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The fascinating history of Australia’s first Mass, and the priest who celebrated it

CASTLE HILL
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Fr. James Dixon, himself a convict, brought the Eucharist to a country where Catholicism was illegal.

The first-ever Catholic Mass in Australia was celebrated by a wrongly convicted priest, Fr. James Dixon.

James Dixon seemed destined for an unremarkable life. Born in 1758 to a well-to-do family from County Wexford in Ireland, he was educated by a local parish priest and then trained at the seminaries in Salamanca and Louvain. When he returned to Ireland to take up his position as curate in Crossabeg, Co. Wexford, he could hardly have expected what the future would hold.

The year 1798 would change his world forever.

At the end of the 18th century, Ireland was seething under British rule. In 1798, a rebellion erupted in and around Dublin. Inspired by the American and French revolutions, Catholics and Protestants banded together to oppose the tyranny of British rule in Ireland. They called themselves the United Irishmen and declared an all-out war on the British.

One of the battles, the Battle of Tubberneering, happened in Wexford near Fr, Dixon’s village. The United Irishmen rebels were defeated and the priest arrested. Fr, Dixon was accused of fighting in the battle. The evidence was flimsy and according to his local bishop, Dixon was probably mistaken for his brother Nicholas who played an active role in the 1798 Rebellion.

Fr. Dixon was court-martialed and sentenced to death. As was common at the time, his sentence was commuted to a lesser punishment: transportation to Botany Bay for life.

Botany Bay, as the new British colony of New South Wales was often called, occupied only a tiny part of the eastern coast of Australia. It had been founded in 1788 to relieve London’s over-crowded prisons. If the convicts survived the months-long journey from England to the other side of the world, they would be worked hard and often beaten. But for many, it was a far better life than they expected and together, they cobbled together a new society.

When Fr. Dixon arrived in 1800, Catholicism was illegal in the penal colony. Despite this, New South Wales had a small but growing Catholic population. About one tenth of the convicts who arrived on the First Fleet were Irish Catholics and many of the Royal Marines who controlled the fledgeling colony were also Irish Catholics.

Now, after the 1798 rising, there were even more Irish Catholic convicts and they were growing restless. Something had to be done. In order to placate the new Irish convicts, the Governor at the time agreed to allow Mass to be celebrated in the colony. After permissions were also granted from Rome, the Governor went to the nearest priest he could find in a penal colony — the convicted rebel James Dixon.

The first Catholic Mass in Australia took place in Sydney on May 15, 1803. The colony of convicted felons, rebels, and soldiers had no time or money for expensive liturgical apparel or elaborate designs. They had to do with what they had. 

They made vestments out of old curtains and forged a chalice made of tin. With these simple makeshift materials, the first public Mass on Australian soil was celebrated. Jesus had been condemned by the Roman state, whipped, beaten, mocked, and rejected by society. Now, at the words of this convict priest, He became truly present on the altar to take away the sins of the world.

The joy of the new Australian Catholics, however, was short-lived.

Less than a year later, a rebellion broke out in Sydney among the convicts. Martial law was declared and the rebellion was quickly and brutally suppressed. Although Fr. Dixon did not take part in the uprising, even appealing to the rebels to put down their arms when they were surrounded, the Governor didn’t care. The rebellion involved Irish Catholics and the authorities were sure that they used the cover of Mass to plot against the British Army. 

The Governor outlawed Catholicism and revoked Fr. James’ right to act as a Catholic priest. He forced all the convicts, including the Catholic convicts, to attend Anglican church services. 

Although he couldn’t celebrate Mass publicly, Fr. Dixon did what he could. He continued to baptize, marry, and bury his Catholic parishioners in secret. Eventually, his good conduct was recognized. He was granted early release and returned to Ireland in 1808, dying in his native Wexford in 1840.

For Australian Catholics, however, it would be 13 years before another Mass was allowed in Australia.

Today, Catholics make up about 23% of Australia’s population and form the largest Christian church in the country. The Church in Australia, however, began much humbler and poorer. It seems only right that the first priest of this penal colony was also a convict. Probably innocent of his crimes, he was ever-faithful to his vows as a Catholic priest.

Even on the other side of the world.

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