The Stradbroke Island Mission (1843-1847)

Prepared by: 
Regina Ganter


The first Catholic mission in Australia began and ended with miraculous events: it was heralded by an auspicious comet and ended with the mysterious disappearance of Fr. Raimondo Vaccari. Staffed by Passionists and directed by the Benedictine Archbishop in Sydney it was riven by internal disputes and starved of support. This mission is not connected to ‘Myora Mission’ (1892-1942) on Stradbroke Island.




The Catholics in Australia


The Catholic Church came to Australia in the late 1830s, when civil society started to gain the upper hand over the military in forging the future of the colonies and brought about the cessation of convict transportation to NSW in 1840. The Church itself was embarking on a period of recovery and renewal and the Propaganda Fide embarked on a campaign of peaceful re-colonisation of protestant territories. Pope Gregory XVI himself was a Benedictine, and the English Benedictines were getting re-established in the 19th century in a range of locations in Britain, where they acquired a strong bent on mission. In the early 1840s there were a number of spectacular conversions of Anglican clergy to Roman Catholicism, with Oxford University as the intellectual centre of a new ‘Anglo-Catholicism’ which led to the founding of male and female Anglican religious orders, and the inclusion of Anglicans among the Benedictines.


Founded by St Benedict of Nursia who formed a monastery at Subiaco in Italy around 529, the Benedictines had always had a strong tradition of autonomy, without a Generalate in Rome coordinating the Provinces. Their autonomous organisation, a focus on manual work and self-reliance, and finally, the inclusion of Anglicans and the missionary leaning of the English Benedictines, made the Benedictines an ideal prospect for Australian colonisation.


The appointment of the liberal Sir Richard Bourke1 as governor of NSW in 1831 ended the period of active suppression of Catholics in the colony and created an opportunity for a more decisive presence. William Ullathorne OSB2, former student of Dr John Bede Polding OSB 3 at the Benedictine college at Downside, arrived in Sydney as Vice-General to Bishop Morris in late 1832 with 500 books to a cool reception from his fellow religious in Hobart and Sydney. Sailing under the wind of a new policy and government grants for churches, schools, teachers and chaplains, Ullathorne oversaw the completion of three churches and the beginning of St. Mary’s cathedral in Sydney. Encouraged by the reforms initiated by Bourke, who was introducing a Church Act (1836) to give official recognition to other churches besides the Anglican Church, Ullathorne wrote to Polding to urge the appointment of a Bishop. Polding ran with the idea. Ullathorne was given the opportunity to decline his appointment as vicar apostolic of New Holland and Van Diemen's Land in favour of his esteemed mentor.


Dr John Bede Polding was the special protégé of the President of the English Benedictines. He had been orphaned early in life (his father originally Polten, from Holland), and raised in the Benedictine fold by his maternal uncle, Rev. Dr. Brewer. Polding had already declined a bishoprice in Madras, preferring what he called semi-retirement as professor at St. Gregory's College at Downside near Bath.4 He was consecrated as vicar apostolic (bishop) of New Holland in May 1834.


Bishop Polding arrived in Sydney in September 1835 and immediately became embroiled in a lively battle of wits in the press that pitted him against his Protestant counterpart, the Anglican bishop Broughton5. The Scottish promoter of Presbyterian immigration, Rev. J.D. Lang, who had introduced a large group of German Lutheran missionaries to north Queensland in 1838, delighted in participating in this public battle, never failing to substitute ‘popish’ for ‘papal’, ‘Romish’ for ‘Catholic’, and ‘Popery’ for ‘Vatican’. He also took pleasure in showing up rifts within the Catholic Church.6


For the Protestants the one redeeming feature of the new Catholic bishop was that he was not Irish. Polding started to build up a Catholic institutional presence by forming schools, grappling with the lack of staff, and trying to recruit new priests. He really wanted the whole Australian diocese to be a Benedictine one. What was needed was a Benedictine monastery to train religious in the colonies.


In November 1840 Polding and his entourage embarked on a lengthy European tour, during which he was appointed Count of the Holy Roman Empire, and Bishop Assistant at the Papal Throne. He was also raised to the Archiepiscopal See of Sydney, meaning a promotion both of the bishop and of the vicariate, which now received its own Australian hierarchy of jurisdictions. Adelaide and Hobart became separate episcopal Sees, and Western Australia became an apostolic prefecture. Polding returned to Sydney with an armful of titles to flash that he was more learned, noble and religious than the Anglican Bishop: a doctor, a count, and an archbishop. It was like throwing the gauntlet.


Anglican Bishop William Grant Broughton lodged a formal and public objection, claiming that the ‘Bishop of Rome’ (meaning the Pope) attempted an invasion with ‘an act of direct and purposed hostility towards us’. The Protestant press referred to it as an ‘attempt on the part of a foreign prince to confer a title and territorial jurisdiction within the realm of England’.7 Lord Stanley8 in the Colonial Office, who had sanctioned Polding’s elevation with a ‘grand dinner’, ignored the Australian protests. 9


Polding managed to create the idea of a very large Catholic population in New South Wales and adjacent colonies. (Ullathorne later said about him with some exasperation, that he ‘never detailed a case very well’. 10) Polding’s return to Sydney with a 19-strong retainer was a triumph. He brought with him some Irish Christian Brothers to conduct urban schools, and four Passionist priests destined to form a new Aboriginal mission on the east coast.11 According to the Sydney Morning Herald the St Patrick’s Total Abstinence Society Band played ‘See the Conquering Hero comes’. 12

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The Passionists

The group arrived on the Templar on 11 March 1843 and remained at the Archbishop’s residence in Sydney for nearly three months with ‘about twenty’ sitting down to dinner every day.13 It was the year of Australia’s first wave of bank failures in which six banks collapsed, including the Bank of Australia. Depression and confusion caused a run on the Savings Bank of NSW in May and resulted in a Select Committee on Monetary Confusion in August 1843.14 Money became a major issue straight away between the Passionists and the Archbishop.


