Snell, Joseph (1802-1862)

Prepared by: 
Regina Ganter

One of four Passionist Fathers in the first Catholic mission in Australia at Stradbroke Island, he was of Swiss origin, multilingual, and worked alongside three Italians. The internal politics of the Catholic Church and its difficult position in early colonial Australia ensured the failure of the mission. Snell remained in the Australian colonies until his death.




Joseph Snell was born in Lyons as the son of a wealthy Swiss banker and converted to Catholicism at age 23. He entered the Passionist novitiate at Monte Argentaro [silver mountain,] to be ordained in 1830.


He spent eight years in Bulgaria, in the Turkish Ottoman empire, where Franciscans and Passionists tried to minister to a small band of Catholics not under the authority of the Greek patriarch of Constantinople, descendants of the ancient Manichean sect called Bogomils.1 It was a period of war between Turkey and Russia, beset by drought and plague and oppression by petty Turkish rules.


‘Slight and spare, with an iron constitution’ Fr Snell looked ready for the strenuous mission work among Australian Aborigines.2 He spoke German, French, Italian and Turkish and it was to be expected that he would pick up languages easily.


At age 40 he was assigned together with three Italian Passionist Fathers, Raimondo Vaccari (41), Luigi Pesciaroli (36) and Maurizio Lencioni (28) to conduct the first Catholic mission in Australia. When they arrived in Sydney on 11 March 1843, in a group of 19 altogether, a female observer commented that ‘they are all young and very good-looking.3


Fr Snell accompanied the Archbishop John Bede Polding in a spearhead party to Brisbane in May 1843 to determine the site of the mission. Polding describes his journey:


About six weeks after my return to new Holland, I set out on a journey of 600 miles towards the north ..... After some search and inquiries I found a place at the entrance of the Bay, which appeared to be well suited for our purpose. It is a large island, at one time occupied by the government, distant about seven or eight miles from the Pilot Station, where six or eight white men generally reside. In this island there may be 150 or 200 blacks. .... I myself remained for a time there, together with Father Snell, instructing the children and endeavouring to put the place in some order. The other three missionaries then joined us, accompanied by Father Gregory.4


Polding and Snell boarded the Sovereign in Sydney on 8 May and the Passionist Archives record 18 May as the official date on which the mission started.5 After a little over a week Polding went to Brisbane to hold what was widely reported in the press as the first Catholic mass in Queensland on 28 May.


The missionaries took over the former provisioning station, which had already been claimed by Aboriginal squatters:


Dunwich is in a state of great ruin. It is large, containing much capability if we had money. There is a detached building which the blacks call their own; in this they sleep: this I intend for their school and dwelling, when they choose. Then there are four rooms consecutive, in another building, enclosed and adjoining a large store, 56 feet by 30 feet; this I propose to be their church. I have made a regulation that there is to be no food without work. 6


Vicar-General Rev. Dr. Gregory OSB7 and the three Italian Passionist Fathers left Sydney on 30 May, also on the Sovereign, which arrived at Brisbane port on 8 June 1843. It appears that the three missionaries disembarked at Dunwich on Stradbroke Island and Gregory travelled on to Brisbane to join Polding there.8


Father Luigi:


Here we are, four Passionist missionaries, established at the end of the Bay, in a house of ruins which served formerly as a prison for English convicts.9


At Stradbroke Island


It is difficult to reconstruct what the four Fathers did on the island for four years, because their activities are poorly documented and their letters, many of them written afterwards, contradict each other. They were not required to write reports, and Bishop Polding was tight-lipped except about his own activities on the island during his two short stays at the commencement of the mission. In September 1846 the Passionist Superior General Testa remarked that he had received no news from Stradbroke Island for almost three years.10


What does emerge from their correspondence is that they spent four unhappy years on the island, on a site that was not meant to be a permanent mission site. Polding had judged the land unsuitable for gardening and instructed them not to hand out food except in return for labour, like Monsignor Pompallier’s11, successful Maori missions, and not to take children into the mission that needed provisioning.


Father Maurice reflected on his Stradbroke years as


an unhappy experience covering five years ....[that] ... produced nothing but useless sufferings and inconveniences.12


For food they were dependent on supplies sent up from Sydney or obtainable in Brisbane on the Archbishop’s authority, and when they lost their boat in February 1844 they nearly starved to death.


