Jesuit Historiography Online

Historiography of the Australian Province
(7,935 words)

David Strong, S.J.
[email protected]

Last modified: June 2017

The Australian province was founded as a mission to South Australia by the Austrian province in 1848. Jesuits settled initially in Sevenhill, established a school, and then parishes in the north of the state, as well as mission stations around the Daly River, in current-day Northern Territory. In 1865, the Irish province began an independent mission to Victoria with Jesuits following the Irish pattern of ministry: working in education and parishes. The two missions amalgamated under the administration of the Irish province in 1900. Ministry extended into the field of tertiary education, residential university colleges, and seminaries. The mission became a vice-province in 1931 and a province in 1950. With increased numbers of Jesuits at that time, the province took over a mission in India, the Hazaribagh region, now a thriving Jesuit province. In Australia, Jesuits worked in all pastoral ministries, advised bishops, criticized governments and educational systems, answered religious questions on radio, debated with atheists, edited periodicals, lectured in universities, and prepared tertiary students for adult Christian involvement in professional life. Extra-institutional ministries to the homeless and native Australians were established, while some Jesuits collaborated with other provinces in developing countries of the Asia-Pacific assistancy.

Reflecting on religious history in Australia, Manning Clark opposed Protestant and Catholic theology and view of life as foundational for the history of the nation.1 However, most religious history in Australia is much less ambitious, usually dealing with the relation of religion to external politics, and the institutional politics of the church, describing the systems of influence and control that religious bodies hold over moral and political behavior, and describing the relationship between behavior and belief.2

Early Province Histories

Much religious history has been antiquarian, the function of which was, in retrieving empirical data from the past, to give identity, a sense of origin, celebration, and political power to those for whom it was written. Facts of events were described, without giving meaning to the data. Early Jesuit history in Australia was largely antiquarian and unpublished.

Br. Francis Poelzl’s account of the development of the Austrian Jesuit mission in South Australia from 1848 to 1898 highlighted the Jesuit passion to record facts and details. The essence of Jesuit life was portrayed in its records: every daily detail, such as the time the fathers left the house at Sevenhill and set off on a trip to the northern regions of Australia, where they said mass and at what times, what churches they opened and where, how many baptisms and marriages they performed, and how many Holy Communions were distributed.3

Fr. Patrick Dalton wrote a brief story of the college at Sevenhill, run by the Austrian Jesuits, listing the students, teachers, subjects taught annually, and describing the daily way of life, and how the school was affected by the missionary activities of the priests, with even senior boys taking classes. He also wrote a History of the Jesuits in South Australia, from the arrival of the Austrian Jesuits in 1848 to 1948. It was a work that reached manuscript form and was published only in 1989, when Fr. Paul Cleary took the initiative to present the galley proofs as an outsized pamphlet.4 These works showed the heroic deeds of these pioneer Jesuit missionaries despite poverty and hardships.

Gregory O’Kelly (later Bishop O’Kelly) wrote a different history of the early Austrian missions to Northern Australia as a dissertation for an arts honors degree.5 He detailed life on four Jesuit mission stations, one at Palmerston and three along the Daly River, 1882–99. While scholars had researched various tribal areas in Northern Australia, no detailed narrative of the Jesuit missions had been written.6 Building on previous research, O’Kelly sought to describe the activities of these missions from the perspective of the missionaries, to assess their impact on the lives of the aborigines, and to look at reasons for their failure. He was able to draw upon the extensive primary sources available in the Australian Jesuit province archives, as well as the South Australian state archives.

O’Kelly believed that the Jesuit mission was unique because it called for “small stations in different tribal territories rather than one large center.” Also it was specifically modeled among the lines of the Jesuit reductions in Paraguay, which lasted from 1607 until the expulsion of the Jesuits from Spanish territories in 1768.7 The Jesuits in the Daly River missions mimicked the Paraguay missions with small-staffed stations in tribal territories, preserved the local language, and emphasized song and music—all with a socialist aim to improve the conditions of the local indigenous peoples. These Jesuits were able to draw upon a tradition of missionary experience, yet these missions failed. Factors such as remoteness, floods, the poor health of missionaries, inadequate soil for growing crops, and lack of finance and support from the Australian Catholic Church, all contributed to the decline and closure of these mission stations.

Fr. Michael Watson wrote an early history of the Society of Jesus in Australia.8 Watson came to Australia in 1873, and from his base at St. Patrick’s College, Melbourne, he spent much of his life writing. He edited the Messenger of the Sacred Heart from 1887, and the Madonna from 1898. He was a sound theologian and widely read in literature. He authored some pious books and pamphlets, as well as verses, and contributed articles to the local Catholic newspaper, The Advocate. His history of the Jesuits in the early days was placed in the context of the history of colonial Australia. In largely diary form, he narrated the growth of Catholicism up to the arrival of the Austrian Jesuits in 1848, then traced the growth of the South Australian mission, and concluded with that of the Irish mission up to 1910. Narrating events in the early days of the Austrian mission, he acknowledged the assistance of the diaries of Fr. Joseph Polk and Br. Francis Poelzl. The manuscript aimed at edification, and painted a picture of dedicated work by pioneer Jesuits who were rewarded with much success. Letters of appreciation of their work by notable laymen and important clerics were proudly included in the narrative. It was a dispassionate and objective account relying on factual data available to Watson.

