The Church that Brady Built

29 Jul 2011

By The Record

In an historic moment, the remains of Perth’s first Catholic Bishop, John Brady, will be laid to rest in St Mary’s Cathedral Crypt on 2 August.

The ceremony will bring to an end one chapter in a saga that began in 1842 when then-Fr Brady arrived, leading the first missionaries to Perth and concluded when, as a Bishop, he was spectacularly banished in 1852 from the diocese he created.

Perth’s first Bishop, John Brady. His remains will be reinterred in St Mary’s Cathedral crypt on 2 August at 6:30pm. Image: Archdiocese of Perth.

The remains of Perth’s first Catholic Bishop, John Brady, were recovered earlier this year from a graveyard in southern France.

The recovery raised more questions than answers about a man who is an enigma. Aside from his time here, almost nothing is known about his life; his time in Perth was beset by financial difficulties and controversy.

Brady, who held the title Bishop of Perth from 1845 until his death in 1871, was eventually banished under papal order and left Perth in 1852 never to return again – until now.

The circumstances of his departure have often led to him being regarded as a failure, but was he? Or was he merely the victim of another case of history being written by the victors? Those who research the beginnings of the Church in Western Australia are perhaps beginning to question history’s treatment of Perth’s mysterious first Bishop.

Although often judged negatively for his governance of the diocese during his time here, historians and researchers are developing their assessment of a figure who still remains largely an enigma as The Record’s Bridget Spinks reports.

The ENIGMA of Bishop John Brady

Brady’s upbringing: unknown
Historians and researchers have been on the trail of Perth’s first Bishop, John Brady, for years, often with frustratingly little success. Even efforts to ascertain basic details of his life such as when he was born have been rewarded with little more than hints or clues.

Presentation Sister Frances Stibi PBVM, who has served as Perth Archdiocesan archivist since 1992, is one such figure. She’s been on the Brady trail for nearly 20 years.

Her inquiries to trace a birth certificate have, so far, hit a dead end.

But the records from County Cavan where John Brady was reputedly born no longer exist. “Their records for that particular period are now lost and gone,” Sr Frances said.

Where did Bishop Brady undertake seminary training and formation?
Some sources have said that he undertook studies at the “Seminaire des Colonies” (Seminary of the Colonies) in Paris.

Could this be the Seminary of the Holy Ghost, founded in 1703 in Paris?

After the upheavals of the French Revolution (1789-1799), it reopened to train priests for the work in French-speaking colonies. Before coming to Australia, the future Bishop Brady spent 12 years on French-speaking Reunion Island, situated deep in the Indian Ocean about 600km east of Madagascar.

Where was he ordained to the priesthood?

“We don’t know for certain either the date or place of his ordination,” Mgr Brian O’Loughlin, Chairman of the Perth Archdiocesan Historical Commission, told The Record.

Sr Frances has ascertained that the Seminary of the Holy Ghost has a record of John Brady being there for two months but the reference does not convince her he completed seminary training there.

“It persists that he was trained in France – but that’s a family story,” she said. “My guess is that he was calling in there to get advice on how to be a missionary in Mauritius.”

But while the history books – one written by DF Bourke, a former Perth Archdiocesan archivist, and another by Adelaide-based historian Dominican Fr Christopher Dowd – make no mention of John Brady’s time in Mauritius, a letter from Australia’s first Vicar General Fr Ullathorne to Australia’s first Archbishop, Bede Polding, mentions Fr Brady as probably suitable for the mission in New South Wales.

The frustration at not being able to obtain such basic documentation verifying some facts of Brady’s life before Perth make it harder for local researchers interested in the beginnings of the Church in early 19th century Western Australia to make a call as to his character.

Brady’s modern-day return to Perth
Perth archeologist priest Fr Robert Cross has been keen to exhume Bishop Brady from his resting place in France since 2006. The idea came to him, he revealed on the blog divulging details of the exhumation process (, when he was exhuming the remains of Bishop Brady’s successors, Bishops Martin Griver and Matthew Gibney, from their final resting places beneath the 1865 section of St Mary’s Cathedral in Perth.

Fr Robert Cross in his office at Cathedral House, Victoria Square, just metres from where Bishop Brady established Perth’s first Catholic Church. He sees Brady as a good missionary. Photo: Peter Rosengren

When he exhumed three more successors of Bishop Brady from Karrakatta cemetery, the idea to bring all Perth’s Bishops together grew stronger.

“The hope of Archbishop Hickey, a hope I fully share, is that one day all the former Bishops and Archbishops of Perth will rest in their rightful place in the purpose-designed crypt of St Mary’s Cathedral,” Fr Cross reported on the blog.