Money was a perpetual issue between the missionaries, who claimed they were being kept on a shoestring, and the Archbishop, who claimed that over the first two years he spent £500 on the mission, and that he was financing them out of his own personal reserves. Whether or not they believed this, they repeated it often in their letters to Rome and Lyons, affirming how ‘gratefully indebted’ they were to him for these ‘favours’ that sometimes kept them from starvation.


I can say honestly that I have never met an archbishop nor even a bishop that led a life as poor as that of Archbishop Polding. He has other ideas about the welfare of our Mission, but he has been unable to put them into execution, and I can say with all truth that what he has given to us he has taken from his own mouth.13


A Passionist who arrived in 1848 and was accommodated at St Mary’s in Sydney had trouble believing in the poverty of the Bishop:


The latter [Polding] told your Paternity [Barberi] that he took the bread from his own mouth to give to the Passionists at Moreton Bay and the parish priest of that place [Hanly] assured me that they suffered from hunger more than once, but from what I see here I cannot believe what he told you.14


Neither did mission superior Vaccari really think he owed much gratitude to the Archbishop:


In regard to ourselves, we are in the position of ordinary priests under the Archbishop’s jurisdiction. He himself, at his own expense, provides us with food and clothing, though in the matter of clothing I must say that with the exception of a pair of shoes everything that my companions have received was put at his disposal by Propaganda itself. And as for what I myself have used, I brought all of it with me from Europe.15


Archbishop Polding had not been informed about the separate ‘apostolic mission’ vested in Vaccari as mission superior and refused to recognise it, since the mission depended on his funding. Vaccari was greatly offended by the treatment he received from Archbishop ‘as an ordinary priest’, ‘at his disposition and subject to him’.


it is impossible to know what are his intentions about us, for all that is an English mystery.16


Abandoning the mission


A visit to the island in December 1844 by Bishop Pompallier, reputed for his excellent work in Maori mission, kicked things along. Archbishop Polding came under criticism from Rome, and finally agreed to recognise Vaccari as the Prefect-Apostolic in charge of the mission. Moreover, he allocated Vaccari £200 to spend on the mission and staff.17


Meanwhile a new Catholic project in the Australian colonies was getting underway. Vicar General Fr. Brady18 was recruiting in Europe to establish a mission in Western Australia, and Propaganda Fide suggested that the four Passionists be re-assigned to this project. 19 But clearly Vaccari was not going to be appointed to another leading position, and had, moreover, finally been equipped with some authority and money. With encouragement from their Passionist Superior in Rome, Fathers Joseph Snell, Luigi Pesciaroli and Maurice Lencioni left the island without Vaccari in June 1846. Bishop Moran20:


they set sail in a small open boat and after incredible dangers and difficulties made their way to Sydney.21


It is possible that they were in an open boat from Dunwich to Brisbane, but from Brisbane to Sydney they sailed on the William on 2 July 1846 reaching Sydney on 22 July.22 There they found that Archbishop Polding had departed for a second recruiting drive in Europe and Rev. Dr. Gregory informed them (rightly or wrongly) that the Propagana Fide had actually changed its mind about their re-assignment to Western Australia. Bishop Brady and his multinational band of new recruits had landed in Western Australia and were experiencing great trials. One group, including the Italian Father Confalonieri,23 was shipwrecked on the Heroine in April 1846. The three absconders from Stradbroke Island were at a loss what to do next.


Adelaide Bishop Dr Francis Murphy24 was also looking for priests and interceded on their behalf so that they would not be re-assigned for another mission in Western Australia. Proceeding to South Australia, the three men, who had clearly formed close bonds under pressure of the unhappy experiences they had shared, became forever separated.


