Early Church in Australia--no priests, lots of Catholics

There was no Catholic priest on the first convict fleet to Australia in (dep. 1787; arr. 1788) and none would arrive at the colony until 1803, some 15 years later. Irish Catholic convicts made up a significant portion of the whole. Many more arrived in the next few years.

The history books simply gloss over this fact with the calm assertion that “the convicts practised their faith in secret, whenever opportunity allowed” (or something like that).

It would be hard for a Catholic to practise his/her faith without the Eucharist.

Thinking about this, I have to wonder: did they practise the Eucharist without an ordained Priest? Would such extreme circumstances make them (to coin a phrase) “priests by necessity”? What if a pious convict took on the role of priest?
What would the Church’s position be?

What if I found myself in the middle of nowhere (stranded on the proverbial desert island with a few ragged Catholic survivors), with no hope of a Priest suddenly turning up. Assuming I had the necessary bread and wine, would I be justified in practising the Eucharist, provided I got the words right and had the right intentions? Could I also hear confession, provided I kept it in confidence? Administer the Last Rites? etc, etc?

Any ideas or insight? I haven’t yet checked the Cathechism… off to do that now!

Just found this snippet:

1369 The whole Church is united with the offering and intercession of Christ. Since he has the ministry of Peter in the Church, the Pope is associated with every celebration of the Eucharist, wherein he is named as the sign and servant of the unity of the universal Church. The bishop of the place is always responsible for the Eucharist, even when a priest presides; the bishop’s name is mentioned to signify his presidency over the particular Church, in the midst of his presbyterium and with the assistance of deacons. The community intercedes also for all ministers who, for it and with it, offer the Eucharistic sacrifice:

Let only that Eucharist be regarded as legitimate, which is celebrated under [the presidency of] the bishop or him to whom he has entrusted it. (emphasis mine)

Seems like there’s no allowance for an emergency Eucharist.

No, there is no evidence they attempted a sacrilegious Eucharist. They like all Catholics without a priest continued to do what they have always done when persecuted or otherwise penalized for practice of the faith, or prevented by lack of priests. They read or recited scripture if it was available, or from memory, often aided by the rosary and other prayers, recited in private or together if they were allowed to gather, and at least intentionally if not informally asked for spiritual communion. How did many of those Irish become convicts? By violating the penal laws enacted by Britain against practice of the Catholic faith, and by political action to overturn those laws (which did sadly then as now include violent acts at times). Bear in mind that the Eucharist celebrated on all the altars of the entire world at all times makes Christ sacramentally present in the world, even to those who cannot benefit from reception of the sacred species.

I don’t think at that time the English were particularly concerned with the spiritual well-being of their Catholic prisoners. At that time Catholicism was very much a minority religion in England. It was required of anybody seeking any sort of public office or membership in the military to be confessed members of the Church of England. Even civil servants had to take the same sort of oath. I don’t think the hierarchy was reestablished in England until the 1820s or 1830s.

So you have a culture and government that is officially hostile to the Catholic faith and has enacted laws to limit career and economic possibilities for those that practice the faith. Combine this with the fact that the Irish were occupied by England at this point. So the practice of a faith that was prohibited by law in England among a convict population that had its origins among a detested population one can see why it took so long a priest to make his way to Ireland.

The faith probably survived because of the memorized prayers of the convicts and the lessons they learned in their churches growing up. If non-convict vessels arrived it’s also probable that Catholic sailors on those ships smuggled in tracts and catechisms for the Irish convicts to use. These could’ve been other Irish sailors or Africans or Spanish, or Portuguese or Italians that sailed on these vessels and at great risk to themselves could’ve passed along tracts and pamphlets to these people. It would be extremely fascinating to know if this is really what happened. I can almost certainly guarantee the British were doing nothing to ensure the survival of the faith.

Unfortunately, until a priest arrived they could not have a mass or confess their sins or receive the other sacraments. There are no provisions I know of that allow for emergency sacraments due to the fact you’re out in the middle of nowhere. There are reports from Russia that after the communist revolution in 1917 and after many priests were murdered the underground church would lovingly preserve the altar cloths the last divine liturgy they witnessed was served on using the idea that it might contain a fragment of the eucharist and at the very least the body of Christ rested on that cloth. This might go on for years until another priest made his way through to that region. At no time did they try to simulate a eucharistic celebration.


I know a little about this period. All convicts, including Catholics, were ordered to attend services of the Church of England, refusal to attend could result in 25 lashes for the first refusal, 50 for the second and transportation to a penal settlement (prison settlement) for the third refusal. At later times they were just sent to jail for a while. Enforced attendance for convicts lasted from 1788 and well into the 1820s.

The first Masses were permitted by a convict priest (political prisoner) in 1803 (Sydney and district) but this was revoked at the end of 1804 when anti-Catholics made out that the ‘meetings’ were to ferment a rebellion. Father Dixon left the colony in 1808.

In 1817 a Father Flynn came to Australia (Sydney) but was almost immediately jailed for not being sanctioned by the Britrish government (he had been sanctioned by Rome though). He was released and for a short time travelled around performing Masses but in the end was ordered to leave the Colony. He spent several weeks secretly hidden in the cottage of William Davis (site next to today’s St Patrick’s church, Church Hill, Sydney).

Father Flynn secretly administered the Holy Eucharist to people who came by and at night went out to minister to sick or dying Catholics. He kept the Holy Sacrament reserved in a sacred pyx in a cedar press (sort of a cupboard) in Davis cottage. Unfortunately he was arrested soon after and deported. There were no priests left in the colony. The Holy Sacrament remained in the cedar press for two years and the Colony’s Catholics could come by and secretly adore the Eucharist, pray the rosary and pray for a priest to come to the Colony.

Their prayers were answered and two priest were sent out in 1820 mainly to minister to the free Catholics of the Colony.

That’s how it was for Catholics here. Masses from 1820 were at first celebrated in private houses but it took years before proper churches were built.

We are not people’s Church. We are hierarchical Church. Only priest can consecrate the bread and wine to Eucharist.

Catholics w/o priest can get together, pray, sing, but they cannot celebrate Masses w/o validly ordained priest. God’s grace is not bound to the sacraments.

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