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Sydney Catholics mark first mass in Australia

Australia's 40 bishops gathered yesterday at Sydney's St Mary's Cathedral to celebrate the 200th anniversary of the nation's first Catholic Mass.

It is viewed as a significant anniversary, not only in Catholic history, because it marks the beginning of religious toleration and recognition of minority groups that Australians today consider a hallmark of the national way of life.

The Solemn Mass - celebrated by Sydney Archbishop George Pell with the bishops, in town for their annual conference, and a congregation expected to top 2500 - was a far cry from the first Mass in Parramatta on May 22, 1803.

It was led by Fr James Dixon, a convict priest transported after the rebellion of the United Irishmen in 1798, according to Sr Vivienne Keely, whose booklet on Father Dixon will be launched this week.

Several hundred Irish Catholic convicts had to gather outdoors, reports Sister Keely, because there was no building in the colony large enough.

We know few details.

The Sydney Gazette had a week earlier reported the opening of Samuel Marsden's church, St John's, in considerable detail. The Mass attracted two lines, sandwiched between an article on a dead horse and one on trade in Bass Strait. No other account has been found.

Before Fr Dixon was appointed in 1803, Catholics in the colony were required to attend Church of England services, and some were beaten if they didn't, Sr Keely said.

Image: The first Mass is commemorated in a stained glass window in the south side of the transept on the western side of the nave of St Mary's Cathedral.

The Age

Archdiocese of Sydney | St Mary's Cathedral | Bicentenary of the First Official Catholic Mass in Australia
Bicentenary of Sydney's first Mass (Catholic Weekly)
French held first Catholic service (Catholic Weekly)
Catholics in a land without priests (Catholic Weekly)
Governor's signature let Catholics have first Mass after years of neglect, denial (Catholic Weekly)

12 May 2003