Fr. George O’Neill wrote the next history of the province from 1848 to 1940, a detailed but not always accurate account of the growth and achievements of Jesuits in Australia. It was “a record of ninety-two years, facts drawn from the written and oral testimonies of a vast variety of people, […] a story of growth” of the Jesuits from one member in 1848 to 220 members in 1938. O’Neill called it “a factual history,” recording events and anecdotal stories, from primary sources, in language edifying and confident, with no attempt to relate the narrative to a world outside itself, and uncritical of the processes at work. Ironically, it remained unpublished because superiors considered it too critical of individuals still living—that criticism was barely visible. Jesuit superiors required history to be edifying and uncritical.9

Modern Institutional Histories

Ursula Bygott wrote the first scholarly general history of the Jesuits in Victoria and New South Wales from 1865 until 1939. She did not enter into the processes by which Jesuits came to an understanding of themselves, keeping rather to an institutional, non-cultural history of the Jesuits, commenting on the written texts rather than behavior, and describing the activities of people without great interest in what may have been the function of ritual in the Jesuit life or actual cultural elements of belief that could be seen as distinctly Jesuit.10

Two histories of individual Jesuit institutions were written in the late 1970s: one, unpublished, by Gerard Windsor about St. Ignatius’ College, Riverview, New South Wales, and the other, published, by Gregory Dening on the history of Xavier College, Kew, Victoria.

Windsor’s work was cultural and institutional, describing the tension between a successful European tradition of Jesuit education and the social and cultural aspects of one Jesuit school in Australia. He critically surveyed the goals and behavior of Australian Jesuits at Riverview, assessing them against the Jesuit ideal of a liberal, classical education, the only tradition he believed to be authentically Jesuit. By contrasting the differences between myth (rhetoric) and reality, he concluded that Riverview was distinctive in Australian social and religious history by not being part of any homogeneous Catholic tradition in Australia, but that the school generally failed to realize the traditional European ideal. He appeared dismissive of processes that produced the non-classical Jesuit teacher, and failed to appreciate the influence of the Australian social and cultural values on Jesuits at Riverview.11 The influences on Jesuit culture were wider and deeper than the Irish and Roman ones proposed by Windsor.

The Jesuit ethos was deeply embedded in Windsor. He had been a Jesuit scholastic, and wrote with passion about his own experiences as a Jesuit.12 He depicted a strong masculine culture, which lived a life that was separate and remote from the experiences of most Australian communities. His description of the rituals of daily life as a young Jesuit highlighted the exclusivity of the life, which developed “bonding and brotherhood” in an environment that was strongly Irish Catholic just prior to the changes that occurred at Vatican II. He wrote about his departure from the Society, placing it in the context of the number of Jesuits leaving the order at the time, and the difficulties inherent in living a detached religious life in the secular world. Despite leaving the Jesuits, Windsor expressed a sense of loss of the brotherhood that he experienced when a member of the order.

After the Windsor history, Errol Lea-Scarlett published an official history of Riverview. In the preface, the then headmaster, Fr. Gregory O’Kelly, described it as a “story of one’s own community,” of young men graduating into the professions, commercial and rural life and the priesthood. It contained stories of an Old Boy U-boat commander sinking other Old Boys during World War Two, of a barefoot missionary living in remote villages in India, of Jesuit teachers living out their lives in the service of the next life. It pictured a community “steadfast in grandeur and simplicity.” The author described his work as “an impression largely from the outside.” It was an anecdotal chronicle of school life, contexted in the history of Sydney and the Lane Cove area. There were many descriptions of school life and interactions between teachers and students. There were specialist chapters on the wars, building developments, and spiritual things, but they contained many detailed descriptions that lacked significance. The author gave a sympathetic and enthusiastic account of life of the school reflected in official archival material from its beginnings to the present day. The presentation of the book with original photos, documents, and charts was impressive.13

Like Gerard Windsor, Robert Hughes wrote with passion about his experiences at Riverview.14 He recalled the bullying he received at Riverview for having an English accent. He described the milieu as very strict, with age groups in the boarding house (divisions) separated from each other with no communication between them permitted without approval. The college ran according to bells, and punishment with a strap was constantly given for the smallest offense. He appreciated two Jesuits, one the debating and rowing master, who also taught him ancient history, and the other, an English teacher, who gave him books that were considered risqué at the time such as Joyce’s Portrait of an Artist as a Young Man. He found the teaching of religion “aggressive” and even “bellicose.” Topics discussed ranged around the just war theory, Communism, the merits of capital punishment, and birth control. His interests at school were history, apologetics, and literature. He was proud to have been appointed captain of the debating team, and was recognized by others as a fine debater and orator himself. Finally, he acknowledged losing his faith in the last few years at Riverview, and being detached from Catholic rituals. Hughes in later life became a celebrated art critic and writer, and returned to the faith of his youth on his deathbed.