The association between Polding and the Passionists was not a happy one. Polding first sought to recruit Benedictines, met with a refusal, and then more or less chanced upon Father Raimundo Vaccari, who had several influential friends, among them Cardinal Oriolo, a highly esteemed Franciscan, and the Venerable Vincent Pallotti15 who had just formed a new Catholic order in 1835, the Pious Society of Missions (Pallottines).16


The Pallottines were later to play a leading part in the Western Australian Kimberley (see Beagle Bay). Pallotti also gave a painting of Our Lady of Good Counsel, which was to play a celebrated role in the mystical history New Norcia, to two colourful Benedictines in the group arriving in Western Australia with Bishop Brady in 1846, Dom Joseph Serra17 and Dom Rosendo Salvado18. These two founders of New Norcia were from the splendid Benedictine monastery San Martin Pinario in the centre of Santiago de Compostela, built in 1494 and now one of the most important baroque buildings in Spain. It had become a refuge of the multitudinous pilgrims who annually flocked to the Santiago cathedral, which forms the destination point of one of the three most important Catholic pilgrim routes, next to Rome and Jerusalem. The route often walked by these Benedictines between Perth and New Norcia has itself become designated as Australia’s first pilgrim route.


The Passionists (Congregatio Passionis Iesu Christi) had only just been introduced into England in 1842 under the leadership the Venerable Dominic Barberi CP with Fr. Anthony Testa CP as the General Superior in Rome (1839-1862). 19 The Passionist Order with its icon of the Sacred Heart was formed in northern Italy in 1725 as a penitential and contemplative order focused on suffering and the redemptive passion of Christ. Barefoot and garbed in black tunics of coarse cloth its founder, Saint Paul of the Cross, was turned away from the doors of the papal palace when he first sought sanction of the order. In the first half of the 19th century Passionists formed communities in France, Belgium, Ireland and eventually in England. Passionists conducted a little known ‘silent province’ in Romania and Bulgaria among a few thousand non-Orthodox Catholics in the Ottoman empire. Later they conducted similar work among American Blacks before the Civil War, among East German refugees in West Germany after World War II, and among the Catholics in Sweden.20


The Passionists brought by Polding were to conduct the Catholic Church’s first attempt at Aboriginal mission in the Australian colonies. For reasons of diplomacy the Catholics focused such attempts on the northern half of the continent, which was but thinly settled. It did not escape J.D. Lang’s notice that the Catholics were quite proactive in setting up jurisdictions over sparse Catholic populations such as in the ‘Lilliputian colony’ of Perth, which he thought ‘a regularly organised plan for the establishment of Romish domination in these regions’. Lang had reason to feel threatened, because the Lutherans he had gone to great lengths to establish at Zion Hill were already under siege of criticism and considered to be in the way of land development. German Lutherans had also made a start with missions in South Australia.


Crowding into the bishop’s residence in Sydney for three months produced tensions. Polding fully intended supervising the mission with full control over finance and over the priests. Vaccari surprised him, however, by producing a document to show that he had been appointed apostolic prefect of the mission area, responsible directly to the Propaganda Fide. Communication between them was by letter in Latin.


Correspondence between Fr. Raymond Vaccari and Archbishop Polding while cohabiting in Sydney, dated 7 May 1843 

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This missive was followed up a few days later with another one, Vaccari asking the Bishop to confirm in writing that anything he arranged for the new mission ‘shall be made known to me directly or immediately, either in writing or by word of mouth, but not by an interpreter or in any other like manner’. Vaccari also asked the Archbishop to explain in writing ‘what arrangements you have made about food, clothes and other things of that kind that will be necessary for us if we are to live becomingly’.21


In the words of their superiors, the Italians found it difficult to ‘exercise that patience which is necessary in dealing with English people.22 The Archbishop on his part concluded very soon that

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. 23


While the earthly representatives were pulling rank, the heavens seemed to show the way. Vaccari wrote home:

I should like to tell you of an accidental occurrence in this southern part of the world almost on our arrival, which gives us an opportunity of presenting ourselves to the Natives with greater frankness as to our purposes. It is the following: On March 5th at eight o’clock at night, we all saw a comet of unaccustomed splendour with a tail of extraordinary width and length, for it covered several degrees of longitude and rested over Australia exactly over the spot, as the Archbishop told me, where he had already determined to set our Mission on foot. This comet was seen and can still be seen here in Sydney. What is good from our point of view, it can be seen by all the Natives who regard it as an altogether extraordinary phenomenon. May God be pleased to make His Mercy triumph over these poor creatures, and will you kindly pray much for me that my many grievous sins and incalculable demerits may not be an obstacle to this holy work of God.24


The Great Comet of 1843 lit the southern skies from February until April.25


The Great Comet
NASA, Solar System Exploration


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'Exactly the spot’ where the mission was to be, had not yet been decided, as historian Rev. Osmund Thorpe, CP, to whom we owe the transcripts and translations of all the available correspondence regarding this mission, points out: ‘the Archbishop was indulging his habit of erecting into a present reality what he hoped and believed would become a reality’.26 But seen from Sydney it was probably as precise as a comet can be expected to be in showing the way.


