922)
  • E. M. O'Brien, The Dawn of Catholicism in Australia, vols 1-2 (Syd, 1928)
  • J. H. Cullen, The Catholic Church in Tasmania (Launceston, 1949)
  • J. H. Cullen, ‘The Dispute Between Dr Willson and Father Therry (1st Phase: 1840-1844, Part 1)’, Australasian Catholic Record, vol 28, no 4, Oct 1951, pp 313-22
  • '1st Phase: part 2, 1845-1847', vol 29, no 1, Jan 1952, pp 20-27
  • '2nd Phase: 1847-1853', vol 29, no 2, Apr 1952, pp 117-24
  • 'Final Phase: 1853-1858', vol 29, no 3, July 1952, pp 205-14
  • 'Seeking a Verdict', vol 29, no 4, Oct 1952, pp 305-16
  • John Therry papers (Canisius College, Pymble).

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Citation details

J. Eddy, 'Therry, John Joseph (1790–1864)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1967, accessed online 13 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 Therry, n.d.

John Therry, n.d.

Campbelltown & Airds Historical Society, 003336

Life Summary [details]




25 May, 1864 (aged ~ 74)
New South Wales, Australia

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