A challenging semi-autobiographical play by former Riverview student, Nicholas Enright (1950–2003), well known as an actor, director, teacher, and writer, depicted the sad story of one Dominic Connolly at the Jesuit school, St. James, the alias for Riverview. The context for the play was protest marching against the Vietnam War and the reaction of one artistic and sensitive student at the college. He painted an anti-war mural in the cadet drill hall and was forced to face the consequences. Enright, through Connolly, narrated his traumatic experiences at Riverview as a sensitive gay youth misplaced in the militaristic milieu of the Vietnam War. The play showed the “clash of burgeoning identities and the formal and informal induction of young men into approved performances of masculinity.” The college was portrayed as an “institutionalized homosocial world of a school beyond maternal care,” with priests taking the place of biological fathers. The culture of the school was military cadets, cricket, rowing, and academic success that led to admission into the “right” professions. Enright, the sensitive artistic, intellectual student suffered much in this environment, and was physically and psychologically punished for not being as macho as the majority of boys around him.15

Two histories of Xavier College, Melbourne, have appeared. The first was a romantic novel about Xavier College written by Fr. Eustace Boylen in 1917, describing the daily life of the school, and reflecting the interaction of the students.16

Professor Gregory Dening’s history was completely different. It was not an “institutional history,” but a study concerned with behavior and processes. It was a cultural history of the lives of people that constituted a century in the environment, buildings, and grounds, as well as the values, memories, and perceptions of people. The “Portrait” of the school was depicted through the daily rituals and the rhetoric of grand occasions, narrating the reality of school life. The history of one hundred years of Xavier College was represented through a description and analysis of the extant multiple texts about its life. The book was co-authored with Doug Kennedy, who gave full rein to his splendid gifts of photography to enhance the years of college life.17

Some years later, Dening wrote a history of the parishes of the North Shore of Sydney. In Church Alive! he turned his anthropological, theological, historical, and philosophical education, as well as personal experience, to writing the living history of three Jesuit parishes on the North Shore of Sydney Harbour for the years 1956 to 2006.

This book was an ethnographic history of the prophetic imagination among ordinary believers in times of great religious change. It was a narrative about behavior, symbols, rituals, sacred spaces, sacred times, that tells of the cultural system within the broader context of post-Vatican II Catholicism and a religion that led the community to this point in time. The history is a living one in the sense that it describes both the way the past suffuses the present intellectually, spiritually, emotionally and culturally, and the actual experiences of many—rather than the rhetorical expressions of institutions.

Dening’s creativity is expressed in the imaginative structuring of his books. Church Alive! is no exception. The author wove the “word pictures” that parishioners wrote for him of their actual religious experiences and the images that photographers and artists made for him, and adapted these different voices into one intriguing narrative.18

Vincent Buckley, poet and academic from the University of Melbourne, wrote a chapter in his autobiography criticizing the Jesuits at St. Patrick’s, East Melbourne, where he was educated, for their mediocre teaching and strong Irish culture. He was disappointed that he did not receive a challenging education from the Jesuits, communicating Australian cultural values. He indicated that not all Jesuit educators were intellectually clever or perceptive. Many of his teachers were old, sick or unsuited to their tasks as teachers. In his narrative he failed to address the processes that produced such Jesuits.19

In the best general history of the Catholic Church in Australia, Patrick O’Farrell viewed the Jesuit entry into NSW as that of the only religious group capable of replacing the failed Benedictine school, Lyndhurst. The Jesuits provided an education in the liberal, classical tradition for the small Catholic elite in Australian society, with the aim of producing Catholic leaders. He believed the Jesuits sustained, narrowly and among the few, a Catholic intellectual life which was strong and firm, although not notably creative. It was the Christian Brothers that influenced the majority of Catholic families because they offered more practical subjects and charged lower fees than the Jesuits. The Jesuit influence in secondary education in Victoria was more marked than in NSW, largely because the Brothers’ schools came there later.20 With Bygott, O’Farrell believed that the Jesuits influenced the intellectual development of Catholics in lay movements such as the Campion and Newman Societies, in the temperance societies, through the devotional and intellectual periodicals, such as the Messenger and Twentieth Century, through the Catholic Central Library in Melbourne, and lastly through ecumenism, after 1969, at the Melbourne College of Divinity.21

Philip Caraman of the English province came to Australia in the 1980s to write a history of the Australian province from its beginning in 1848 to the 1980s.22 He started searching through letters written in the second half of the nineteenth century by the Austrian Jesuits in South Australia to the Jesuit superior general. Discovering a companion volume from the Irish Jesuits in Victoria led him later in the year to Dublin, where he came across more material about the Irish Jesuits in Australia. He then discovered Ursula Bygott’s book, and admiring her work on the Jesuits in New South Wales and Queensland, decided to write about the achievements of Jesuits throughout the country. It was his intention to continue Bygott’s work to the 1980s.

The letters in the Irish province archives were a rich source of information for a complete history of the Jesuits and church life in Australia. The Austrian Jesuits also were good at writing letters home, to both edify and seek support from Jesuit admirers. Caraman supported the view of the Italian philosopher Giambattista Vico (1668–1744): “History cannot be more certain than when he who creates the things also narrates them.” Caraman’s preference in writing history was to study people rather than institutions, and he believed that narrative history never required an apology, provided it was written with a feeling for the period and in clear prose. His history was an “impressionistic history” from an outsider. He acknowledged that writing such a history covering 140 years in a short space of time was open to “slips and worse.”

In fact, Caraman’s manuscript was never published as a book. The censors observed many errors of fact, despite having a very readable and sympathetic tone. The early part of the history was generally acceptable, but the more modern section was not. Caraman relied too much on oral history for this section, and was not sufficiently aware of the veracity, sensitivity, and wisdom of his sources.

