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History of the Diocese Project

21 June, 2021

Dr Maree Ganley is currently gathering material for the writing of a history of the Diocese of Rockhampton.  She addressed the Mackay Men’s Dinner with an account of aspects of the Church’s history in that region.  An edited version appears below.  Dr Ganley will be visiting across the diocese in the coming months to collect the stories, your stories of the presence of the Church in the life of your local area.

Gidgee under the Cross – Sugar in the Blood  

The life and experiences of the people of the Catholic Diocese of Rockhampton – an historical approach.

The history of the founding of the Catholic Church in Mackay had as dramatic beginnings as many with other pioneering endeavours in its growth and development.

In the first issue of the ‘Mackay Mercury’ and ‘South Kennedy Advertiser’ Wednesday April 4, 1866 at a time when Mackay was only one parish, there appears the account of the opening of Mackay’s first church – the Catholic Church – with the first parish priest or (‘missioner’ as he was called), Father Thomas Augustine Lonergan. It was while he was travelling around the district canvassing for funds to erect the church that Father Lonergan was bailed up by the legendary highwayman known as the ‘The Wild Scotchman’.

It was reported that the highwayman however, returned the money to Father Lonergan, on hearing of the purpose for which the money was collected. The Catholic Church was built but not on as grand a scale as other denominations in the Mackay settlement. Perhaps the Wild Scotchman kept some of the change.

The story of how the Catholic Diocese of Rockhampton was formed has been well documented in the Centenary publication of 1982 which was the result of a thorough recording of what were deemed key aspects of the Rockhampton diocese’s first 100-year history. That history was authored by Mackay local historians Mrs Berenice Wright and the late Mr Rod Manning. What a mammoth task that was, given the vast geographical dimensions and enormous diversity of countries of origin for the people who settled in coastal and central western Queensland. The title of my talk this evening Gidgee Under the Cross and Sugar in the Blood recognises the geographical and ethnic diversity of the diocese. The Rockhampton Diocese in Central Queensland covers 920,000 square kilometres. In comparison Ireland is 84,421 square kilometres. Until 1930 the Rockhampton Catholic diocese extended north of the Tropic of Capricorn to Cape York.

For the purposes of assembling a history of this diocese, I have imagined the diocesan reach as a cross – to include the two major geographical distributions of the diocese. The coastal regions of the diocese are on the cross beam and the central western regions are on the upright beam of the cross.

I am challenged now to gather aspects of 140 years of history. I propose that this can be achieved by applying a new set of eyes in the light of evidence from more recent research, and with a focus to gather rich data from oral history.

In comparative terms when exploring the history of Christianity, the beginning of the Catholic Church in Australia is a short period of time, in the universal Catholic/Christian faith development. Nevertheless, that universal nature of Catholicity had a profound effect on Australian pioneer Catholics no matter how remote their location. This was due firstly to the travelling missionary priests of the 19th century mostly from Ireland and northern Europe travelling through Queensland on horseback or boat. In the 19th century, when Irish priests were being recruited for work in the missions of the Australian colonies, the key criteria for selection were, a priest must speak Gaelic and can ride a horse.

Bishop Michael has rightly established a sense of urgency because authentic history begins with the lived experiences of being Catholic, told firsthand by local descendants. That is probably strategy one– to gather in those stories. The history of the city of Rockhampton, regional cities such as Mackay and of more remote towns has been covered by local historians.

It seems to me that the Coastal regions of Mackay, Sarina, Yeppoon, Emu Park, Gladstone and Bundaberg need particular attention in any new history of the Diocese of Rockhampton because of the changing social and cultural landscape and because of developing regional industry over the past forty years.

For the Catholic Church the changing religious landscape from that very tightknit, secure setting of the local parish community of church, school, convent, a community of sisters and resident parish priest no longer exists. I will be relying on people from local regions to help me to record the history of that changing face of the Catholic Church and of the personal impact on those who began their lives as baptised Catholics.

From the research so far, I will relate one colourful snapshot from the late 1950s central Queensland, that encapsulates the life of Catholics in regional Queensland that was the traditional local Catholic Church in action before Vatican II.

