Pioneer Spirit

On 9 December, the 6pm Mass at St Ignatius Church, Norwood commemorated the 175th anniversary of the first Jesuit presence in Australia.


This homily was delivered by Bishop Greg O’Kelly SJ

It was yesterday, 175 years ago, on what became the Feast of the Immaculate Conception, that a group of Prussian Silesian immigrants arrived in Port Adelaide, accompanied by two Jesuit priests who with the other members of their Order, had been expelled from the domains of the Austrian Empire that year, 1848, known as the Year of Revolutions.  Just as the Lutherans from Germany were establishing coherent settlements at places like Klemzig, Lobethal, Tanunda where they too could practise their religion freely in this new colony of South Australia, so the hope had been to found a similar Catholic settlement. It was a dream that fell apart through dissension and ruined finances, and just a remnant of the group, along with the young Fr Aloysius Kranewitter, found itself on the outskirts of Clare, then the cheapest and northernmost point of European settlement. Where we now drive under two hours, that first journey by ox cart took them four days and three nights.

Bishop Greg O’Kelly SJ delivering his homily that encompassed valuable historical perspectives. “Fr Kranewitter, alone in this land, was the loneliest Jesuit,” he noted. All photographs: David McMahon

The Readings of the day for this Mass of commemoration of the arrival of the first Jesuits in our land are so apt for our reflection, as are those for the Sunday’s Advent vigil.  Isaiah speaks of the abundance of the harvest for good that will be a sign of the bounteous graciousness of God towards his people, blessed harvests and herds of beasts, streams in abundance. And the Gospel of today speaks of the need for labourers for the harvest, the mission to the twelve to go out and care for those in need. The vigil speaks of John the Baptist coming before the Lord to prepare his way, to make straight the paths, so that we are prepared for the birth of Christ, in our world and in our hearts. The straightening of the paths of our hearts is what we must address in our discipleship of Jesus. We commemorate tonight the fruits of discipleship; we give thanks that the seeds sown in the ground by those early Jesuits were blessed by God with the rain of bounteous graciousness, thanks now that the harvest continues to be a field of work here for the fathers and brothers of the Society of Jesus.

These reflections focus on the first Jesuits from the Austro-Hungarian Province, for the 175 years marks the work they founded, twenty years before the Irish Jesuits came to Victoria. That Jesuit community at Sevenhill and its successors had the distinction of being the most remote mission of the Society of Jesus in the world.  The pioneer Jesuits sent here were several thousand kilometres distant from the nearest Jesuit communities in India and Brazil.  The Society was gradually growing after its world-wide suppression; Jesuits had only returned to Austria about twenty years before being expelled again in 1848.

Archbishop Patrick O’Regan (foreground, centre) flanked by Australian Provincial Fr Quyen Vu SJ on the left and Fr Chris Jenkins SJ, parish priest of Norwood, on the right.

It was an audacious act for Jesuit superiors to send two men, ordained only six weeks earlier, “to the other end of the earth”, as they said, on a journey that took four months at sea.  It was an act of trust, that they join as chaplains a group hoping to establish a German Catholic settlement of farmers and villagers in a land totally foreign to them in government, topography, religion and language.  It was the early days of the Church in this land. Our first bishop had arrived just on three years earlier, to find neither church nor chapel, nor residence, and only one priest in the colony.  When two Brothers joined Fr Kranewitter the next year to make a community, the Jesuits became the first Religious Order to be established in this diocese.

It took the two Jesuits until eight o’clock at night to find the bishop at his house. They had a letter of introduction from the Archbishop of Munich who with them did not know the name of the local bishop, nor really even whether there was a bishop. For his part, the bishop did not know that they were coming. They could speak little English, and he could speak no German. Even the Latin they tried was made difficult to comprehend through accents.  Not the most encouraging of commencements for Jesuit-episcopal liaison. Serious illness struck Fr Kranewitter’s companion, the doctors urging his return to Europe.  They sold the rest of their possessions to fund his fare, the day of his departure being one of deep desolation for the young Fr Kranewitter; his faith in providence was rewarded when he received the news that two Jesuit Brothers had been despatched to join him.

Fr Quyen Vu SJ, Australian Provincial, speaking at the end of the Mass. Invoking the incredible odds faced by Fr Aloysius Kranewitter in the early years, he said: “Our commitment is to follow in their footsteps.”

Poverty refines religious life, heightening one’s sense of dependence on the providence of God. It was what Jesus urged on his disciples and on the Twelve as he sent them out, taking no purse or haversack (Luke 10.4). The pioneer Jesuit Brothers wrote when they arrived:

The first thing we did after we arrived was to build a place to live in, the poorest you could imagine.  We had no tools and not a nail even anywhere, so we set logs of trees in the ground, plastered them together with mud, made a roofing out of grass which we cut with knives.  We set about making a garden and fencing in the lease, but it was a hard job, you can imagine with the lack of everything we needed.

