Founding Father

Rector of St Aloysius’ College, Milsons Point, Fr Ross Jones SJ, recently shared the story of Irish Jesuit, Fr Joseph Dalton SJ, who laid the foundations for Jesuit education in Australia in the late 1800s.


With the encroaching excavations happening at St Aloysius’ College in Sydney, the occupancy rate of Dalton Hall has recently maximised, both in terms of the classrooms and the court area for assemblies. That part of the campus is named, of course, after the founder and first Rector, Fr Joseph Dalton SJ.

Born in Waterford, Ireland, in 1817, Dalton attended two Jesuit schools, the rather austere St Stanislaus College in Tullabeg, the midlands, and then Clongowes College in the countryside outside Dublin. After graduation, he joined the Jesuits, and following ordination, he spent time in both of his old schools.

Meanwhile, in Australia, an Irish diocesan priest, Fr John Therry, who had worked for decades in the colony and had amassed a personal fortune, died. He had heard about the Jesuits’ work in Ireland, admired them, leaving his entire estate to the Irish Province. (And the English Archbishop of Sydney was less than impressed!)

Coincidentally, in the same year, the first bishop of Melbourne, Dr James Goold, invited the Irish Jesuits to come and re-open St Patrick’s College, adjacent to the cathedral, a diocesan school which was in chaos and bankrupt. When the legacy reached Ireland, the Jesuits decided this Therry bequest would fund the Irish Province’s first overseas mission.

The Provincial wrote to all the Jesuit ministries in Ireland seeking volunteers for Australia. Dalton put the notice up in the Jesuit community rooms where he was Rector at Tullabeg. Later, he wrote in his diary that he could not ask anyone to volunteer for such a mission if he did not do so himself. So he did, and the Provincial accepted him.

Dalton was already fifty years old – which was older than the life expectancy of an Irish man at the time. But Dalton’s colleagues of the time described him as a “man of great energy and vision, who communicated a driving ambition for the success of any venture to which he committed himself.”

So, two Jesuits departed for Melbourne. Dalton left a little later with four other Jesuits – two priests, a brother and a novice. (The brother was later to disappear from the community. It was thought he was tempted to head for the goldfields to the north!)

The five travelled in the SS Great Britain which, at the time of its commission, was the largest vessel afloat. In pre-Suez Canal days, they took the passage around the Cape. By all reports, it was an arduous journey. Passengers did not see land after leaving Wales until they sighted Australia. En route, there was a duel on board and even a case of smallpox. A cow below decks to provide milk for First Class passengers died of seasickness after only one week offshore. The Second Class crowd rejoiced maliciously. But then the vacant cowstall was used to lock up troublesome passengers of the lower classes. Perhaps the cow had the last laugh. The three Jesuits were quite active on board and we are told there were “three converts to the Faith” whilst at sea.

After two months, the five arrived in Melbourne in 1866 to join two confreres already there. Fr Dalton, the mission superior, was appointed Rector at St Patrick’s College, East Melbourne, for a dozen years. He quickly turned the school around and began producing students eventually leading in the University entrance examinations.

Dalton purchased 70 acres of land for the new Xavier College at Kew in 1871. It opened in 1878. Prior to that opening, he established the two parishes at Hawthorn and Richmond. Whilst in between his two terms as superior of the mission, he was parish priest of St Ignatius’ Church, Richmond.

Then Dalton turned his eyes to Sydney, though there was a great deal of anti-Jesuit feeling here and campaigns to thwart any Jesuit arrival. A number of NSW parliamentarians, like Sir Henry Parkes, were on the offensive. Some Catholic quarters were even suspicious because the Jesuits had recently been expelled again from Germany and France.

The Protestant Standard newspaper saw a conspiracy:

Boys Jesuitically trained, grown into men of our public positions; Ministers Jesuitically trained in our Parliament governing the destinies of our young country; Judges Jesuitically trained sitting on the Bench in King Street; Merchants Jesuitically trained holding the chief places in the [Stock] Exchange.

By now, Sydney had a new Archbishop, Roger Vaughan. He had two brothers who were bishops and another who was an English Jesuit. In spite of that Jesuit link, one of his other brothers, the Bishop of Manchester, warned that if he welcomed the Jesuits to Sydney he was only “creating a rod for his own back”.

However, Dalton came to Sydney, met Vaughan and they got on well. He made a return visit in April 1878, on which occasion Vaughan invited the Jesuits to take over North Sydney parish, which then stretched up to the Hawkesbury and across to Pittwater and Manly.

