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Just over 175 years ago, on 4 October 1841, pioneer priest Patrick Bonaventure Geoghegan laid the foundation stone of one of Melbourne’s oldest buildings, St Francis’ Church.
An Irish Franciscan, he had arrived in the fledgling township in May 1839, and apart from occasional absences ministered in the district until his eventual appointment as the Bishop of Adelaide in 1859.
It was on Pentecost Sunday 1839 that Fr Geoghegan celebrated Mass for the first time, in a store on the corner of Elizabeth and Little Collins Streets. Although he was not the first Catholic priest to set foot in Melbourne, he was the first to administer the sacraments of the Church.
Yesterday, at St Francis Church in Melbourne, nearby on the corner of Elizabeth and Lonsdale Streets, a newly commissioned statue of Father Geoghegan by sculptor Darien Pullen was unveiled, in a ceremony which also included a special blessing by Melbourne auxiliary Bishop Peter Elliott.
Fr Geoghegan was a priest who devoted himself passionately to his Catholic constituency and also to the life of the whole community. Before sectarianism asserted itself in the ‘colonies’, a remarkable civic and ecumenical spirit prevailed. Indeed, Father himself promoted the ideal of religious freedom, concluding one public address with words couched in the language of the day, but with ideas that looked to the future:
‘This is the doctrine of Australia Felix; in this doctrine she has been cradled, and may every year of her growth be invigorated by it, until the maturity of her prosperity shall serve as a bright example of what men, by religious freedom and brotherly love, can effect for the good of their country.’
To honour this pioneer priest and visionary citizen on the anniversary of the first Mass in Melbourne, Franciscan Rev Dr Matthew Beckmann spoke at the unveiling in eulogy for Fr Geoghan’s determination, his pastoral concern for his flock and the wider Christian community, as well as his courage.
In July 1843 Fr Geoghegan narrowly escaped being hit by a bullet fired in an encounter between members of the Orange Society and Catholics, mostly Irish born, whom he was trying to restrain.
Rev Beckmann commented that perhaps the reason Fr Geoghegan loved Australia so much was that, having been born and brought up in Ireland, he was sent to Portugal for his theological training, where, for perhaps the first time, he finally saw the sun!
Amongst other notable achievements, Father Patrick conducted the first recorded baptism in Melbourne in 1939. Numbering among those whom he was to baptise was Australia’s first saint, Mary MacKillop, whom he baptised at St Francis’ on 28 January 1842.
In May 1839 he also solemnised Melbourne’s first Catholic marriage in Melbourne.
Fr Geoghegan established the first school in the Melbourne (on the site of St Francis’) and in fact, until permanent teachers arrived, was that school’s first teacher.
After the occasional address by Rev Beckmann, the statue unveiling was ceremoniously carried out by OFM Provincial Fr Phillip Miscamble and Fr Graeme Duro from the Blessed Sacrament Fathers of St Francis’, which was followed – to rapturous applause – by an address from the sculptor, Darien Pullen.
Representing the Archbishop of Melbourne Denis Hart, auxiliary Bishop Peter Elliott then introduced several scriptural readings before formally pronouncing the Prayer of Blessing. He was joined for the blessing by the Anglican Archbishop of Melbourne, Archbishop Philip Freier.
At the laying of the foundation stone of St Francis’ on a wet and stormy Monday, 4 October 1841, Fr Geoghegan is reported to have concluded his remarks with this prayer:
‘May every blessing and favouring God has in store for this temple increasingly inspire us, and those that are to follow us, with that true zeal for the promotion of our religion, which consists in piety of life and brotherly love towards all mankind, of whatever country, creed, or colour. May the divine prophecy, ‘in this place I will give peace, saith the Lord of Hosts,’ begin to be fulfilled here today, and long render our intended temple the centre from which the blessing of peace will continue to spread its heavenly influence upon Australia Felix.’
May his statue be a fitting memorial of the ecumenical and civic spirit with which he served the community of Melbourne.
Photograph of Fr Geoghegan reproduced with permission from the Adelaide Catholic Archdiocesan Archives