When Polding first requested permission for a mission in NSW Governor Gipps27 suggested Moreton Bay, which had just been opened for settlement at the far northern edge of his colony. By 1842 the press reported that

The settlement [Brisbane] was prospering; but new arrivals are complaining that the Government had secured all the best water frontages wherever there was good anchorage. Rents were rising, chiefly through the principal buildings in the township being occupied by Government officers.28


Gipps had had already given the Germans at Zion Hill mission notice to vacate during a visit in 1842, warning the Lutherans that they ought to move further afield to make room for the incoming settlers. All the more astounding is it that he should have offered the site to Polding, who inspected the mission and formed a negative opinion, no doubt guided by local information:

It has done little good and it is not likely to do more. The children are taught in English; and it was lamentably ludicrous to see so much good pains, as Mr Smith [Rev. Schmidt] evinced, to make these little creatures answer precisely as parrots might. The blacks have taken a prejudice against them. They call their house a house of hunger, because they get nothing. .... They complain bitterly that the Germans invited them to work and then kept the crops for their own families.29

... a native settlement had been undertaken by German Lutherans, and had completely failed, all the ministers connected with it being farmers. I did not deem it prudent to begin our mission on the same site.30

The government offered the disused military station at Dunwich for two years rent free. Polding described the site as suitably isolated:

It is on a headland overlooking a beautiful bay, 40 miles from the nearest white men except the Pilot and his crew, 10 miles away. 31


Polding thought that if the soil on the sand island was infertile, at least it would discourage Europeans from trying to select land on the island. Its isolation and poor soil must have also suggested the site to the Governor, at least the mission would be out of harm’s way from the burgeoning settlement.


At this time North and South Stradbroke still formed a single island (Minjerribah, until 1896) and the Quandamooka people were composed of several groups. The language of the island is referred to as Jandai.32 They had ample contact with Europeans and many of them spoke English. They travelled widely, including to Zion Hill mission, and were involved in a number of heroic rescues of shipwrecks.33 Dunwich had served for a few years (1829-1831) as a military post but the local Ngugi had put up resistance and had been violently attacked by the colonial military in 1830.34 Up to 1000 convicts were employed in building the facilities including a causeway. The Dunwich site, which served as ammunition store, had an underground safe passage to the beach, which is all that remains of it other than the causeway.


The entry to an underground passage at the foreshore at Dunwich, marked as a local heritage site.  
Photos: Regina Ganter 2012


A permanent indigenous settlement was about 5 km away at Myora Springs. The pilot station built on Nunukul land at Amity Point (1825-1838) about 16 km from Dunwich had resulted in mixed marriages and the issue of mixed descendants. Polding met one such child ‘for instance living with the wife of Story; he takes care of and is very fond of it.’35

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Founding the mission 

Five weeks after the last sighting of the Great Comet the spearhead party to form a mission arrived on Minjerribah in May 1843. It consisted of the Archbishop himself and Fr. Snell – these two, in any case, were those who rated a mention.36


After all the tension between Vaccari and Polding the future leader of the mission had been left behind. Polding inspected the disused military depot at Dunwich suggested by the local authorities and proceded to Brisbane to conduct, amidst much publicity, the first Catholic mass in Queensland on 28 May. The offical start date of the mission is recorded as 18 May 1843.37


The three Italian Passionists, accompanied by Rev. Dr. Gregory, arrived on 8 June 1843, Gregory joining Polding in Brisbane. After his sojourn in Brisbane and environs the Archbishop stopped again on the island.


During his short two stays on the island ‘upwards of a week’ the Bishop, according to his recollections, distributed clothing, ‘made considerable progress in the forming of a vocabulary’, and taught the Aborigines to cross themselves.38 He noticed with great satisfaction that a cross had been cut into the bark of a tree. In a quarrel during the distribution of clothes, he apparently made the ‘culprits’ kneel down and cross themselves before they received anything from him.39 Extending himself even further, he took three children from the island with him to Sydney, whom he thought he could train up to become useful additions to the mission.


This is how Passionist historian Rev Roger Mercurio CP imagines the commencement of the mission:

The four Passionist missionaries stood on the beach of Stradbroke Island watching the steamer as it took Archbishop Polding across Moreton Bay to Brisbane. As it sailed out of the sight, the four finally turned their gaze away from the sea to the ruins of the two wooden buildings, all that remained of Dunwick, [sic] the convicts’ settlement. Slowly they walked back to the two dilapidated shelters. Some distance away, intently watching all that was taking place, were a few of the more adventurous aborigines whom the missionaries had come to serve.40


Whether or not this scene has much historical accuracy, the sentiment cannot be wrong. Their arrival on the island must have struck them with despondency. Fathers Raimondo Vaccari and Maurizio Lencioni had come straight from Rome and must have expected to be able live ‘becomingly’. Each of the four had his own chalice and a set of vestments. Their luggage was so voluminous that it had caused them a delay in England, Father Luigi at least demonstrated a practical bent by purchasing a double-barrelled gun there. They were accustomed to being provided with board and lodging of a certain standard. Even two weeks into their journey en route to the colonies, while they were awaiting the sailing orders at the Benedictine monastery at Douay, Vaccari complained that

(we) are lacking in many things. .... We are thus left without a penny and have to go dirty because we have no money to pay for clean clothes.41


It is possible that Vaccari had not learned how to strike a dynamic relationship between the remedy of soap and the problem of soiled clothes. When he left for Australia, 41-year-old Vaccari, born in 1801 and a Passionist since 1823, he had been the rector of a monastery at Vetralla for three years, but lately resided at Saints John and Paul, the Passionist mother house in Rome. He was said to have a tendency to excessive self-confidence.42


Vaccari’s first impressions of Sydney had him in rapture:

And now to tell you something of this fifth part of the world, I cannot do better than say in all truth and without the slightest exaggeration that it can be called a terrestrial paradise. It is so beautiful and so charming a place that it surprises, enraptures and enchants. The climate is mild and genial. All the hills are clothed and adorned with fine plants and trees, the plains irrigated by many streams of the clearest water. The vegetation is of a most vivid green. It can be surpassed neither by the climate of Naples nor the charm of Tuscany nor by the fertility of the Roman Campagna, nor by the attractions of the other famous places in Italy or of any part of Europe.43


But whether he knew in 1843 how to turn such abounds of nature to his advantage is doubtful.


