All new and unknown

175 years ago, in December 1848, Father Aloysius Kranewitter, an Austrian and the first Jesuit to arrive in Australia, began to pen his observations about the Great Southern Land, where nothing looked familiar.


These extracts are taken from Fr Kranewitter’s first letter to his Provincial in Austria. The missive was written on 10 June 1849, six months after a party of migrants led by Franz Weikert, a prominent Silesian farmer seeking religious freedom, arrived in Australia. Fr Kranewitter (pictured, right), from the Austrian Province, had volunteered for the mission, along with his compatriot, Fr Maximilian Klinkowström. The latter, however, took ill and returned to Europe after living for a short time in Adelaide.

The Weikerts and their eight children led a group of 146 Catholics to Australia. To fund the group’s journey to the southern hemisphere, Weikert sold his farm and used the proceeds to pay the fares of all those in their travelling party.

They chose their travelling companions well. There were thirteen farmers, two labourers, seven carpenters, three cobblers, one stonemason, three tailors, one shepherd, two servants, six weavers, two coach builders, two blacksmiths and a clockmaker. While they wanted one priest, they actually got two – newly ordained Austrian Jesuit priests, Fr Kranewitter and Fr Klinkowström.

The Weikerts and their companions sailed from the port of Hamburg on 15th August 1848, the feast of the Assumption of Our Lady. On 8th December, the Feast of the Immaculate Conception, the first Jesuits set foot on Australian soil in Adelaide. The following extracts are Fr Kranewitter’s own words from the first letter to his Provincial in Austria ……

The voyage aboard the sailing ship ‘Alfred’

The whole sea voyage comes back to me like an unpleasant dream, the remembrance of which brings little that is joyful, for nothing is more disagreeable than to be tossed for months on end on the wide desert sea, which one has already been gazing on to satiety. Certainly, one learns from experience more than from a thousand books, but the study is painful … On the 15th August our ship left Hamburg harbour, and on the 19th we left the mouth of the Elbe.

Setting course to the land of promise

We were hardly floating on the waves of the sea before its almost magic power displayed itself. In about an hour nearly half the passengers were afflicted with seasickness. Our course lies by the Gulf Stream and the trade winds towards Rio de Janeiro, then we make for the Cape of Good Hope, and from there direct to Adelaide with the West Trade Winds, which always blow more strongly toward the South. The reckoning is about 90 to 100 days to Port Adelaide.

Kangaroo Island, on the horizon of this image of a pristine sandy beach on South Australia’s scenic Fleurieu Peninsula, was where Fr Kranewitter first set foot on Australian soil. All photographs: David McMahon

The first sighting of Australia

… On the 4th December we heard the cry, ‘Land! Land!’ and could you describe the emotions in the hearts of all of us at the cry? It was Kangaroo Island that lay straight in front of us. On 5th December we lay in the Outer Harbour of Adelaide; we had still to go up a narrow bight to reach Port Adelaide, the harbour of South Australia proper.

South Australia’s colours, coastline and hot December weather would have been a challenge for the two Jesuits accompanying the Weikerts and their other carefully chosen travelling companions. 

All voyagers are in thrall to the tides

This inlet of the sea follows a serpentine course inland for about two English miles and the water is very shallow. A good tide and wind are necessary to sail up it, and often a ship must lie in wait for eight days for a favourable chance. We reached Adelaide on 8th December, having left Hamburg on the 15th August.

Setting foot on the soil of our new home

Having more than enough of ship life, we seized the first opportunity of landing.  We were fortunate enough to be able to do this in the afternoon. A launch lay alongside the ‘Alfred’ and its pilot agreed to bring the passengers to land at a reasonable price. At four o’clock Father Klinkowström and I (as well as) Mr Weikert and three others of our company, stood on Australian soil.

Unlike the winter scenery in Austria, the parched land and monochromatic native grasses awaited Fr Kranewitter.

Coming to terms with unfamiliar flora

In front lay a broad stretch of deep sea and behind was a plain bounded by hills covered with green trees stretching right across in bow shape from side to side. The first thing we noted was the sand with its mussels and cockles, and then the plant life, all new and unknown to us. Not a shrub, plant nor tree like those at home, except perhaps the red stock-gilli-flower that grew wild in the sand ridges.

Finding our way to the Bishop

Adelaide is situated about two German miles inland, hackney coaches ply constantly between the harbour and the city, and these brought us there by eight o’clock in the evening. It was only after much trouble that we found the ‘Catholic Chapel,’ and the residence of the Bishop, as well as that of the Right Reverend Dr Backhaus.

The hamlet called Clare Village

Great was our joy to have reached the goal of our voyage, and it was a great consolation to us to have completed the journey on the Feast of the Immaculate Conception of the Blessed Virgin Mary, and on the next day to be able to say Holy Mass again after such a long interruption … Weikert, a simple, honest countryman, the father of eight children, and a fervent Christian, leased a piece of land about 60 miles north of Adelaide, near a hamlet called Clare Village.

Getting the Bishop’s approval

Most of the inhabitants of the village are Irish Catholics, and they have built a small church, which the Bishop will consecrate soon.  Since I, as far as languages go, could help at the same time the German family of Weikert and the Irish Catholics, I decided to accompany him. The Bishop approved of the plan. He thanked Weikert for bringing us with him, and commissioned me to give special attention to the German Catholics, who live scattered about the country … I very gladly undertook this task and on 14th December (1848) I set off with Weikert for Clare Village.

For more details, read Austrian Jesuit Fr Peter Sinthern’s ‘Memoir of the Mission in Australia’, as well as Jesuit Pioneers, by the Very Rev Austin Kelly SJ.

Banner image of dusk on South Australia’s scenic Fleurieu Peninsula by David McMahon.