“The exhumation of Bishop John Brady brings the realisation of this hope one step closer.” Fr Cross believes that, up to this point, historians have usually written a “less than flattering portrayal” of Perth’s Catholic founding father but much of this is reliant on the writings of those he describes as “triumphing” over Brady in the disputes over the administration and finances of the fledgling diocese.

Brady’s early days of mission
Sr Frances prefers to think of Brady as a helpful missioner. In his earliest Australian work based in Windsor, New South Wales, John Brady seems to have what could be called a good track record.

“I like what he was when he was in New South Wales; maybe that was a truer picture of him,” she says.

In 1837, Brady met Australia’s first Vicar General, Fr William Ullathorne OSB, in Rome and the encounter led Brady to Australia.

Archdiocesan Archivist Sr Frances Stibi PBVM says that part of the problem of assessing the Bishop’s legacy is the near-total lack of information on him outside of his time in Perth. Photo: Supplied.

While historian DF Bourke asserts that “Brady volunteered for service in New South Wales”, Fr Dowd writes in his 2008 history (Rome in Australia: The Papacy and conflict in the Australian Catholic missions in 1834-84) that Brady was “recruited” by Ullathorne who “was impressed by his excellent missionary record”.

John Brady arrived in Sydney in 1838 and was appointed to Windsor with a parish that extended from Penrith to the Hawkesbury and Broken Bay, a massive area the size of a rural diocese, which he would have had to traverse on horseback or on foot.

Here, according to Sr Frances, he befriended Marist missionaries from New Zealand and helped them to acquire cows and sheep; he also built churches.

“He seemed quite a logical person, based on his actions,” Sr Frances says.

“He was responsible for the repatriation of a large number of Canadians who were shipped out as political prisoners to NSW; because they all spoke French, he befriended them,” she said.

With Archbishop Polding of Sydney and now-Bishop Ullathorne of Birmingham and a Bishop from Canada, they were able to repatriate “the whole lot of them within a short space of time,” she said.

“That doesn’t sound like someone who was ‘mad’,” she says, referring to some of the imputations regarding Brady’s character that still remain conjecture.

The biography of Australia’s first Archbishop, Bede Polding, by Frances O’Donoghue reveals that Brady went with Polding to meet 58 French Canadians who had been “dispatched as political felons to New South Wales”.

Polding heard their confessions and a journal entry by one of the men, Léon Ducharme, reveals that they were all “most gratified and affected to see these respectable gentlemen extend their zeal for religion and their charity so far”.

But did Brady’s expertise in French always work in his favour?

Irish by birth, it is believed that his first language was Gaelic but his educated language was French, thus Brady was not fluent in English. This caused some problems, according to the DF Bourke’s History of the Catholic Church in Western Australia.

“Unfortunately, his educational background, almost exclusively French, meant that he was unable to express himself well in English, and the solecisms which he perpetrated in public controversy damaged the cause he was advocating,” wrote Bourke.

“But this did not prevent him from suing two Sydney newspapers for libel, and their defeat in court led to the demise of the Sydney Standard and the Sydney Gazette,” Bourke wrote.

Brady’s call to Perth
Robert D’Arcy, a Catholic schoolteacher in Western Australia, wrote a letter dated 12 December 1841 to Archbishop Polding on the other side of the country.

At that time, the Sydney Archdiocese spanned the entire country excluding the Dioceses of Hobart and of Adelaide. D’Arcy told Polding that the Catholics of the Swan River Colony were without a priest and, for want of one, Protestant ministers were endeavouring to convert the natives and to “bring about the perversion of the Catholics by getting them to give up their religion”.

In 1842, Polding was in Rome discussing the establishment of a Catholic Church hierarchy in Australia and was undecided on whether the Swan River Colony should be included.

The Propaganda Fide Congregation (PFC) – the branch of the Roman curia overseeing the Church’s global missionary effort – decided against including the Colony and established the jurisdiction of these three other dioceses: Sydney, Adelaide and Hobart.

Polding subsequently appointed Brady as his Vicar General in Western Australia and, in 1843, accompanied by Belgian priest Fr John Joostens and a catechist, Patrick O’Reilly, Brady arrived in Albany in November. The following month he arrived in Fremantle.

Brady’s Perth-Rome trip in 1844 and Petitions for a Diocese
Fr Brady remained in Perth for all of four months, according to Fr Dowd’s Rome in Australia, before he sailed for Europe without the permission or knowledge of Polding. Another source says he was here just two months.

Brady made a beeline for Rome. There, on 22 February 1845, he presented the PFC with a “major report on the state of the Catholic Church in the Swan River Colony.”