Fr. John Eddy contributed to an encyclopedia of religion in Australia, with an article entitled, “The Society of Jesus (Jesuits) in Australia,” which gave a concise and comprehensive history of the province.23

As editor of the in-house province publication Jesuit Life, John Begley frequently published articles about the institutions of the province, all of which he knew from personal experience. They were detailed chronologies, tracing the development of these houses, impartially and avoiding controversy.

Fr. David Strong wrote about the Society of Jesus in Australia from 1930 to 1970 in the belief that it was a period of great social and cultural change in the Society of Jesus in Australia. The narrative provided an understanding of the nature of religious experience, and showed that changes were related to self-identification.

The process of this description was as a participant observer, reflecting on the data of religious experience, appreciating its difficulties, its language and its ideals. It aimed to describe Jesuit life, and in that description, understand ways in which Jesuits did and did not resolve the contradictions and tensions that the attachment to an ideal creates. It looked at how a group of men functioned in the ideal and in the actual, and how they resolved the contradiction between the two.

Problems continually existed in distinguishing between the rhetoric of ideals, written rules and letters and the lived reality, and between the conflicts created by faith and secular experience. The outsider could be forgiven for not appreciating the significance of the power and strength of spiritual motivation behind daily activities or for not really perceiving the reality of Jesuit life, as many individual Jesuits expressed reality in terms of ideals, rarely recording how the ideals were worked out in their individual lives.

Strong’s study described itself as a social and cultural history of the Jesuits: social, in the sense of describing relations among Jesuits themselves and with the outside world; cultural, in the sense of understanding the symbolic systems of the tribe.

This type of social and cultural history gathered strength from viewing the sources out of which the narrative appeared in a different way from the usual social, cultural, or political analysis.24 It attempted to be ethnographic. It does not explain away the Jesuit religious experience in terms of something else, but rather tries to identify the qualities of religious life itself. Quite distinctive sources were available for this kind of cultural history. Jesuit government involves a vast amount of documentation in which every aspect of life, role, and office is observed and reported on. But the ideals of Jesuit spiritual life demand much self-revelation. In diaries and spiritual journals and letters to superiors, Jesuits constantly measured themselves. Of course, no self-measurement, even the most honest, is beyond self-censorship. This is more so among Jesuits, since “edification” was part of Jesuit culture. The difficulty always present in historical interpretation, in discerning what really was reality, becomes intense in reading these intimate representations of what it meant to be “religious.”

Greg Dening’s history of Xavier College was the starting point for such a study. The challenge was to depict more deeply and broadly the inner spirit, life, and work of the men who comprised the Society of Jesus in Australia from 1930 to 1970. No one had written an ethnographic history of the Jesuits. No one had written about their inner life and experiences with an eye to analyzing the texts of their lives, and to come to understand what has characterized them as a unique group of people in Australian society.25

The work looked at the distinctive cultural qualities of the Irish church in relation to the church universal, the acculturation of Irish Jesuits in the changed circumstances of Australia, and the growing identity of Australian-born Jesuits. In 1930, Australian Jesuit culture was dominated by strong control from superiors in Ireland and Rome. Their religious life was circumscribed by the ideals of institutional living of Vatican I (1870). They were educated overseas in philosophy and theology, and were dependent for manpower on Ireland. By 1970, Australian Jesuits were largely educated in philosophy and theology within the country. Many had pursued specialized studies at secular universities. As a group, they had begun discovering their own identity, and had begun to explore the ideals of Vatican II (1962–65) through shared decision-making, and less institutional living.

The Jesuits, as a tribe apart, and a group of men rich in tradition, saw themselves as essentially characterized by a life of faith that both motivated and sustained their religious life. Jesuit spirituality was seen to energize, empower, and drive many of its members to work hard pursuing “the greater glory of God.” This spiritual ideal theoretically gave meaning to all other aspects of Jesuit life. The book described the ways Australian Jesuits, 1930–70, strove to find their identity by resolving the ironies and contradictions created by the distinctive Australian environment in particular and by the changing world and church in general.26

Biographical Histories

In a different style of writing, David Strong wrote a dictionary of Jesuit biography, 1848–1998, which contained short biographies of 416 Jesuits who lived, worked, and died in Australia. Only 165 were born in Australia, the rest came from about twenty other countries, with Ireland heading the list with 150. All these men served the Catholic community in Australia and New Zealand. The stories make compelling reading. They are non-hagiographical, and show how each man helped shape the Jesuit culture and identity in these countries. Each Jesuit life told an important story, and the dedication and perseverance of these Jesuits are remembered and recorded. Their lives indicated the great diversity of character and personality that made up the Australian province. There were men of extraordinary virtue and ability, while others lived unremarkable or dull and mediocre lives, some exhibiting very human faults—irascibility, egotism, rebelliousness, prejudice or lack of social graces. Strengths and weaknesses are all included in these stories. Each Jesuit lived again as an individual in the narrative. The book is a testament of love in action, a perceptive commentary on a world that we have inherited, and a humbling memorial of “so much faith.”27

In the same genre, Jesuits John Eddy, Gregory O’Kelly, and Peter Steele, contributed biographies of selected Jesuits for the Australian Dictionary of Biography. They were carefully crafted, precise narratives of the life and influence of prominent Jesuits in Australian history. O’Kelly contributed: Anton Strele (1825–97), in vol. 6 (1976), Donald McKillop (1853–1924) and Aloysius Kranewitter (1817–80), in vol. 5 (1974), William Lockington (1871–1948) in vol. 10 (1986), William Kelly (1823–1909) and Joseph Dalton (1817–1905), in vol. 5 (1974). Eddy contributed articles on George O’Neill (1863–1947) in vol. 11 (1988), Ferenc Forro (1914–74), in vol. 12 (1996), Austin Kelly (1891–1978), in vol. 14 (1996), and Henry Johnston (1888–1986), in vol. 17, 2007. Steele’s contribution was John Philip Gleeson (1910–69) in vol. 14 (1996). The picture painted of these Jesuits was one of admiration for the talent and dedication they showed in their contribution to building up the culture of Jesuit life, and of the community in which they lived and served through strong leadership, and through an innate perception of righteousness that influenced many that they served. The lives of these men were admirable, measured by any standards.