Fr. Maurizio Lencioni was born in Lucca in 1814, ordained in 1837 and called to Rome in 1841 to conduct ‘ecclesiastical work of great importance and trust’.44 Historian Rev. Thorpe judged him as being well suited for mission work:

He was a fine burly man in the enjoyment of excellent health. He was gentle and easy to get on with. Above all, he was remarkable for his intense spirit of piety. But he had one drawback which apparently did not become known until afterwards; he found it next to impossible to learn to speak with ease any language but his own’. 45


Fr. Luigi Pesciaroli had been a parish priest before he joined the Passionists. He was born in 1806 at Campina, and was a cousin of Dominic Barberi, the Provincial of the Passionists in England, and volunteered for the Australian mission shortly after his ordination. Thorpe thinks that it was a mistake for him to volunteer for such a project:

Although full of zeal for the extension of God’s kingdom on earth, he was temperamentally the least fitted of the four for the difficulties and disappointments that are inevitable in any new missionary undertaking. In leaving his diocese to enter the religious state he had followed a natural bent towards a life of study and retirement from the world. His decision to break his remaining human ties by abandoning his native land and going to a country remote as Australia, certainly revealed his spirit of self-sacrifice and his great love for souls, but as the event proved, it also manifested a certain instability of purpose.46


Fr. Joseph Snell was the son of a Swiss banker who converted to Catholicism at age 23. He had spent eight years in Bulgaria and must have been used to working in physically challenging conditions. Fathers Joseph and Luigi might have been able to make something of the mission. But the mission was largely unfunded.


Polding requested government support and the allocation of land, but only the use of the old prison buildings for two years was granted, and not renewed. The Archbishop considered another island a few hundred miles further north with a larger Aboriginal population (possibly Fraser Island). Meanwhile he arranged for the purchase of a small open boat, and a monthly supply of provisions by steamer from Sydney. Of course supplies from Sydney were unreliable and if one load was spoilt it would be another month or more until the next.


His instructions were not to take in any children, because there was no money for their upkeep. Also, in accordance with advice from the Bishop of New Zealand, Mgr Pompallier, the missionaries were not to give any food or other provisions away except in return for labour. No school, no gardens, no gifts - what were the missionaries supposed to be doing on this island?


In January 1844 Fr Pesciaroli attempted to describe the Stradbroke Islanders. He distinguished between ‘neighbours of ours and who have been for a long time familiarized with Europeans, are more social and willingly come to us and listen to us with docility’ and nomadic groups of between 40 and 60 people, one of which often stopped in the vicinity for eight or ten days. They daubed their faces with charcoal and ochre, were ‘tall and robust’, and used clubs, shields and lances in warfare. They used shells to create ornamental scars on their arms, legs and chest, and young girls underwent a procedure whereby spiderwebs were wound around the last phalanx of their left little finger until it dropped off, as a totemic offering. They gathered roots similar to potato (probably bungwall) and caught large lizards (probably goanna), flying foxes, and kangaroos from neighbouring islands, but their staple food was fish, which they netted in small groups forming semicircles and ‘murmuring in a low voice certain words’. They always had a firestick going, which was also used in funerals: ‘With the warrior newly laid in the grave they never fail to place on one side of him one of his weapons of defence, and on the other a burning brand.’

Their language is difficult and expresses much a in a few words, which is a natural effect of a limited vocabulary. .... this language difficulty makes it hard for us to express an opinion in regard to their conversion, for we are not yet able to explain the truths of faith to them in their own tongue in a way that would bring results. 47


Those who had contact with Europeans spoke English, but the Italian Fathers struggled with English and were unable to learn any local language. In November 1845 Vaccari wrote that ‘not even a syllable of it has yet been put in writing’.48 This difficulty was never overcome.


In the first few weeks the locals reassured the missionaries that

They hold us in veneration and show us great affection, this being quite the reverse of their treatment of other Europeans, for, these, they say, do not act kindly towards them but betray them and deceive them, so that they have lost all confidence in them. 49


But once it became clear that the mission had really nothing to give except in return for hard labour, they left. Vaccari noted that in the first year the Aboriginal people only spent about ten weeks altogether at the mission and left for other islands in October:

it is at present two months since we have had an opportunity of conversing with them, for they set off with their wives and children for other islands, and I may say with truth, that in the seven months we have been here the Aborigines have not been with us for more than two months and a half.50


Perhaps the unusually wet weather, with above 1,312mm of annual rainfall in the Brisbane region51, rendered food procurement difficult in 1843, and maybe they tried to tell Vaccari, when he raised the issue of God, that under these difficult conditions heaven can wait:

We have not yet spoken to Him, for He has not yet spoken to us; but we expect to see and speak to Him after death. 52


Pesciaroli later claimed that ‘the Aborigines remained near our dwelling for the greater part of the year.’53 He also mentioned that the missionaries occasionally travelled around the island with them:

Father Raymund not infrequently, and Father Joseph and I, sometimes with Father Maurice, went into the bush with the Aborigines, now to one place, now to another, sleeping near them in the open air and eating with them.54


In view of the language difficulties, no school was conducted. The missionaries did not feel empowered to take children into the mission, because there was no money dedicated to such an undertaking, or indeed to the mission: ‘it was a plan which of course would have entailed some expense had it been effected’.55

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Moreover, the Archbishop had created an inauspicious beginning for the mission by removing children from the island on his founding visit.

two little boys and a girl accompanied me to Sydney and I intended to educate them. .56

One of the little boys was an orphan; he [Polding] had no difficulty in persuading him to accompany him; another was the son of a chief; he had also brought a young girl whose mother made it a particular request that he would not permit her daughter to go into the bush but take her under his immediate care. The little girl cried most bitterly on leaving her home”. 57