Vaughan also asked Dalton to make plans to begin a Jesuit school in Sydney. Having nowhere to live, he and Fr Kennedy, his fellow-Jesuit, rented a ramshackle cottage of four rooms. It was made of corrugated iron and flattened kerosene tins. In the Sydney summer, it would have been like living in an oven. Dalton nicknamed it Kerosene Lodge.

V Rev Fr Joseph Dalton SJ and St Kilda House, Woolloomooloo. Image provided by Fr Ross Jones SJ.

Dalton then made arrangements to rent (and later purchase) a one-acre property, St Kilda House, on the corner of Cathedral and Palmer Streets, Woolloomooloo. Two months later, he purchased 118 acres of the property to become Saint Ignatius’ College, Riverview.

St Kilda House opened in January 1879 with 45 students. There were 115 at year’s end. Having no room for Jesuit accommodation, one of the Jesuits lived at North Sydney and the other four lived on the Riverview property, travelling daily by ferry.

Dalton was Rector at St Kilda House for one year before moving to Riverview, which opened to become a boarding school. He also established parish schools in each of his Jesuit parishes as well. He opened the school at Lavender Bay in 1882. Such an energetic man.

The only foundation of his that was to fail was St Aloysius’ College and Parish in Dunedin, New Zealand. The school operated between 1878 and 1889, closing because of staffing shortages.

St Kilda House eventually outgrew its site, so in 1883, Dalton made his last major purchase of a house and grounds, Auburn Villa, in Bourke Street, Surry Hills. It was re-named St Aloysius’ College. Later it was redeveloped into a much larger building. As was the custom in Jesuit schools at the time, the school had an observatory. This one was housed in a tower on the roof. Young Aloysians used to sneak up there to view the scoreboard at the Sydney Cricket Ground with the telescope when there was a test match.

Dalton moved to Riverview in 1880 when St Ignatius’ opened – once again to be the first Rector there. He retired at the end of 1883 and remained at Riverview the rest of his life.

Despite all those earlier misgivings and distrust of Jesuits, in his lifetime Dalton had become the friend and confidant of many members of the hierarchy, as well as earning the respect of vice-regals and parliamentarians. His pupils from every school loved him.

Just short of his eighty-eighth birthday, Dalton died at Riverview in 1905, and was buried from St Mary’s North Sydney. The funeral was huge. The list of dignitaries, Church and State, the people he had taught and otherwise influenced was enormous. He was first interred at the Jesuit plot, Gore Hill.

Two years later, a chapel at Riverview was opened in his honour, funded by Old Ignatians, and other friends. His remains were exhumed from Gore Hill and re-interred beneath the Chapel.

Joseph Dalton’s story is a rich one. A story so often graced. But also a story sometimes grim. Dalton was heroic, and his accomplishments extraordinary, yet one of his big international ventures in Dunedin failed. And his first school venture, St Patrick’s, East Melbourne, was taken back from us by the Archdiocese in the 1960s and demolished.

When he came to Sydney, Dalton faced suspicion from within the Church hierarchy, and bigotry from the outside, yet he would not be deterred in his vision and he was loved. Dalton spent his final years in the relative comfort of the country estate at Riverview, but in his earlier days he lived simply and did it tough. Dalton’s experience of success and failure, of hardship and ease, of the permanent and the passing, of allies and antagonists, is something we all share from time to time. It is part of our story, too.

Dalton was not an innovator in education, nor a scholar or intellectual. He published nothing, and his inner life is not revealed in his diary. Here was a simple, practical and courageous man with extraordinary strength who accepted existing standards of the educated Catholic gentleman and fostered these. His spirituality was pious and practical. He was concerned for the faith of his students, their academic progress, and character development, keen that they be influential in the development of Australia.

It was said that Dalton’s favourite words of encouragement to a boy or a colleague about to undertake a task were felix faustumque. It was a phrase from Cicero meaning “may it be fortunate and prosperous.”

Seems it was a phrase that bore fruit in his own life’s work – the Father of Jesuit Education in Australia.

Fr Ross Jones SJ

This article was originally published in a March 2023 edition of ‘The Gonzagan’ newsletter for St Aloysius’ College, Milsons Point.

Feature photo: Saint Ignatius’ College, Riverview, NSW. Property of the Society of Jesus in Australia.