In South Australia


Fr. Joseph was sent to live in the new township of Morphett Vale south of Adelaide, boarding at first with a local priest and then with a family. He wrote to Father Luigi Pesciaroli:


Do not make the mistake of thinking that I am happy. I am not, no matter how much I seem to be or others think I am. In reality I pass my days in privation, bitterness and misery.25


When he received a reproachful letter from his Superior General in Rome, Fr. Anthony Testa, he felt unable to reply. Father Luigi reported that ‘on re-reading the reproofs ... directly or indirectly as a reward for all we have suffered, he [Snell] felt a little changed interiorly and feared to write’.26


Luigi Pesciaroli was accommodated with the parish priest at Mt Barker, but unable to speak English he was of little use in the Catholic community, who started to collect money for his fare to return home. After two years and two months in Adelaide he was able to depart. When Father Joseph Snell heard of Father Luigi’s impending departure, he wrote:


Oh, how I envy you, and God knows with what joy I should accompany you to England. ... Let me know the day you are sailing, so that if I am not able to go to see you off I shall at least go down to the sea to watch your ship pass.27


Snell resigned himself to staying in the colonies, but was never quite reconciled with the local church authorities. Archbishop Polding sought to stamp the Catholic presence in the colonies with a Benedictine imprimatur and had a low opinion of the Italian brothers. Only a few months after they had arrived he confided to his cousin:


‘our Italian friends will be but bunglers. Except Snell none seem to have an aptitude for languages. They cannot express themselves in English even now for the commonest purposes. However, we shall see. I am determined to procure if I can our own people. .... I suspect the Passionists after a time will endeavour to open a communication with the Prop. de la Foi. This I will not admit. They are really more ignorant of the world and more contracted in their notions than I could have supposed possible. 28


The Passionist order made a further attempt to establish an institutional presence in the Australian colonies by with Father Peter Magagnotto CP29. He arrived in February 1848 with Archbishop Polding and found the Sydney Benedictines closing rank against him. When he asked about his four brothers in religion, the Vicar-General Gregory OSB replied: ‘Have you been authorized by your Superiors in Rome to make such an enquiry?’ Gregory claimed that Father Raymund Viccari had gone to Valparaiso and the other three to Western Australia. Bishop Murphy, on a visit to Sydney around September 1848 unintentionally pierced the code of silence that had cordoned Father Peter from the truth about his Passionist brothers. Murphy told Magagnotto that the three were in Adelaide, and if he wanted to come there he would find him some work. But Archbishop Polding did everything to undermine this reunion. 30 Magagnotto left for the Californian goldfields and became a successful Passionist founder in Marysville, Nevada and Ecuador.31


Fr. Joseph Snell eventually became the parish priest at Morphett Vale, a southern satellite of Adelaide created in 1840 in an area previously called Dublin. A visitor reported:


As for Morphett Vale; the first priest I think was Coyle; then O’Brien; then Snell. It consisted of the Church and a little building attached, consisting of the sacristy (which was also the bedroom for strangers) the kitchen and a room upstairs. Snell afterwards dug out a cellar for himself outside, of which he as very proud. The fittings of the Church when I visited it, were very shaky, particularly the altar, through some boards of which you could stick your arm. I remember the first time I called on Father Snell ... during Mass ... as he turned round and said the Orate Fratres a snake popped his head through he boards and hissed at him. It was a caution to see how he hurried through the rest of the Mass (for he had a morbid horror of snakes); as soon as Mass was over, without coming down the Altar steps, he raced to the sacristy and locked himself in. It required some hearty kicking and persuasive powers on my part to make him open the door, and when he did, it was only to put his nose out half an inch and ask ‘Is it gone?’ I often joked him afterwards on how his server [during the Orate Fratres] was getting on with its answering.32


In January 1861 Fr Joseph took ill and, supported by his doctor’s advice, went to to Tasmania.33 His health improved, but without any letters of introduction from his Bishop (Geoghegan34 who had replaced Murphy in 1859), he was unable to work there, and so had to return. He felt much aggrieved by this lack of support from his Church.35


By June of that year he was visiting the Rev. Dr. Henry Backhaus36 at Sandhurst, a German Catholic pioneer on the Victorian goldfields. By now he was unable to travel even to Melbourne. As a last resort he was getting ‘tapped’ and, close to death, he appointed a Mr Peake as the executor of his will.


