The Austrian Australian

Fr Johann Hinteröcker SJ played a pivotal part in the early history of the Norwood parish in Adelaide. Jesuits and parishioners alike paid tribute to him at the recent 150th anniversary of his interment in St Ignatius’ Church.


By Janark Gray, Communication Officer, Society of Jesus in Australia

It’s my first trip to Adelaide. The ‘City of Churches.’ As comedian Danny Bhoy once commented, “I think Rome will have something to say about that!” I have been told Adelaide has a country town feel, and right they were. As my plane approached for landing, the layout of the city appeared to be in a straightforward grid. Not as intricate and intertwined as Melbourne city. Maybe that is a true reflection of South Australians – straightforward and less complicated than Melburnians.

I was there on Sunday 23 July, for the 150th anniversary of the interment of Fr Johann Hinteröcker SJ in St Ignatius’ Church in Norwood, a momentous occasion for South Australian Jesuits. I wondered what the landscape may have looked like when Fr Hinteröcker first arrived in 1866.

Fr Hinteröcker was born in Austria in 1820 and joined the Jesuits in 1839. As a child, during his school holidays, he would roam the countryside of Spitz collecting insects and plants. This would later lead him to becoming a Professor of Natural History at Linz. He studied and worked across Europe and was renowned for his published papers on Austrian flora and fauna. At the age of 45, he volunteered for a mission to the Aboriginal people of Central Australia and joined the mission at Sevenhill in 1866. He was a linguistic genius, who could speak German, French, English, Italian and Polish. He would deliver homilies in these languages and even went on to learn an Aboriginal language.

Fr Johann Hinteröcker SJ

In a mere six years, Hinteröcker helped the Jesuits build a stable base in Adelaide and Sevenhill. In 1871, the Sisters of St. Joseph of the Sacred Heart, the Josephites, were excommunicated by Adelaide’s Bishop Lawrence Shiel. At the risk of being suspended, Hinteröcker provided refuge for the sisters. Their principal sister and co-founder went on to serve for decades as the superior of the Josephites, known by her full name in religion: Mary of the Cross MacKillop.

Hinteröcker’s father was a vineyard owner and vinegar maker in Austria and the grape didn’t fall far from the vine, so to speak. Hinteröcker inherited his father’s skills in grape growing and wine. He later served as a wine judge in an exhibition featuring 37 Australian wines. You can gather that this Austrian Jesuit was quite the universal talent, and so it was necessary that the present-day clergy of Norwood Parish honour him with a special 150th anniversary celebration.

Fr Chris Jenkins SJ gave the homily for this commemorative Mass. Accompanying Fr Jenkins at the altar were fellow Jesuits, Bishop Greg O’Kelly, Frs Brendan Kelly, Peter Hosking and Gaetan Pereira. Fr Jenkins highlighted that in a short time, Hinteröcker “played a defining role in the early history of the parish.” He was an important figure and considered a very intelligent, organised and popular priest. He died in 1872 from pneumonia at the early age of 52, while giving retreats in Launceston, Tasmania. His popularity was evident among Norwood parishioners as his remains were brought back to Norwood nine months after his death. Hinteröcker’s remains lie buried underneath the church floor at Norwood with a plaque honouring his life on the adjacent wall for all churchgoers to see. The headstone reads:

Oh, Christian traveller, the stone on which you stand covers the bones of Father Hinteröcker SJ, who came here from Austria. He built this Church?and worked hard. He ended life in Tasmania during his labours on 6th October 1872. He rests here since 23rd July 1873. Before you leave, beseech the Judge that He may be favourable to him and to you, who hasten to the same place.

Photo: Janark Gray

Hinteröcker had a great reputation for being a botanist, so it was only fitting that the parish commemorate his life with the planting of a myrtle tree in front of the church. After the Mass concluded, the procession moved out to the front garden where Fr Jenkins introduced Bishop Greg O’Kelly to say a few words. It is well-known that Bishop O’Kelly is the parish’s resident historian, so he was quick to point out that he is constantly requested to say ‘a few words’ to which he quipped, “People can live in hope!” This had instant resonance as there were chuckles in the crowd.

Bishop O’Kelly did bring up an anecdote about Hinteröcker injuring his leg after falling down a well. Because did not want to miss the laying of the foundation stone and the opening of Norwood parish, he managed to get dressed in his finest vestments and arranged for two altar boys to drag him along in a cart! The local press thought he was part of the ceremony. The audience had another good chuckle when, after fifteen minutes of speaking, Bishop O’Kelly said, “The few words are coming to an end.” He concluded by saying that Hinteröcker was a “giant of a man … He died only at the age of 52 and he accomplished so much in that time and it is right that we commemorate him.”

It was important that this 150th anniversary was not taken lightly. As our Province archivist, Fr Michael Head mentioned, “he is the closest we have to an Australian Jesuit saint.” After the myrtle tree was in place and the soil smoothed over at the base of the tree, Fr Jenkins concluded the outdoor presentation with “See you in the next 150 years!”

Before the crowd moved into the parish hall for some light refreshments, I was keen to get a group photo of the Jesuits. I distinctly remember parish secretary Kate telling me over the phone before I flew to Adelaide, “Good luck getting a photo of the Jesuits … They are camera shy.” Well Kate, I’m happy to report that I got a photo of them with the tree. Peter Hosking with shovel in hand and all!

Fr Johann Hinteröcker SJ Anniversary

Image 2 of 14

St Ignatius' Catholic Parish, Norwood, SA. Photos: Janark Gray

It was a celebration truly worthy of a prominent figure in Australian Jesuit history. “Fr Hinteröcker would have been proud,” said Fr Jenkins.

Back at Adelaide airport, as I was boarding my plane back to Melbourne, I caught a glimpse of the Adelaide hills across the tarmac on the horizon. Again, I wondered what may have gone through the mind of Hinteröcker upon gazing at this view … Would it have reminded him of Austria? Was he ever homesick? Or did he call Australia home? Whatever it may have been, I think he would have felt the sense of accomplishment from his mission.