In his report, Brady estimated the Aboriginal population at approximately 2 million, with 8,000 whites, of whom 3,000 lived in Perth. Half of these, he told the Congregation’s clerics, were Catholics. The information was discovered by Fr Dowd in a document in the Vatican’s archives entitled Relation de la Partie Occidental de la Nouvelle Holland (A Report on the Western Part of New Holland) and written in French.

Perth Vicar General Monsignor Brian O’Loughlin, who is also chair of the Archdiocesan Historical Commission. The figures Brady reported to the Church’s chief missionary organisation in support of creating a diocese in Perth can only be described as fanciful, he says. Coming to Perth as leader of the first missionaries was admirable, but the enigma remains. Photo: Bridget Spinks

Perth Vicar General Monsignor Brian O’Loughlin, who is also chair of the Archdiocesan Historical Commission. The figures Brady reported to the Church’s chief missionary organisation in support of creating a diocese in Perth can only be described as fanciful, he says. Coming to Perth as leader of the first missionaries was admirable, but the enigma remains. Photo: Bridget Spinks

Brady’s figures are problematic, to say the least, because who would know?

“He arrived in Rome with what I can only describe as fanciful figures,” Mgr O’Loughlin says, adding, “That is another part of the nub of the problem.”

Since obtaining a copy in May this year from the Vatican archives of the major report about the state of the Colony that Brady presented in 1845, Fr Cross has come to believe that Brady’s figures need to be investigated further.

“Brady gives detailed figures of the settlement areas by name including Perth, York and Sond – which refers to King George’s Sound, Albany,” Fr Cross told The Record.

“I can see he has written it with quite a lot of care,” Fr Cross said. “It’s well prepared, based on his own observations. He appears to be rounding off by a few hundred – give or take,” he said.

But as to whether there was any exaggeration, Fr Cross maintains that even today no one can say how many Aborigines were in Australia at the time of European settlement; the area of Geraldton had not even been explored then.

“When it was in the process of being settled in 1849, it would have had the highest Aboriginal density of population,” he says, basing this assertion on his previous research into Aboriginal tribes of the mid-west.

While it is possible Perth’s population was larger in the early 1840s (primitive conditions drove many away), its first census establishing that there were 3,500 people in the Colony was not taken until 1848 – three years after Brady’s so-called wild estimates to the PFC.

In March 1845, Cardinal Castracane presented Brady’s proposal to the PFC to create a new diocese in Western Australia.

He included the figures Brady had presented and that Sydney’s Archbishop Polding thought well of Brady, given his appointments as Vicar General to the Perth mission.

In his 1845 report, Brady recommended Fr Ullathorne lead the diocese as Bishop but, when Ullathorne was asked, he refused the appointment.

Referring to an unpublished thesis on Bishop Brady by Martin Newbold, Fr Dowd points out it is possible Brady’s recommendation was a ploy: Ullathorne had already refused two Australian dioceses and was unlikely to accept a third.

That Polding was not consulted as Brady’s referee in the establishment of the diocese is also a telling point – Brady argued in the report that Polding “be excluded from the deliberations on the appointments to the diocese and its vicariates apostolic in Western Australia … because it would cause delay”.

So why did he advocate for the establishment of a diocese in Perth using “fanciful figures” and without advising Polding?

Mgr O’Loughlin refuses to comment.

“I’d rather not speculate; that’s what he did,” he says, referring to Brady’s advocacy for the establishment of a diocese in Perth.

Were time delays the only reason Brady wanted to exclude Polding?

Fr Cross’ theory is that prior to Bishop Brady’s trip to Rome in 1845, Polding was in Rome in 1842 advancing the concept of the establishment of other dioceses in Australia and Brady would have known that.

“I think Brady was working on the understanding that this was Polding’s long term vision,” Fr Cross said.

However, Brady was obviously aware of the geographical distance between Sydney and Perth and between Perth and Rome and was possibly just “following through on this vision that Polding had,” Fr Cross says.

Odhran O’Brien, a research student at the University of Notre Dame’s Fremantle campus, who was present at the exhumations of Bishops Martin Griver, Launcelot Goody and John Brady, agrees with Fr Cross that Brady campaigned for the diocese in good faith.

Brady had spent time working for Polding and knew his overall vision for the Australian diocese.

Mr O’Brien, who was commissioned by the Perth Archdiocese to write the biography of Perth’s second official Bishop, Martin Griver, describes Brady as a “visionary”, a “big pictures man”.

“Brady was concerned that with Polding so far away, he would not be an effective Bishop,” he says.