The Church understood this as a ‘scandal’. In great hurry Bishop Geoghegan travelled 105 miles to his bedside. He did this not to pay homage to a dying man who had devoted his life to Christian mission among Aborigines and migrants, but to persuade him to appoint at least ‘Father Maurice, his very brother’ as the manager of his estate, because it


must effect the good of his own soul and the edification of the Church. He is deeply in debt to Catholic education in our Diocese.37


Father Maurice was installed as co-executor and a ‘scandal’ was averted. Father Joseph died on 13th March 1862.


Six months later, while the Bishop was away, Fr. Maurice took the train to Melbourne to visit his Brother’s grave. He was severely chastised for abandoning his post. Not that Fr. Maurice had a post - because of his inability to speak English he had been accommodated in the Bishop’s residence at Adelaide and made himself useful by hearing the confessions of all the priests in the diocese. Bishop Geoghegan:


Surely to travel, to and fro, a thousand miles away from the sacred charge of souls which in such need I entrusted to him – for the incredible purpose of seeing a dead man’s grave – brings with it the withering reproach contained in the words of Our Lord: ‘Let the dead bury the dead’. 38




1 Roger Mercurio CP The Passionists, Collegeville, Minnesota, The Liturgical Press, 1992:43.

2 Osmund Thorpe, CP, First Catholic Mission to the Australian Aborigines, Sydney, Pellegrini & Co., 1950:27.

3 Osmund Thorpe, CP, First Catholic Mission to the Australian Aborigines, Sydney, Pellegrini & Co., 1950:27. 

4 Polding to Franzoni, 10 April 1845, in Thorpe 1950:194. 

5 Thorpe 1950:96, note 25, refers to a file notice in the Passionist Archives. 

6 Polding to Murphy, Moreton Bay, 2 July 1843 in Thorpe 1950. 

8 This speculation pulls together various statements that appear to contradict each other in several details. Thorpe also does not come to a definitive conclusion on the exact arrival date of the missionaries on the island, but clearly the Archbishop’s own statement that they arrived on the Feast of the Blessed Virgin, 24 May, cannot refer to their arrival on the island.

9Pesciaroli in Annali della Propagatione della Fide, V, VI, 1845, in Thorpe 1950:215.

10 Passionist General in Rome to Barberi, 25 September 1846, in Thorpe 1950:200.

12 (Lencioni at Adelaide to Franzoni, 1 May 1848:221).

13 (Vaccari to Franzoni, 19 November 1845:219-220)

14 Magagnotto to Barberi 15 November 1848:235)

15 (Vaccari to Propaganda Fide, 19 February 1844:217).

16 (Vaccari to Propaganda Fide, 19 February 1844:217).

17 Vaccari to Franzoni, 19 November 1845, in Thorpe 1950:219-220.

19 Cardinal Franzoni, Prefect of the Sacred Congregation of Propaganda, to Archbishop Polding, Rome 19 December 1844, in Thorpe 1950:184.

21 Patrick Francis Cardinal Moran, History of the Catholic Church in Australasia from authentic sources, Sydney: Oceanic Publishing Company 1895:417.

22 Shipping Intelligence, The Australian, 23 July 1846:2. Retrieved December 5, 2012, from

25 Quoted in Pesciaroli at sea, to Testa in Rome, 1849, in Thorpe 1950:231.

26 Pesciaroli at sea, to Testa in Rome, 1849, in Thorpe 1950:231.

27 Quoted in Pesciaroli at sea, to Testa in Rome, 1849, in Thorpe 1950:231.

28 Polding at Moreton Bay to Heptonstall, 9 June 1843, in Thorpe 1950:191. Rev. Thomas Heptonstall OSB was Polding’s cousin and the procurator of the Benedictine Brothers in London.


 30 Magagnotto at Sydney to Barberi, 15 November 1848, in Thorpe 1950:234ff.

 31 Thorpe 1950:250-258.

 32 Thomas Caldwell OSB at Reddich, England, to a priest in Adelaide who had requested information, 24 January 1870, in Thorpe 1950:245.

 37 Bishop Geoghegan in Melbourne to Father Smyth in Adelaide, Feast of St John the Baptist 1861, and 3 July 1861, in Thorpe 1950:238 and 239.

 38 Bishop Geoghegan in Ireland to Fr M. Ryan at Kapunda, Christmas Day 1862, in Thorpe 1950:239.