When Polding handed her over to the Sisters of Charity in Parramatta, she again ‘manifested the greatest grief’, and a week later when the Archbishop came to visit she was in hiding and could not be found for a long time until she was found ‘sitting upon the gatepost weeping most bitterly’.58 Meanwhile at home, the Quandamooka demanded the return of their children:

The natives were in great distress, came to the missionaries and threatened that unless the children were returned by the next steamer, they would kill them.59


According to Polding the children were returned. They

remained in Sydney a month or five weeks, and during that time improved very much. The little girl began to speak English.60


Polding also had two other boys from the island in Sydney in September 1845:

There are two half-caste sons of a man named Smith; the mother found great difficulty in supporting them, for the father would do nothing for her, and I had them sent to Sydney – they are now with me.61


House of hunger

Because the Dunwich site was supposed to be temporary, the missionaries made no attempt at agriculture. The young men had agreed to work for them in the garden, but only on the condition that they would be entitled to the harvest.62 Their experiences with the Lutheran mission at Zion Hill had taught them to be cautious. Although fresh water is plentiful on the island, Archbishop Polding had already determined that there was no suitable land for gardening:

I cannot find on the island a piece of ground eligible for a garden; but in front of the house, about two miles off, there is an island very fit for the purpose and abounding in water.63

The missionaries’ complete dependence on external food supplies twice brought them into extreme crisis, first in 1844 when they lost their own boat, and again in the 1847 when the Sovereign supply ship was wrecked (while Vaccari was by himself).


The old government buildings were more delapidated than they had anticipated, and the government was not giving any assistance other than the 60 blankets they distributed on their arrival, along with some calico dresses that the Catholic women of Sydney had made for them. Moreover, the incessant rain made things difficult.

We have been left on this island, in a place called Dunwich, where there was a prison that had been abandoned three or four years before and where there are about one hundred savages. In this locality there are six or seven rooms, but all one storey high, with an underground passage and a place large enough to serve as a church. However this latter and all the other rooms are in a state of ruin through the weather. We agreed to cover up the holes in the roofs as best we could with some bark from the trees, but it was no use because for the nine months we have been here it has not ceased to rain, summer and winter. Though we have mended the roofs as many as seven times, we are always in water.64


Cardinal Moran’s Catholic history of 1895 claims that ‘with the help of the natives’ they erected a small wooden chapel, beautifully ornamented with shells’.65 This remarkable effort is not substantiated by other sources. The press was quiet about the mission, and the correspondence makes no reference to any building or improvements or proper mending - nor to conducting a school, or services. This means that a mission at Dunwich never really got off the ground.


Cardinal Moran also claims that they baptized about two hundred infants in two years, the boys learned to serve mass and nearly the whole tribe consented in the course of two years to wear the clothing provided for them by the Fathers sent up from Sydney.66 But reference to baptisms in the correspondence is sparse. Gray cites as the first Catholic baptisms in Queensland those by Fr. Snell who baptised the 6-year old son of Irishman Dick Smith and Aboriginal ‘Neli’ in the name of John Mary, witnessed by Englishman John Joseph Daps on 20 June 1844 and later their 3-year son Albert Mary.67 Another reference was in a letter from Fr Vaccari in November 1845, that they had baptised some natives who were in danger of death.68

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No communication

The missionaries were not required to write reports to the Archbishop or the Passionists, nor did Archbishop Polding report to the Propaganda Fide.

In actual fact no letters of yours have arrived, nor have I heard of any others of yours reaching Rome. I shall therefore be much pleased to receive from you an account of that vast Mission and I should like, among other things, to hear about the prefecture of the Mission of the Fathers of the Congregation of the Passion of Our Lord Jesus Christ.69

Vaccari had complained about the Archbishop to the Propaganda Fide and to the Passionists.

That is how things are at present, your Eminence. We are terribly confused in mind about everything, not knowing how this whole affair is going to turn out. Thanks be to God I myself am content and resolved to stay here till I die if necessary.70

The Passionists had cause for feeling abandoned on the island with no money, no plans, and little contact with the church.


In September 1845 Archbishop Polding was called to give evidence to a parliamentary committee on the condition of the Aborigines. Questioning him were five commissioners, including the Rev Dr. JD Lang who must have relished the uninformed statements by the head of the Catholics in Australia. Among other things Polding claimed that the Roman missionaries had taught the islanders to fish:

they have made them acquainted with a more efficient means of catching fish. I have sent down a large net and they have learnt to draw the seine

The committee pointedly observed that a native island population surely gained its ‘principal subsistence’ from the sea anyway.


By his own admission Polding knew no more about the Quandamooka than he had known before the mission started. Asked about the four missionaries, Polding had to admit that in their two years none of the four had been able to learn the language beyond some common conversational phrases. They were

so to speak, at school, learning the language as regards its construction, and the habits, etc. of the natives

Asked whether he imagined that the language of the island would be useful in other parts of the territory the Archbishop assured the committee most emphatically that the local language applied


undoubtedly to a large extent of territory, as the language of one portion of Greece would be available in learning the dialects of other parts.


Picking up on a statement Polding had made elsewhere, the committee asked whether he really thought infanticide of females was common on the island, which Polding affirmed by saying that he observed mixed descent boys, but no mixed-descent girls during his fourteen days on the island. They rejoined by stating that anywhere else ‘the half-castes saved are only the females’.71 The committee evidently did not give much credit to his opinions.


Internal criticism

By 1844 the mission already looked set to fail. The missionaries ran out of food in February after the loss of their boat. Bishop Pompallier paid a visit in December 1844 and reassured the missionaries that the Maoris were a completely different type of people, so that ‘not all the blame’ for the lack of success could rest with their approach to mission. Still, the missionaries had not learned the language, and not opened a school.