Educational Histories

Strong also wrote histories of the two Jesuit schools in Sydney.28 The first, that of St. Aloysius’ College, was a complete history from its beginning in 1879 to the 1990s. Written thematically, the history takes into account the influence of society, the identity of the Catholic Church, and the emerging identity of the Australian Jesuit—all of which contributed to the identity of St. Aloysius’ College.

For much of its history, the college struggled with an inadequate site, few students, and little finance. As a result, mere survival was a major preoccupation. The shifting sites of the college coincided with great changes within the church and society at large.

Those associated with the college before the 1960s believed that an appealing quality of the school was its family spirit. It was sufficiently small for boys to know each other, which created a good school spirit. School identity centered around such activities as the annual production of the Gilbert and Sullivan operas, the Cadet Corps, and debating. The Aloysian spirit was one of selfless giving, meeting challenges, and the boy being rewarded through his participation in school activities.

The second local history was that of St. Ignatius’ College, Riverview. It was a short history to commemorate the 125th anniversary of the college, and an update to the official history by Lea-Scarlett. The wider context and greater detail, especially memories of human interest, had already appeared in the Lea-Scarlett history and in the annual Alma Mater. Financial matters and the development of buildings were barely mentioned, as educational matters were the focus of the work. The college had provided an education in the liberal, classical tradition for a small elite of New South Wales, with the aim of producing Catholic leaders. The education at Riverview reflected the tension that the Jesuits had between the rhetoric of Irish and European traditions and the social and cultural values of Australian society. The photos aimed at relating to the current clientele at the college.

Fr. Michael Head, rector of the college in 1991, wrote a history of St. Leo Residential College, University of Queensland.29 His story more closely related to a family portrait than to a conventional history. It is a story of more than two thousand men who, for a time, lived together sharing their happiness and disappointments, their fun, their sorrows and dreams. It is essentially an in-house family diary of the years 1909 to 1991. The Jesuits only became involved in the college from 1954, but were influential in the further development of the college ethos. The book contains appendices relating to its in-house magazine, initiations, student activities, the chaplaincy, rules of the college, rolls of honor, sporting premierships, and positions of authority. The archives of the Brisbane Archdiocese, the University of Queensland, and the college itself were well researched.

Head co-authored with Gerard Healy a history of their former school, St. Patrick College, East Melbourne, expressing appreciation for the Jesuits and lay teachers who served in that college.30 It was an independent Catholic school in Melbourne, Victoria, from 1854 until 1968. It was the second independent school and the first Catholic secondary school in Victoria, founded with a government grant of £2,500. In 1865, following financial difficulties, it was transferred to the care of the Jesuits. The school became immediately important to the intellectual and spiritual life of the Catholic community of Victoria. The school was closed in 1968 in order to provide space for a new Catholic diocesan chancery. After significant public opposition, the building was demolished in 1970. Over 5,000 students attended the school between its foundation and closure. Prior to its closure, the college was held in the highest esteem by Jesuits, and the local Catholic community that supported it, because of its family orientation, and its service to poorer Catholics by offering low school fees. The college provided many vocations to the priesthood and religious life during its existence.

Head also wrote an essay on life in the Jesuit university college in Adelaide, Aquinas College, 1950–2000.31 It was sponsored and financed by the Aquinas College Foundation, and traced the development of the college that had made a considerable contribution to the church and Catholic communities in South Australia. The book traces the history of the college from its conception in 1927 that aimed to provide residential care for tertiary students studying at Adelaide University. The university colleges in Australia were modeled on the Oxbridge system, which saw colleges as “havens of tuition, discipline and corporate life, with residency as an essential part.” A royal commission in 1911 hoped that university colleges would be instruments of social mobility, giving the working class greater opportunities for a university education. Head traced the development of ideas relating to the institution of university colleges in the years prior to 1950, and then detailed the life of the college chronologically over fifty years drawing upon sources in the archives of the college, the archdiocese, The Aquinian, an annual in-house review, and other relevant secondary sources. It relates the daily interactions between the Jesuit staff and students, issues confronted, and relationships with the church and government authorities in South Australia, especially in Adelaide. It highlighted the pastoral care shown by the Jesuits to the students.

Histories of Jesuit parishes of St. Mary’s, North Sydney, Richmond, Toowong, and Hawthorn appeared over the years. The first was written by Henry Johnston of St. Mary’s.32 It identified personalities and property: an archaeology of all the churches. It was Johnston’s gift to the centenary of the parish. Johnston “was nothing if not a man of great certainties and strong opinions. He was an eager polemicist in public debates,” and “was not a man to let an error go uncorrected or a prejudice unanswered.” His was a history researched in six months, and written in one. Johnston finished his history by declaring that his short work still required “a real history.” He believed that a “real history” was “to be found in the souls of its Catholic people,” seen especially in the commitment to the sacraments and devotional life of the church. But such a “true history” could not be read. He stated that “the history of a parish cannot be written on earth, but in heaven.”

