Academic journal article Journal of the Australian Catholic Historical Society

The Death of Archbishop Roger Bede Vaughan

Academic journal article Journal of the Australian Catholic Historical Society

The Death of Archbishop Roger Bede Vaughan

Article excerpt

The name of Roger Bede Vaughan is not as well known among Sydney Catholics as that of his English Benedictine predecessor, John Bede Polding, or his illustrious Irish successor, Patrick Francis Cardinal Moran. Indeed, at first sight Patrick O'Farrell's sad assessment of Vaughan's episcopate seems substantially correct: 'The appropriate panegyrics were spoken and then the name of Vaughan vanished, almost in some quarters as if it had never been'. (1) Since those words were first written in 1977, however, there has been a resurgence of interest in the achievements of Archbishop Vaughan. This development has arisen partly as a consequence of O'Farrell's own pioneering work on the disputes between English and Irish factions in the colonial church of New South Wales, but has been further fuelled by several negative assessments of Vaughan's episcopate over the last ten years, and most recently by the more positive comments made during last year's celebrations for the 125th anniversary of the solemn opening of St Mary's Cathedral by Vaughan in September 1882. (2) This year the Sydney Archdiocese marks another 125th anniversary: the death of Archbishop Vaughan in England on 18 August 1883. This occasion presents an opportunity to reassess a little-explored avenue in Australian Catholic history, but one which nevertheless had an enormous impact on the church in New South Wales and beyond, for Vaughan's death at the early age of forty-nine cleared the way for the appointment of an Irish successor.

When Roger Bede Vaughan departed from Sydney at the beginning of his ad limina visit to Rome on 19 April 1883 he was at the peak of his powers as Archbishop of Sydney. He had arrived as coadjutor to Archbishop Polding in 1873 at a time of deep division and considerable despair within the Catholic Church in New South Wales. Internecine strife had broken out between Polding and his suffragan bishops in the late 1860s, the old St Mary's still lay in ruins after the disastrous fire of 1865 with only the foundations of the new cathedral completed, and threats to Catholic education from powerful agents of secularism were already gathering force in the New South Wales legislature. By the time of his accession as archbishop in 1877, however, Vaughan had managed to galvanize the bishops, clergy and laity of his province into a united front against these secularising tendencies, numerous new churches and schools had been opened, and it was widely felt that the Catholic Church was on an upward trajectory. During his six years as archbishop he worked assiduously on expanding the number of Catholic schools and, after the passage of the Public Education Act of 1880, the provision of religious teaching orders to staff the new schools became one of his highest priorities. His tireless work in raising funds for numerous building projects was legendary, but his first priority had always been the completion of his cathedral, and on 8 September 1882 he presided at the triumphal opening of the magnificent new St Mary's, the largest ecclesiastical building in the colony. The esteem which Sydney's Catholics had for their archbishop can therefore be readily appreciated, and his farewell in Sydney Harbour was on a scale to match his achievements. The Freeman's Journal reported on the vast crowds that gathered on that day: Vaughan's carriage had to be driven from the cathedral to Circular Quay at walking pace, with 'large numbers of people walking at either side ... All the windows and balconies along Macquarie-street were filled with people, and the streets were lined with spectators.' Great cheers rose up as he boarded his steamer and numerous dignitaries went out to the ship to say their last farewells before The City of New York slipped its moorings and made a stately progress out of the harbour. With many 'ringing cheers' and escorted by a flotilla of smaller launches full of well-wishers, Vaughan's ship made its way through the Heads and out to sea. …

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