Polding was now earning criticism from Rome. Cardinal Franzoni in the Propaganda Fide wanted the Archbishop to release the missionaries for a new project headed by Bishop Brady for Western Australia72, and Passionist General Superior Testa wrote pointedly:

if your charity had not come to their aid, reduced as they were to the condition of the natives, but unlike them not skilled in obtaining food for themselves, they would have perished with hunger on the Island where they were living in the month of February, 1844.73 

To Barberi in London he wrote

Polding may be a saint, but he has kept none of the promises he made when he tore four religious away from us.74

A priest returning from Australia had reported negatively on the Stradbroke venture, saying the missionaries

had accomplished nothing except to learn how to hunt wild animals and to fish (andare alla caccia, alla pesca, etc).75

The Archbishop finally agreed to recognize Vaccari as the Prefect-Apostolic in charge of the mission, and allocated him £200 to spend on the mission and staff. ‘Moreover, he has promised that as soon as he can he will give us more, for at present he is very poor.’ 76


But too late. Plans were already underway to re-allocate the Passionists to Bishop Brady’s venture. Vaccari declared that he would neither continue the mission prefecture nor proceed to Western Australia and sent his resignation. The Propaganda did not respond to his resignation, leaving him to wonder about his position in the church.77 Testa advised the three others to leave the island without him, and they departed at the end of June 1846.

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What happened to Father Vaccari?

Vaccari held out for almost another year, assisted by Aboriginal people working for him and possibly also a caretaker. But it ended in debacle. In March 1847 the steamer Sovereign, that carried supplies from Sydney to Brisbane, was wrecked with a loss of about 40 lives, although Stradbroke Islanders rescued many survivors.78 The accident severed the supply line to Dunwich so Vaccari ran out of supplies, and had nothing to give to the Aborigines who worked for him. A man named ‘Canary’ threatened him and Vaccari asked for police protection.79 Police protection could have only meant the dispatch of a group of native police to terrorize the islanders into submission. But Vaccari’s letter to the police magistrate Captain Wickham80 was suppressed by Rev. J. Hanly in Brisbane, who had migrated with Vaccari on the Templar in 1843.


Left to his own devices by Rome, the Passionists, the local clergy and the police, Vaccari must by now have been somewhat unstable. He feared for his life and bolted with nowhere to run. His escape route is shrouded in speculation.


According to shipping intelligence Vaccari was the only passenger on the Elizabeth Jane leaving from Moreton Bay on 15 July 1847.81 But Cardinal Moran has it from Fr. James Hanly that he took off in an open boat. According to Thorpe the Elizabeth Jane left Brisbane without Vaccari on 4 July for Tweed Heads to load cedar, and arrived with Vaccari on 20 July in Sydney.82 Did he make an open boat to Tweed Heads? The Moreton Bay Courier briefly noted his departure without any signs of an unusual story, reporting that the last missionary

took his departure for Sydney last week in the Elizabeth Jane schooner, leaving a servant in charge of the station at Dunwich.83

More intriguing still is that he re-appeared in the shipping lists the following month. He was listed as a passenger on the Oliver Cromwell leaving from Sydney to Valparaiso on 21 July and also on the Elizabeth Jane leaving Brisbane on 29 July 1847 for Melbourne, Woodbridge and Valparaiso. Perhaps he thought he had missed the Elizabeth Jane to Valparaiso and in panic tried to catch up with it at Tweed Heads? It would have at least delivered him to Sydney in time to catch the Oliver Cromwell the next day. Or was he covering his tracks?


His superiors were left in the dark about his whereabouts. Even a year later the Archbishop wrote to his cousin

I do not know where Vaccari is; the other three are in S. Australia84

and Barberi in London wrote to Testa in Rome:

about Father Raymund, it is quite possible that he has been killed and eaten by savages! It is certain that three priests of Sydney have met that terrible end. He went alone among very fierce natives, and his end may never be known. I have instructed Father Peter to make all possible enquiries. But if he is not found, I fear the worst.85

Perhaps it was Fr. Luigi Pesciaroli who informed them that Vaccari had gone to Valparaiso. He mentioned in November 1848 that Vaccari had left with the Franciscan Father Bassi, six weeks before the Archbishop returned from his second European tour.86 Father Bassi, recorded as Barsi, can be found in the departures from Sydney for Valparaiso on 8 December 1847 on the Speed, and Polding returned on 6 February 1848. The passenger list for the Speed does not include Rev. Vaccari but mentions several English passengers including an A. Wilson.87


Father Peter Magagnotto CP came to Sydney in company with the Archbishop to inquire about his Passionist brethren. Eventually he heard that Vaccari had gone to Valparaiso.


Barberi in London was perplexed:

Father Raymund is at Valparaiso. What is he doing there? I cannot say.88

But Vaccari was not in Chile. Valparaiso was on the direct shipping line from Sydney, but had no monastery. The nearest monastery was the Franciscan one in the capital of Peru, and this is where Vaccari was in hiding.