The oldest parish entrusted to the Jesuits was that of St. Ignatius’ Church, Richmond, Victoria. At the time of the centenary of the Jesuit presence in the church in 1967, a brief work appeared, tracing the growth of the parish, its church, pastors, and pastoral life.33 It was essentially a chronological account of the development of the parish, its buildings, and pastors.

Patrick Bishop researched material relating to the Jesuit arrival in his own country, New Zealand; they came to the south of the South Island in 1878. It was the story of Irish Jesuits who established a school at Dunedin, and worked the parish of Invercargill until 1889.34 The story of this foundation was told from primary sources in Jesuit and diocesan archives, as well as articles found in the archives of the New Zealand Tablet. It made fascinating reading of a school that never flourished and was later abandoned, and a parish that the Jesuits could not sustain because the Australian province had overextended at the time, and had insufficient men for the mission. There was little finance available as New Zealand in the 1880s was on the verge of bankruptcy, and the Catholics in the south were very poor. Only forty-seven boys were educated in the school during its existence, with less than sixteen enrollments in any given year. The venture was a generous gesture responding to the bishop’s request to open a school and a parish, but it was an “ill-considered” operation. New Zealand had to wait until 1947 before the Jesuits returned to the country to staff the Seminary of the Holy Name, in Christchurch.

The parish of Toowong, in the archdiocese of Brisbane, Queensland, produced in manuscript form documentation tracing the development of the parish in sequential order as part of the Jubilee Year 2000 project. It was called a history of the parish, drawing upon archives in the John Oxley Library, the archdiocesan archives, issues of the Toowong Parish News, the Jesuit history of the house, and personal records. The story was located in the context of the history of the State of Queensland, beginning with the discovery of the Brisbane River by John Oxley in 1823, the establishment of the first Catholic parish in Queensland in 1843, and that of the Shire of Toowong in 1880. The first Catholic church in Toowong was St. Michael’s, which began in 1892. The Jesuits took over the administration of the parish in 1916, with Fr. Richard Murphy as parish priest. The work offers a chronology of dates, events, speeches, pictures of people, financial records, concert programs from the school, and buildings, all with the aim to show the growth of the parish. Finally, there were lists of all the Sisters of Mercy who had taught in the parish school, as well as the priests and members of the parish council.35 This documentation provides an excellent basis for a future history of the parish.

Paul Duffy published a history of the Jesuit parish, Immaculate Conception, Hawthorn, Victoria.36 The author told the story of its growth after the gold rushes, with the present church begun in 1869. He outlined the changes made to the architecture of the church, with spire and transepts, as well as stained glass windows added over the years. The contribution of the Faithful Companions of Jesus sisters, the Brigidines and the Marist brothers in running the parish schools was acknowledged, as well as that of the people who made up the parish. The narrative was enhanced by splendid photography that tells a history in itself. Duffy rightly highlighted the importance of the role of the laity in the life of the church and parish, and this was clearly shown in his description of the multiple parish activates enthusiastically received by parishioners. The extensive bibliography that included many personal interviews showed the dedication of the author to narrate as real a story as possible about which all who read it would be proud.

Social Ministries

The Jesuits became involved in a community of homeless men, established in 1974 by St. Teresa of Calcutta, the Corpus Christi Community in Greenvale, Victoria. Josephine Hook published a history of the community in 2007. Her aim in writing was to tell the story of the community—the place, its people and its spirit. It also provided a case study that reflected some of the wider trends in Australian society in the latter decades of the twentieth century—changing spatial and residential patterns in the inner city, the changing face of homelessness, and changing models of caring—all of which have had a significant impact on marginal groups in Melbourne. It gives lasting memory to the people who lived in the community, the generosity and self-sacrifice of the carers, especially the Jesuits, religious sisters and lay collaborators, as well as sharing the lives of the men who were residents. They would otherwise never be remembered.37

The last genre in the historiography of the Australian province was autobiography. The first was a narrative of his life by Fr. Bernard O’Brien, a New Zealander, prompted by finding letters that he had written to his mother over the years. His aim in writing was to give New Zealanders an example of one of their own who joined the Jesuits, narrating his early life and Jesuit life both within the province and overseas.38

The second celebrated the life of a prominent Australian Jesuit, Fr. Gerald O’Collins, in two volumes.39 O’Collins is a theologian who is the author or co-author of over sixty published books, and was created a Companion of the General Division of the Order of Australia (AC), the highest civil honor granted through the Australian government, for his contribution to theological education.

In the first book, A Midlife Journey, O’Collins traces his life up to the end of 1974, just before he took up an appointment as professor of fundamental theology at the Gregorian University in Rome. Not only does O’Collins describe his early family life and education at the Jesuit school, Xavier College, Kew, and his early life as a Jesuit, but his life narrative is always contexted in what was going on in the world around him, and the influence of many people he encountered. In the forward to the book, Lord Carey of Clifton, former archbishop of Canterbury, praised the work for being “an insider’s account of the Second Vatican Council.” This volume, he continued, “coincided with events that swept the world in the sixties and seventies.” O’Collins brought “personal insights into those turbulent times inside and outside the Catholic Church.” His balanced reflections on the people and experiences of his life, as well as his presentation of hopes and turmoils in the church and in society in and after 1968 make fascinating and engaging reading.

