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Diocese celebrates 70th anniversary of its foundation decree!

November 9, 2021

Part 1: We have a Diocese!

Written by Neil Dwyer
Archivist, Lumen Christi Parishes, Wollongong

At the end of July 1838 Father John Rigney, a Galway-born twenty-six-year-old priest, under orders from Bishop John Bede Polding travelled from Sydney via Appin to establish a mission centred on the seaside village of Wollongong; this Illawarra Mission extended from Coalcliff to Moruya.  For the next one hundred years, although the boundary of this mission would shrink, successive priests-in-charge at Wollongong often ministered to the growing local Catholic population alone.

Above: Pope Pius XII (Pontiff from 2 March 1939 to 9 October 1958)

Seventy years ago, in November 1951, the decree came from Pope Pius XII accepting the joint petition of Norman Thomas, Cardinal Gilroy, Archbishop of Sydney and Archbishop Terence McGuire of Canberra and Goulburn detaching parts of their respective dioceses to found a new diocese with the See at Wollongong. The decree from Pope Pius XII issued at Castel Gandolfo on 15 November 1951 was clear:

We place the See of the Bishop in the City of Wollongong, which we accordingly honour with the distinction of an Episcopal City. … We assign the Chair of the Bishop to the present Parish Church of Wollongong dedicated to God in honour of St Francis Xavier and We raise it to the dignity of a Cathedral, conferring upon it all the privileges, rights, honours, insignia, favours and concessions enjoyed by all other Cathedral Churches in common law.   We especially decree with regard to the clergy that as soon as these Letters of Ours have been put into effect, all the priests are considered as belonging to the Diocese in which they are lawfully placed at the time.

Pro Deo et Australia: Australian clergy for the Australian Church

In that same November of 1951 the bishop for this new diocese was named. What was assured was that the new bishop would be an Australian.  Gone were the days when bishops for diocese in Australia were sourced from Ireland.  Following the Great War, Pope Benedict XV embarked upon recovering the momentum of the Church’s missionaries spreading the Word of God throughout the World.  In an Apostolic Letter, Maximum Illud: On the Propagation of the Faith Throughout the World, issued on November 30, 1919, Pope Benedict sought a greater effort in the Catholic missions and the establishment of a strong local clergy.  He wrote

More recent years have seen the last of the unknown territories – Australia and the interior of Africa – yield to the relentless assaults of modern exploration. These years have also seen the emissaries of the Church follow the newly blazed trails into the new lands. In all the vast reaches of the Pacific it would now be difficult to find an island remote enough to have escaped the vigilance and the energy of our missionaries. [1]

Further, the Holy Father emphasised that

In this policy lies the greatest hope of the new churches.  For the local priest, one with his people by birth, by nature, by his sympathies and his aspirations, is remarkably effective in appealing to their mentality and thus attracting them to the Faith.  Far better than anyone else he knows the kind of argument they will listen to, and as a result, he often has easy access to places where a foreign priest would not be tolerated.[2]

Thus, the answer lay in having indigenous clergy to work in their homeland.  As far as the Vatican was concerned there should be Australian priests ministering to Australian Catholics and Australians filling the ecclesiastical hierarchy.  Benedict XV and his successor Pope Pius XI would send a succession of Apostolic Delegates to Australia– Archbishops Bonaventura Cerretti (1914 – 1917), Bartolomeo Cattaneo (1917 – 1933), Filippo Bernardini (1933 – 1935) and Giovanni Panico (1935 – 1948) –  to enforce the Vatican’s wishes, much to the distress of the Irish archbishops and Irish bishops of the Church in Australia.  During the 1930s concern grew among the Irish born Archbishops about the ‘Australianisation’ of the hierarchy.  The Irish born Archbishop of Brisbane, James Duhig, wrote to the Irish born Archbishop of Melbourne, Daniel Mannix, that “if we are not careful anything might happen”;[3] that is, more Australians would be appointed as bishops of Australian dioceses.

In March 1936 the new Apostolic Delegate, Archbishop Giovanni Panico, arrived in Sydney with a directive from the Vatican to increase the pace of ‘Australianisation’ and to take episcopal appointments to ‘the next level’. The change in appointing Australians rather than Irishmen for Australian dioceses was slow – one had to wait for a vacancy to occur, but … ‘cautiously watched by the six archbishops, who in 1936 were all Irish, Panico sped up the process of Australianisation which was already underway in the remote regions – hardship posts for the most part.’ [4]  On 1 July 1937, the forty-year-old Bishop of Port Augusta, Norman Thomas Gilroy, the youngest bishop in Australia at the time, was appointed Coadjutor Archbishop of Sydney with the right of succession to Sydney’s Archbishop Michael Kelly. In turn Gilroy would be succeeded by Thomas McCabe as Bishop of Port Augusta.