And of the pioneer priest they wrote:

Fr Kranewitter was most delighted at our arrival… so poor was he, in want of all things, without means.  He suffered from great privations in every way; his clothes were full of holes, and the necessities of life were very dear and he had no money coming in.  Though the Irish were very attached to him and very fond of him, they themselves were poor and could not help him at all, or very little.

Bishop Greg O’Kelly SJ (left) and Archbishop Patrick O’Regan. The Archbishop observed wryly, of Fr Kranewitter’s decision to knock on the Bishop’s door at eight o’clock at night, interrupting his dinner: “Thank God we opened the door to him!”

His beginning apostolate was to traipse around the paddocks of Clare to minister to the Irish families and the German newcomers – no horse, little English, ill clad, quite isolated as the most remote Jesuit in the world, and clearly no certainty about the future. It was an isolation that was refining for his discipleship.  Their poverty was calling them  to steadfastness, deeper faith, perseverance, trust in God’s love. In his letters Kranewitter wrote often of his trust in the providence of God, and his repeated prayer in his words was for “patience, courage and hope”.  Patience, courage and hope.

Like all those pioneer Austrian Jesuits, they had come out from the valleys and alps of Austria to spend their lives here on these great plains and through the Flinders, dedicating their lives to the people.  Kranewitter began his journeys to the north in 1851. On one occasion, and it was not an isolated incident, he was called out from Sevenhill to anoint a shepherd’s wife, described as “ill without hope of recovery”.  The hut was 80 miles north of Sevenhill, probably towards Melrose.  Kranewitter rode for a day, camped out overnight, and set off again the next morning.  His horse stumbled and he was thrown into the air.  He describes the incident in a letter to his Superiors in Vienna, to whom it must have seemed like another world:

So I took my breviary in my hand and with the reins over my arm I wandered on over the endless plains, praying as I went.  All nature seemed to be sunk in profound slumber.  Not a living thing disturbed the peaceful silence …. Finally after 2 hours walking I reached the house of the sick woman ……..The joy with which the priest was greeted at this poor house repaid him for all the fatigue of the journey. 

While the Brothers established the gardens and vineyards of the farm at Sevenhill, and went as far as Burra to sell the butter for income, Kranewitter was charged by the bishop with the pastoral care of the scattered settlers and hamlets over an area from the Barossa in the south to all the regions of the north, working by himself as the only priest there for four years, his letters showing his deepening in his spirituality of God’s providence, with his prayer for patience, courage and hope. He never lost his commitment and belief in the worthwhileness of the Jesuit Mission down here.

The foundation at Sevenhill grew steadily as the Austrian Province sent out more fathers and brothers, and local youths entered the Order. About fifty Jesuit priests and brothers worked on the Mission until it was merged with the Irish Jesuits in the east in 1901.  Men like Fr Tappeiner, the supporter of Mary MacKillop; Fr Pallhuber, the apostle of the north taking his one-thousand-kilometre horseback journeys to the shepherds and miners of the Flinders and beyond; Fr Hinteroecker, scientist and builder of this church. The college and the church became a centre for the Catholic people of the district. Many of the Catholic families of Adelaide have their origins there.

Archbishop Gleeson described Sevenhill as “an abbey diocese”.  Irish and Polish migrants settled first near Sevenhill and then in the new towns, in most of which the Jesuits organised the building of little churches, and the Josephite Sisters opened their bush schools, Mother Mary MacKillop herself establishing some twenty-two of them. Gradually the foundations of a new diocese were built. The college served not only as a boarding college for boys, but as a seminary to train the first fourteen local diocesan priests for Adelaide, a Jesuit novitiate and House of formation, a spiritual centre, a place for the Spiritual Exercises of St Ignatius, and the mission centre from which a further six Jesuit residences were established in the north and in this parish in 1869.  More than thirty little churches were founded in the new towns.  A Mission among the aboriginal people of Darwin and the Daly River was founded and lasted twenty years. A little less than twenty years after the Austrian Jesuits came the Irish Jesuit Mission in the east was founded and it became obvious that the two Missions should join, which did happen in 1901.

The Book of Sirach tells us, let us now praise famous men and our fathers who begat us. We praise and thank all those women and men, those wonderful families, the religious sisters, the nuns in remote convents who strengthened the faith and commitment of the People of God in this land, for all that has taken place over 175 years. We pray that, lesser in number but still with hearts of love, we Jesuits might continue to be inspired by the example of those who have gone before us, the very earliest at rest in Sevenhill, and that the love of Jesus might continue to raise us up to serve his Church and his people, just as did the fathers and brothers of old.

May the example of those we commemorate tonight bring joy to our hearts, and may the glory of his voice be heard by the people we serve. Lord, let us see your kindness and grant us your salvation.