On the Left Bank of the Tiber, O’Collins covers thirty-two years teaching at the Gregorian University, 1974–2006. It is a story of students, professors, visitors, Italian friends, and popes. He reflects on the last years of Paul VI (r.1963–1978), the short reign of John Paul I (r. August–September 1978), and the long reign of John Paul II (1978–2005). O’Collins enjoyed engaging with the international community living in or visiting Rome, teaching students and mentoring them, as well as managing the daily challenges during his time as dean of the theology faculty, 1985–1991, at the Gregorian. Of particular interest is his account of the prosecution of Jacques Dupuis (1923–2004) by the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, of his role as censor, mentor, and advocate to Dupuis, and the dialogue that ensued between the congregation, Cardinal Ratzinger, and Dupuis over a number of years. The book also describes his own theological development.


The historiography of the Australian province included both antiquarian studies and analytical interpretations of the past. The former aimed to collect raw data from the past to inform readers of what actually happened and to edify them. The latter gave explanations for what happened. This analysis was placed in the context of the life of the local Catholic Church and Australian society at large. The writing of ethnographic history of the Jesuits was different from other historical writing. The biographical and autobiographical studies gave a human face to the Jesuits of the province, studies of religious men, dedicated in service to the Catholic communities of Australia. They certainly aimed to edify, but also to give credence to the importance of memories of people. More importantly, they aimed to show what contributions these other-worldly Jesuits made to Australian culture in the ministries in which they served.

In such areas of scholarship as China studies, educational theory, medical ethics, philosophy, sacred music, spirituality and theology, members of the Australian province are likely to make some notable contributions in the near future. As regards historical scholarship, at the moment only one or two hold out promise of contributing.


^ Back to text1. Manning Clark, A History of Australia, vol. 1 (Melbourne: Melbourne University Press, 1962), especially chapters 1, 2, and 15.

^ Back to text2. For examples of such religious history, see Timothy L. Suttor, Hierarchy and Democracy in Australia (Australia: Melbourne University Press, 1965); Nicholas Turner, Sinews of Sectarian Warfare (Canberra: Australian National University, 1972); Patrick Ford, Cardinal Moran and the ALP (Melbourne: Melbourne University Press, 1966); Johannes J. Mol, Religion in Australia (Melbourne: Nelson, 1971).

^ Back to text3. Francis Poelzl, History of the Mission in South Australia of the Austro-Hungarian Province of the Society of Jesus, 1848–1898, typescript of original German in English. MS. Australian Province Archives.

^ Back to text4. Patrick Dalton, History of St Aloysius’ College, Sevenhill (n.d., possibly late 1940s). MS; History of the Jesuits in South Australia, 1848–1948, collated and arranged in book form by Lea-Scarlett, with information from the Riverview archives, 1992; the original footnotes were omitted in this edition. Australian Province Archives.

^ Back to text5. Gregory J. O’Kelly, The Jesuit Mission Stations in the Northern Territory, 1882–1899, a dissertation submitted for the degree of Bachelor of Arts (Honors) in history, Monash University, Australia, 1967. Also in Australian Province Archives.

^ Back to text6. Robert Berndt and Catherine Berndt, From Black to White in South Australia (Melbourne: Cheshire, 1951); William Edward Hanley Stanner, “The Daly River Tribes, a Report of Fieldwork in Northern Australia,” Oceania 3, 4 (June 1933): 377–404.

^ Back to text7. George O’Neill, Golden Years in Paraguay (London: Burns, Oates & Washbourne, 1934); Philip Caraman, The Lost Paradise: An Account of the Jesuits in Paraguay, 1607–1768 (London: Sidgwick and Jackson, 1975).

^ Back to text8. Michael Watson, The Society of Jesus in Australia, a manuscript covering the period, 1848–1910. Australian Province Archives.

^ Back to text9. George O’Neill, History of the Society of Jesus, 1848–1940. MS, 2nd incomplete draft 1938. Australian Province Archives.

^ Back to text10. Ursula M. L. Bygott, With Pen and Tongue (Melbourne: Melbourne University Press, 1980). Some Jesuits believed that Bygott was unable to distinguish significant facts from the trivial and unimportant. Some of her conclusions lacked reality. Most Australian Jesuits were disappointed that Bygott did not portray the Jesuits as they had experienced Jesuit life. Some thought she was too triumphalist. However, Patrick James O’Farrell, in his work The Catholic Church and Community (Sydney: University of New South Wales Press, 1985), 137, believed this book to be the best published work on Australian religious history in the 1980s.

^ Back to text11. Gerard Windsor, Friends and Sometimes Scholars: A History of St Ignatius’ College. Riverview, MS. This work was never published because some Jesuits considered it too critical of significant people in the school’s history and hence not suitable to become the definitive narrative. Australian Province Archives.

^ Back to text12. Gerard Windsor, Heaven Where the Bachelors Sit (Queensland: Queensland University Press, 1966).

^ Back to text13. Errol Lea-Scarlett, Riverview: A History (Sydney: Hale & Iremonger, 1989). In 1930, a manuscript was prepared, entitled By the River: Recollections of Early Riverview by John Rhymer (alias Fr. Frank Connell). It was an anecdotal account of the daily life of students of Riverview during the 1880s. It detailed stories of the interaction between Jesuits, students, and parents, written in a literary style. The work was edited by Errol Lea-Scarlett in 1983, and exists in manuscript form in the Australian Province Archives.