Vaccari’s story lends to the ending of the Stradbroke Island mission its miraculous note:

The Superior, Father Raymond Vaccari, set off for Valparaiso, was shipwrecked, and turned up in Lima without a cent in his pocket. For years he worked as gardener in a Franciscan monastery until he was recognised, and at the request of the Bishop, was received into the community.89

Despite earnest efforts the shipwreck cannot be confirmed. The Oliver Cromwell, Speed and Elizabeth Jane were still plying the waters the following years. Thorpe does not rule out that there may have been a shipwreck, and thinks that maybe Vaccari interrupted his journey along the way. He adds that Vaccari worked as a gardener under the assumed English name of Wilson in the Franciscan convent in Lima for 13 years before he was recognised by a Benedictine visitor, most likely Gregory or someone in his group from Sydney.90


In any case Vaccari alias Wilson had arrived without papers and without money. If he accompanied Bassi in December 1847 as Mr Wilson, he must have been in hiding somewhere for half a year. He must have been traumatised by his experiences on Stradbroke Island and the lack of support from all parts of the church, from which he could only expect disapproval and censure. He forged for himself a new life and a new identity in Lima. Through the intervention of Fr Magngotto after his discovery, he was released from the Passionists and accepted into the Franciscan order in 1862.91


The San Francisco monastery in the historic centre of Lima is of such magnificence that it is now a world heritage site, with its own museum and daily guided tours. It has spectacular catacombs, a world renowned library and paintings from the Rubens school. Being a gardener in such a place must be a divine occupation and worth a little fib.


Main courtyard of San Francisco monastery in Lima with one of the seven cloisters. Wikipedia





4 Advertising, The Sydney Morning Herald, 24 April 1848:2. Retrieved 9 November 2012, from

6 Such a rift was just occurring in Germany, where in 1844 the Bishop of Trier had put on public display, for the first time in over thirty years, the cathedral’s most sacred relic, the seamless robe of Jesus to encourage pilgrimages and donations. This so outraged a young priest, Johannes Ronge that he wrote an incensed public letter to the Bishop, was excommunicated and with Johannes Czerski formed a breakaway sect of German Catholics (Deutschkatholiken) who renounced indulgences, confession, celibacy, and submission to Rome. The holy coat in Trier was not displayed again until 1898, and only three times since then. Lang penned what he called a Litany of the Holy Coat.

Dr. Lang is going to England, Holy Coat ! pray for us !

To bring out both Swiss and Germans, Holy Coat ! pray for us !  Read more

7 ‘The Church In Australia’, The Courier (Hobart), 14 April 1843:4. Retrieved November 8, 2012, from

9 Advertising, The Sydney Morning Herald, 24 April 1848:2. Retrieved November 9, 2012, from

10 From Ullathorne, From Cabin-Boy to Archbishop, Chapter 26, in Osmund Thorpe, CP, First Catholic Mission to the Australian Aborigines, Sydney: Pellegrini & Co., 1950:24.

11 Shipping Intelligence on 11 March 1843 announced the following arrivals: The Most Reverend Dr. Polding, Archbishop of Sydney; Rev. Dr. Gregory, Rev. Messrs. Canoni, Snell, Viccari, Sanchioli, Pacheali, Young, McCarthy, Hallaman; Messrs. Healy, Dume, Smith, McClennon, Roach, Murray, Carroll, Larkin, Scannel. The Italian names all appear wrong. Australasian Chronicle 11 March 1843:3. Retrieved November 8, 2012, from

12 Shipping Intelligence, Australasian Chronicle, 11 March 1843: 3. Retrieved November 8, 2012, from and Patrick Francis Cardinal Moran, History of the Catholic Church in Australasia from authentic sources, Sydney: Oceanic Publishing Company 1895, Vol I:227, SMH, 11 March 1843.

13 Polding in Sydney to Therry in Tasmania, 4 May 1843, in Thorpe 1950:190.

The date of arrival is from Polding at Moreton Bay to Murphy in Sydney, 2 July 1843, in Thorpe 1950:192.

14 Bryan FizGibbon and Marianne Gizycki, Reserve Bank of Australia, System Stability Department, Research White Paper, October 2001.

16 Osmund Thorpe, CP, First Catholic Mission to the Australian Aborigines, Sydney: Pellegrini & Co. 1950: 23.

19 Ecclesiastical Intelligence, Australasian Chronicle, 22 Sep 1842: 3. Retrieved 5 Nov 2012

20 Roger Mercurio CP The Passionists, Collegeville: Liturgical Press 1992:46.

21 Vaccari in Sydney to Polding in Sydney, 7 May 1843, in Thorpe 1950:211.

22 Barberi in London to Testa in Rome, 4 May 1847, in Thorpe 1950:203.

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

24 Vaccari in Sydney to Mgr Pione Colmo, 15 March 1843, in Thorpe 1950:209.

25 ‘First observed in early February, 1843, it raced toward an incredibly close perihelion of less than 830,000 km on February 27, 1843; at this time it was observed in broad daylight roughly a degree away from the Sun. It passed closest to Earth on March 6, 1843, and was at its greatest brilliance the following day; unfortunately for observers north of the equator, at its peak it was best visible from the Southern Hemisphere. It was last observed on April 19, 1843. At that time this comet had passed closer to the sun than any other known object.’ Wikipedia, Great Comet

26 Thorpe 1950:76.

28 Middle District, Geelong Advertiser, 25 July 1842:3. Retrieved November 8, 2012, from

29 Polding to Murphy, Moreton Bay, 2 July 1843, in Thorpe 1950:191.

30 Polding to Cardinal Franzoni, Sydney, 10 April 1845, in Thorpe 1950:194.

31 Polding to Heptonstall, Moreton Bay, 9 June 1843, in Thorpe 1950:190.

32 Minjerriba Moorgumpin Elders-in-council, Jandai Language Dictionary, 2011.

33 Launceston Shipping List, Launceston Advertise,r 2 May 1844:2. Retrieved December 4, 2012, from

34 Evans, Raymond, A History of Queensland. Port Melbourne, Victoria: Cambridge University Press, 2007:46.

35 Parliamentary Committee on the Condition of the Aborigines, Chair R. Windeyer, 1845, Mitchell Library, Q. 572.9 P.A. 1.

36 Fr. James Hanly, who arrived with the Italians on the Templar from Europe and was installed as the first Catholic parish priest in Brisbane, was ordained in Sydney in September and arrived with Fr. John Kavanagh in December 1843.