Above: Panico between the Irish. Archbishops Mannix (Melbourne), Kelly (Sydney) Panico (Apostolic Delegate) and Duhig (Brisbane), at the Australian Church’s Plenary Council, September 1937. From the collections of the State Library of NSW.

Thomas McCabe was born in Smithtown on the Macleay River on 30 June 1902, completed his studies at Propaganda College in Rome having obtained his Licentiate of Sacred Theology and was ordained a priest on 20 December 1925 in Rome. He returned to Australia in 1926 to serve as assistant priest at Coraki and then South Grafton in the Lismore Diocese, before being appointed Administrator of the Diocese’s St Carthage’s Cathedral in 1931.  Seven years later, on Friday 16 December 1938, the Apostolic Delegate, Archbishop Panico, announced that Father Thomas McCabe had been appointed Bishop of Port Augusta, in effect the successor to the now Coadjutor Archbishop of Sydney, Norman Gilroy.[5]  Like Norman Gilroy, Thomas McCabe was never a parish priest.  At 36 years of age McCabe, the youngest member of the clergy in Australia at that time to become a bishop, was consecrated the Bishop of Port Augusta on 12 March 1939. (The Diocese of Port Augusta was later renamed Port Pirie.)   Remarkably, McCabe was one of four priests of the Lismore Dioceses consecrated a bishop within 10 years: Terence McGuire (1930), Patrick Farrelly (1931) and Norman Gilroy (1935). Among illustrious company indeed.

In late 1946 Cardinal Gilroy accompanied by Bishop McCabe flew to Japan in an RAAF Liberator bomber to Japan in response to the appeal of Propaganda Fide to assess and respond to the need for missionaries there. The cardinal also received invitations to visit Japan from Archbishop Peter Doi of Tokyo and Bishop Paul Yamaguchi of Nagasaki, who were students with the cardinal and Bishop McCabe at Propaganda.  There was also the great fear was the spread of Communism in Asia.  ‘The people are ready and willing to break with centuries-old traditions of Buddhism and Shintoism . . . asking for instruction and baptism . . . If the Church cannot act and act fast to fill the spiritual vacuum now evident in Japan, that vacuum will most certainly be filled by those hostile to the Church.’[6] This was already a concern of the Church in Australia and a cause to which Bishop McCabe would devote himself in the industrial city of Wollongong.

Above: Cardinal Gilroy, Archbishop of Sydney, followed by Thomas McCabe, Bishop of Port Augusta, visiting Japan, December 1946 at the invitation of the Archbishop of Japan. They also had a personal audience with the Emperor of Japan.

On 15 November 1951 Pope Pius XII issued his decision for Wollongong and Bishop McCabe: “Accordingly, the Church of Wollongong on this day by Our Apostolic Letters” Pope Pius XII transferred Thomas McCabe from the Diocese of Port Pirie to the Diocese of Wollongong. To Bishop McCabe the pontiff wrote, “We nurture the strong hope that the Church in Wollongong will greatly increase under your leadership.” It would be three more weeks before the Australian public was informed.  On December 6, 1951 the lead story on page 1 of the Catholic Weekly was the possibility that Mother Mary of the Cross may be the first Australian saint with her Cause being submitted to Rome.  The only other story to appear on the front page was the announcement the previous day by the Apostolic Delegate to Australia, Archbishop Paolo Marella that “Bishop McCabe Named to Wollongong Diocese”.

The Most Reverend Thomas McCabe, D.D was installed in the newly created Cathedral of St Francis Xavier on Sunday 24 February 1952.  Norman, Cardinal Gilroy, Archbishop of Sydney said at the time “No priest or prelate known to me is better fitted to organise this diocese and inspire the priests and win the affection and the co-operation of the people more than Bishop McCabe.”[7]

To be continued in February 2022.

[1] Maximum Illud: Apostolic Letter on the Propagation of the Faith Throughout the World. 30 November 1919, paragraph 5

[2] Maximum Illud, paragraph 14

[3] Niall, B., Mannix, The Text Publishing Company, Melbourne, 2015, p.230

[4] Niall, B., Mannix, The Text Publishing Company, Melbourne, 2015, p.230

[5] Monsignor Lonergan of Melbourne was to succeed Gilroy at Port Augusta, but died before his consecration; Thomas McCabe was then appointed Bishop of Port Augusta

[6] Bishop McCabe’s 1979 account of visit to Japan in Newsletter of the Good Samaritan, Vol.4, No.7 (October 1998), p.3 in Luttrell, J., Norman Thomas Gilroy: An Obedient Life, St Paul’s Publication, Strathfield, 2017, p.117

[7] South Coast Times and Wollongong Argus, Monday 25 February 1952, p.2

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