In the late 1930s just after the Great Depression in the Alpha/Jericho region, ownership of motor cars became more common because people were more prosperous, but the roads were still long, lonely, and dusty. In Alpha in 1936 the hazards of dusty roads and distances of the period are illustrated by experiences that surrounded the death of Mr Francis Dillon of Surbiton, 54 kilometres outside Alpha. Irishman and Catholic priest Father Lawrence McQuestion was summonsed to administer the last rites to Mr Dillon. However Father McQuestion was suffering from tuberculosis, so two sisters of St Joseph from the Alpha convent accompanied him.

They had the good sense to bring a 12-year-old boy with them as he did the driving in the priest’s car while the poor priest was haemorrhaging blood en-route.  As his condition deteriorated Josephite Sister Elizabeth Miller, who had been a nurse, administered morphia and the 12-year-old boy drove into Alpha for a doctor and ambulance. Father Pyke raced from Clermont to Surbiton thinking he would be administering the last rites to Fr McQuestion who did survive that emergency.

Father Pyke was to have performed a wedding in Clermont and the bride fearful of ill fortune if she took off her bridal gown, sat up all night dressed as she was, to await Father Pyke’s return.

The corollary to these incidents involved the family of the same Frank Dillon. Fast forward Catholic history in Alpha into the 1950s when Frank Dillon’s grandson left Surbiton to attend boarding school at St Brendan’s Yeppoon. He like many country boys always had one eye on the blackboard and one out the window counting the days until he returned to life on the property.

Unfortunately, there were science classes, and the sub-junior science teacher was Brother Richard Broderick whose modus operandi was to stand the boys around the room for science question and answer sessions. He was much feared particularly by rather small boys like young Frank Dillon. There was the chant that was repeated around the room by Brother Broderick and boys.

Brother Broderick: ‘Repeat H2SplusSO3 = ?; Student: “don’t know Brother”.

Repeat H2SplusSO3 = ?; Student: “don’t know Brother”.

At the end of the year young Frank Dillon left St Brendan’s to begin a new life without Brother Broderick’s harassment and began his Junior year at Christian Brother’s Charters Towers. At the first day of Junior Science in Charters Towers in walked Brother Broderick. He had been transferred from St Brendan’s.

Here was the church of the 1950s in full swing. So what of the history of the Catholic Church around Mackay in those same years of the late 1950s. If we go by Bill Oliver’s account in his 1997 memoir ‘Sugar in the Blood’ things would have been tough for Catholics from all walks of life in the sugar industry. Anyone applying for executive positions had deep sectarian hurdles to overcome. When Bill Oliver was applying for a position in the Sydney CSR head office in the laboratory, it was made clear to him on application that aspiring applicants for CSR staff positions required three essential qualifications:

  • Membership of the Church of England or similar Protestant faith
  • Relationship to or well known to a present or past CSR officer.
  • Attendance at a Protestant G.P.S school, preferably in the case of NSW applicants from Shore, Grammar or Kings

Perhaps there were the ethnic and sectarian problems around Mackay for those men from all ethnic origins working in the cane fields. My Greek dad was one, in Mackay in the early 1940s in his younger years when discrimination both religious and ethnic was real.

A focus on human experience and endeavour, frees up a history that can get bogged down in dates, buildings and significant administrators. Included in the focus on the history of Catholic beliefs and practices, of the Catholic Church of the Rockhampton diocese, is the commitment to a deep and unfathomable search for the sacred in a Catholic context.

In the spirit of your own Mackay region pioneer priest Father Pierre Bucas, I think we must take Indigenous history into account if we are to establish an authentic record of the presence of the Church in central Queensland.

We have lots more history to uncover in many and varied forms. It will be demanding but I hope it will be personally rewarding for all participants and a gift to the diocese of Rockhampton. My task is to establish a structure that allows people like yourselves as a group of Mackay Catholic men to access the rich history of the Rockhampton Catholic Diocese from its beginnings to the present.

Dr Maree Ganley

(excerpt of address given at the monthly Catholic men’s dinner Mackay May 31, 2021)