^ Back to text14. Robert Hughes, “Flying the Black Mamba,” London Magazine 9, 8 (Nov 1969): 5–17; Robert Hughes, Things I Didn’t Know (London: Harvill Secker, 2006).

^ Back to text15. Nicholas Enright, St James Infirmary (Sydney: Currency Press, 1993).

^ Back to text16. Eustace Boylan,  The Heart of the School (Melbourne: J.R. Stevens, 1917).

^ Back to text17. Gregory Dening, Xavier: A Centenary Portrait (Melbourne: Old Xaverian Association, 1978).

^ Back to text18. Gregory Dening, Church Alive! Pilgrimages in Faith, 1956–2006 (Sydney: University of New South Wales, 2006).

^ Back to text19. Vincent Buckley, Cutting Green Hay: Friendships, Movements and Cultural Conflicts in Australia’s Great Decades (Melbourne: Penguin, 1983).

^ Back to text20. Patrick O’Farrell, The Catholic Church and Community in Australia: A History (Sydney: Nelson, 1977), 239. He mentioned the hesitation of the Sydney church to invite the Jesuits because of their reputation for power and independence. In his writing, Farrell was objective, critical, and realistic.

^ Back to text21. Patrick O’Farrell, Church and Community,  315–317, 379, 381, 408, 422.

^ Back to text22. Philip Caraman, The Society of Jesus in Australia, MS. 1980s; later serialized in the British Province, Letters and Notices, vol. 88, no. 393; vol. 89, no. 394 and 395 (1987–88), but only up to 1881, which was the best part of his narrative.

^ Back to text23. John J. Eddy, “The Society of Jesus (Jesuits) in Australia,” in The Encyclopedia of Religion in Australia, ed. James Jupp (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2009), 245–53.

^ Back to text24. John Philipp, “Traditional Historical Narrative and Action-Oriented (or Ethnographic) History,” Historical Studies 20, no. 80 (April 1983): 339–52. Philipp argued (352) that traditional narrative history was event-oriented, while ethnographic history was action-oriented.

^ Back to text25. An ethnographic history of the Marist Fathers in Oceania was written by Gerald A. Arbuckle,  Strategies for Growth in Religious Life (New York: St. Paul’s, 1987).

^ Back to text26. David Strong, Jesuits in Australia: An Ethnographic History of the Society of Jesus in Australia (Melbourne: Aurora, 1996).

^ Back to text27. David Strong, The Australian Dictionary of Jesuit Biography, 1848–1998 (Sydney: Halstead Press, 1999).

^ Back to text28. David Strong, The College by the Harbour: The History of St Aloysius’ College, Milson’s Point, New South Wales (Sydney: Hale & Iremonger, 1997); Riverview: An Educational History (Sydney: InPrint, 2005).

^ Back to text29. Michael Head, St Leo’s College: The Memory (St. Lucia, Queensland: St. Leo’s College Council, 1991).

^ Back to text30. Michael Head and Gerard Healy, More Than a School: A History of St Patrick’s College, East Melbourne (Richmond, Victoria: Jesuit Publications, 1999).

^ Back to text31. Michael Head, Fire on the Hill (North Adelaide: Aquinas Foundation, 2002).

^ Back to text32. Henry A. Johnston, A Seed that Grew: A Hundred Years of Catholic Life on the North Shore, 1856–1956 (Sydney: Cresta, 1956).

^ Back to text33. A Church on the Hill: Centenary of St Ignatius’ Church, Richmond, 1867–1967 (Melbourne: Bernard, Overman and Neander, 1967). An earlier unpublished Short History of the Richmond Mission, 1850–1910 by Fr. John Ryan appeared. It was a story of the development of the parish over those years from documents, newspaper articles, and personal reflections in chronological order. The collection of material was valuable for a more serious history. Australian Province Archives.

^ Back to text34. Patrick Bishop, The Richest Land I Ever Saw: Jesuit Participation in the Catholic Life of Southern New Zealand, 1878–1889, MS (Victoria: Parkville, n.d., probably 1980s).

^ Back to text35. Collection of Historical Material, Toowong Catholic Community, MS, 2002. Australian Province Archives.

^ Back to text36. Paul Duffy, Portrait of a Parish: Immaculate Conception Parish (Victoria: Hawthorn Parish, 2011). This work drew upon a more detailed history of the parish in MS form by Michael Head, Walking in Faith: The Village over the Creek, Hawthorn: The Catholic Story, 2009. Australian Province Archives.

^ Back to text37. Josephine Hook, Coming Home: A History of the Corpus Christi Community, Greenvale (Victoria: Monash University, 2007).

^ Back to text38. Bernard O’Brien, A New Zealand Jesuit ([Christchurch]: Pegasus, 1970).

^ Back to text39. Gerald O’Collins, A Midlife Journey (Ballan, Victoria: Connor Court, 2012); On the Left Bank of the Tiber (Ballarat: Connor Court, 2013). A third volume, covering 2006–14, and provisionally entitled On the Way Out, awaits publication.

Cite this page
Strong, S.J., David, “Historiography of the Australian Province”, in: Jesuit Historiography Online. Consulted online on 11 December 2023 <>
First published online: 2016

▲   Back to top   ▲