(1758 - 1840) 
In the days when "Brittania waived the rules" as the wags had it, it was not easy being a Catholic, if it ever has been.

Even in his native Ireland, James Dixon found that to be so. Because Erin had long since ceased to belong to its people, but rather to the English invaders. King George III sat upon the English throne for 59 years. He had the misfortune to suffer periodic bouts of apparent insanity induced by the disease known as porphyria. One of his other misfortunes was to lose the American colonies in their struggle for independence.

Closer to home, the Irish also developed the idea that they ought to rule in their own country.And in 1798, the United Irishmen rebelled against British rule. Most of the leaders of the Rebellion were in fact highly educated Protestants rather than Catholics. Nevertheless the popular support inevitably came from the Catholic majority. The Rebellion was bloodily repressed in short order. Then the fierce effort to find and punish the perpetrators began.

Among those caught in the widely and wildly cast net was Father James Dixon. Born in 1758 in the town of Castlebridge, James Dixon studied in Europe to become a Catholic Priest.After his ordination, Father Dixon returned to Ireland and became curate in the Parish of Crossabeg.

In the aftermath of the Rebellion Father Dixon was arrested. Various traditions surround the reasons for his arrest including that he had been found to be wearing a medal inscribed " Erin Go Bragh", that he had been heard to sing a patriotic song and that he had administered the United Irishman's Oath to certain men. Whatever the case he was taken and imprisoned in Duncannon Fort and tried and sentenced to death. The sentence was commuted as in so many other cases to transportation for life.

Duncannon Fort
Father Dixon arrived in the Colony of Botany Bay in January,1800 as a convict, but had nevertheless , been appointed by the Holy See as the first Prefect Apostolic of the primitive penal colony.His appointment must have been among the last acts of the Pontificate of Pope Pius VI who was himself at the time a prisoner of the French Revolutionary Directory and died before Father arrived in Botany Bay , still a prisoner.

The Church has seen worse times than to-day.

Father Dixon was, it seems, fortunate to survive the voyage to the end of the Earth aboard the vessel named " Friendship" , for of the 133 convicts aboard 1 in 7 died in transit.And Father Dixon, according to another convict , Thomas Flood of Clonmore, was chained to the corpse of one of those who died, " until the rats ate the flesh off the corpse".

After three years in the Colony, Father Dixon was at last given official permission to to say Mass publicly , as announced in the Government Gazette of 19th April, 1803. The Mass was allowed to be said At 9.00 a.m. on Sunday morning provided that " no seditious conversation, that might cause disturbance" took place . Protestants were enjoined to make no provocative anti-Catholic gestures. Father Dixon was to be held responsible for the behaviour of his flock coming to, at, and departing from the Mass.

Father Dixon celebrates an early Mass. Note the " Chasuble" fashioned from an old
damask curtain. We see that this was not an " officially" sanctioned Mass : note
the " cockatoo" or lookout stationed at the door in case of  trouble from the Authorities.
This image comes from a stained glass window in St. Mary's Basilica in Sydney.

There was no Altar Stone, no proper Sacred Vessels - the Chalice was fashioned out of tin by a fellow convict. But, after a year of Father Dixon's regular authorised, and other unauthorised celebrations of Holy Mass, the opinion of Governor King was wholly positive that the regular celebrations of Holy Mass: " have had a most salutary effect on the Irish Catholics, and since its toleration there has not been the most distant cause for complaint among that description who regularly attend divine service." So pleased was the Governor that he awarded Father Dixon an annual stipend of 60 Pounds.

However, tranquility did not last too long. In March 1804 rumors of coming strife were rife. At Castle Hill somewhat to the North and West of Port Jackson an uprising by about 300 men took place on a spot they dubbed Vinegar Hill, after the 1798 Irish battle site.The uprising did not amount to much, and it was bloodily suppressed with a number of men shot and others hanged - in total 20  killed and twice that number taken prisoner. A measure of their pathetic state was the official claim of weapons seized : 26 muskets, 8 reaping hooks, 4 bayonets, 2 swords, a fowling piece, a pitch fork and a pistol. Penalties included 8 men executed, 9 men sentenced to a total of 3,084 lashes of which 880 were given. One man received 284 and another 200.

Father Dixon had accompanied the Officer who entreated the rebels to surrender. Nevertheless he was suspected of involvement and for a time his stipend was withheld. He had the duty to attend those being executed and otherwise punished. He was forced to hold the hands of those being flogged whilst tied to the triangle and found it so horrendous that he fainted on one occasion.

In 1809 Father Dixon was given permission to return to Ireland to visit his parents. He was allowed to remain and became the Parish Priest of Crossabeg and a new Presbytery was built for him by the local people.He died there whilst still in that role, in 1840 aged 82. He refused all requests to talk about his time in the Colony saying that it would do no good, and that the less people knew about " these punishments" the better. Perhaps he had seen too much of what Britannia did to patriots.

The Church in which he served his God has long since been replaced by a better one and his presbytery too. But he is far from being forgotten:

Father James Dixon celebrated the first documented Holy Mass on Australian soil on 15th May, 1803.

During a visit to Ireland in 2009 the Archbishop of Sydney, Cardinal George 
Pell, visited the grave of Fr. Dixon.  This was a very historical moment in 
which the leader of the Church in Australia visited, for the first time, 
the grave of the 'convict priest' who celebrated the first Mass on Australian

               Such were the beginnings of the Catholic Faith in the 
                       " Great South Land of the Holy Spirit".


Popular posts from this blog