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

38 Polding to Murphy, Moreton Bay 2 June 1843, in Thorpe 1950:191.

39 This incident is on the authority of Cardinal Moran’s History of the Catholic Church in Australia. There is no reference to it in the extensive correspondence examined by Thorpe.

40 Roger Mercurio CP The Passionists, Collegeville: Liturgical Press 1992:61.

41 Vaccari at Douay to Cardinal Prefect of the Sacred Congregation of Propaganda, (Franzoni) 19 August 1842, in Thorpe 1950:207ff.

42 Thorpe 1950:23.

43 Vaccari in Sydney to Mgr Pione Colmo, 15 March 1843, in Thorpe 1950:210.

44 South Australian Register, 8 April 1864 (obituary notice) and 9 September 1846.

45 Thorpe 1950:29.

46 Thorpe 1950:28.

47 Pesciaroli at Dunwich, 29 January 1844, published in Annali della Propagatione della Fide, V, VI, 1845, in Thorpe 1950: 214-16.

48 Vaccari to Franzoni, 19November 1845, in Thorpe 1950:220.

Translation of Fr. Pesciaroli’s description, published in Annali della Propagatione della Fide, V, VI, 1845: 214-16.  Read more 

49 Vaccari at Dunwich to Polding, 19 December 1843, in Thorpe 1950:213.

50 Vaccari at Dunwich to Polding, 19 December 1843, in Thorpe 1950:213.

51 Queensland Treasury 2009, Historical Tables, Environment 1840-2008, Q150 Release.

52 Vaccari at Dunwich to Polding, 19 December 1843, in Thorpe 1950:213.

53 Pesciaroli in Adelaide to Testa, 2 November 1848, in Thorpe 1950:222ff.

54 Pesciaroli in Adelaide to Testa, 2 November 1848, in Thorpe 1950:222ff.  Read more 

55 Emphasis in the original. Pesciaroli in Adelaide to Testa, 2 November 1848, in Thorpe 1950:222ff.

56 Parliamentary Committee on the Condition of the Aborigines, Chair R. Windeyer, 1845, Mitchell Library, Q. 572.9 P.A. 1.

57 Address of Archbishop Polding to the Catholic Institute and St Patrick’s Society, Sydney, Australasian Chronicle, 9 August 1843, and Sydney Morning Herald 10 August 1843.

58 Address of Archbishop Polding to the Catholic Institute and St Patrick’s Society, Sydney, Australasian Chronicle, 9 August 1843, and Sydney Morning Herald 10 August 1843.

59 Parliamentary Committee on the Condition of the Aborigines, Chair R. Windeyer, 1845, Mitchell Library, Q. 572.9 P.A. 1.

60 Parliamentary Committee on the Condition of the Aborigines, Chair R. Windeyer, 1845, Mitchell Library, Q. 572.9 P.A. 1.

61 Parliamentary Committee on the Condition of the Aborigines, Chair R. Windeyer, 1845, Mitchell Library, Q. 572.9 P.A. 1.

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

63 Polding to Murphy, Moreton Bay, 2 July 1843, in Thorpe 1950:191.

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

65 Moran, History of the Catholic Church in Australasia, 1895, Ch. XI, in Thorpe 1950:101.

66 Moran, History of the Catholic Church in Australasia, 1895, I: 408.

67 Victor L Gray, Catholicism in Queensland: Fifty Years of Progress) 1910:52.

68 Vaccari to Cardinal Prefect, 19 November 1845, in Thorpe 1950:219. Moran 1895:417.

69 Secretary, Propaganda Fide, to Archbishop Polding, 9 September 1844, in Thorpe 1950:247.

70 Vaccari to Franzoni, 19 February 1844, in Thorpe 1950:217-18.

71 Parliamentary Committee on the Condition of the Aborigines, Chair R. Windeyer, 1845, Mitchell Library, Q. 572.9 P.A. 1.

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

73 Testa in Rome to Polding in Sydney, 1 June 1845, in Thorpe 1950:197-98.

74 Testa to Barberi, Rome, 13 April 1847, in Thorpe 1950:202.

75 Barberi in London to Testa in Rome, 17 April 1849, in Thorpe 1950:205.

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

77 Vaccari sent his resignation from Sydney on 15 February 1846, according to Propaganda to Testa, 1 February 1847, in Thorpe 1950:248.

78 Total wreck of the "sovereign" steamer.—forty-four lives lost. Bell’s Life in Sydney and Sporting Reviewer, 3 April 1847: 1. Retrieved December 4, 2012, from

79 "Local Intelligence." The Moreton Bay Courier, 24 Apr 1847: 2. Retrieved 28 Aug 2013

1 May 1847 p1

81 Shipping Intelligence, Sydney Chronicle , 21 July 1847:2. Retrieved December 4, 2012, from

82 Thorpe 1950:119.

83 Domestic Intelligence, The Moreton Bay Courier, 17 July 1847:2. Retrieved December 4, 2012, from

84 Polding to Heptonstall, Sydney, 3 July 1848, in Thorpe 1950:197.

85 Barberi in London to Testa in Rome, 8 July 1848, in Thorpe 1950:204.

86 Pesciaroli in Adelaide to Testa, 2 November 1848, in Thorpe 1950:222-229.

87 Departures, The Sydney Morning Herald, 9 December 1847:2. Retrieved December 4, 2012, from

88 Barberi in London to Testa in Rome, 17 April 1849, in Thorpe 1950:205.

89 Georg Walter PSM, Australia: Land People Mission, Limburg Pallotine Society Lahn Verlag, 1982:118. The source for this is given as Lauterer, Australien und Tasmanien, Freiburg: Herder Verlag 1900 p. 308ff.

90 Thorpe 1950: 147-171.

91 Thorpe 1950: 147-171.