“Yes, he made a hasty decision to leave for Rome. However, in doing that, he was aware Polding had a policy throughout the early 1840s that more needed to be done for the Aborigines. He was aware Polding wanted to create a diocese in Perth and he knew of instances where Polding had struggled – due to distance – to properly support the clergy,” he says.

Mr O’Brien is convinced there was no “malicious intent” on Brady’s part to exclude Polding from discussions in Rome.

“I think he was just inconsiderate because he was so focused on his own missionary work,” he said.

But Fr Dowd, who spent an entire sabbatical immersed in the correspondence from Brady in the Roman archives, leans towards seeing Brady as ambitious.

“I think he was an ambitious man, and I think he wanted to be a Bishop. He exaggerated the actual situation of Perth to push Rome towards establishing the new diocese and making him the Bishop,” he says.

“When he made the proposal for the diocese, he told Rome and recommended someone else for the diocese, knowing that this person had already said no to Australia.

“It was obvious they would think about whom to appoint and Brady would be the obvious choice,” he says.

Ambition or Zeal?

But Fr Cross does not see Brady as a man driven by ambition for appointment to high office in the Church. “I would not agree that he was ambitious, but my research is far less extensive than Fr Dowd’s,” he says.

“From what I can judge, he was a very dedicated missionary. His strength was that he was a frugal person, who perhaps survived on very little.”

“Brady’s ‘palace’ was a bell tower with an umbrella,” he says referring to the privation Brady endured while in Perth. “So why would he be ambitious to be a Bishop?”

He adds that from further reading – the biography of Bishop Polding – he has learnt that many of the priests who were offered Bishoprics could see the missionary territory was a ‘poisoned chalice’.

“It reflects positively on Brady that he was prepared to accept the position knowing it would entail hard work,” he said.

Although Bishop of Perth until the end of his life in 1871, Brady did not leave until 1852.

Bishop Serra was then able to carry out his appointment as Apostolic Administrator from 1852-62. Bishop Serra never assumed the title Bishop of Perth while Bishop Brady was alive.

So while Bishop Brady was in Perth as Bishop of Perth, what was he like?

The letters of Sr Ursula Frayne, one of the first group of Sisters of Mercy to come to Perth at Brady’s request, are primary evidence and reveal something of Brady’s character and also some of his (possibly cultural) idiosyncrasies.

An anthology of letters written by Sr Ursula and other Sisters of Mercy to the motherhouse in Ireland from 1845-1849, and compiled by Geraldine Byrne, offer glimpses of the controversial prelate. Bishop Brady was the Sisters’ Confessor and, as Sr Ursula narrates, was “kind and attentive” in helping them get their convent built.

In a letter written in April 1846, she wrote that Bishop Brady was “all indulgence” to them; in a letter dated November 1846, she related that that he visited them frequently.

After a few months of this, however, he announced that he would be making a pastoral visit which – unbeknownst to the Sisters of Mercy – was to be an official visit with a protocol they were expected to follow as well.

“About one o’clock, a procession was seen approaching the hall: first two students in soutane and surplice, one holding the Bishop’s Crozier, the other a cross; next Fr Powell, also in soutane and surplice; then the Bishop in soutane, rachet, cape and an immense three-cornered black beaver hat with a black feather and a bunch of green satin ribbons at one side; lastly three or four little boys holding up the Bishop’s train,” Sr Ursula wrote in confidence to her Mother Superior.

“Unaccustomed as we were to such visits, we did not know how to act,” she wrote.

The Community gathered, knelt for his blessing, joined in prayer, then sat up, listened to what he said and answered his questions, then when he left, they “indulged in a hearty laugh”.

But the Bishop subsequently reproved them for not “receiving him in due form”.

“Such visits were not usual in Ireland though quite common in France and Italy,” Sr Ursula wrote.

Sr Ursula wrote that Bishop Brady misconstrued their ignorance as “disrespect, self-will and other motives unworthy of your poor children and unthought of by them”.For three months, Sr Ursula wrote that she was obliged to spend five to six hours every day with the Bishop.

“He thought his visits gave us pleasure and that it was even necessary that he should be a good deal with us at first, but he knew little of how independent the Sisters of Mercy are and that they have no needs outside their own Community for amusement or society,” she wrote.

Later, in July 1849, another incident involving Sr Aloysius upset the Bishop who thought the Sisters of Mercy had wilfully and formally disobeyed his “episcopal authority”.

But Sr Ursula also wrote in August 1847 that Bishop Brady was – as Fr Cross asserts – a man of frugality, living in his belfry and in “extreme poverty”.
“The poor Bishop is in a miserable state for want of a residence,” she wrote.

“For several months after our arrival in this country, he lived in a little room adjoining the Church; it had no window nor any means of ventilation; he next occupied a larger room at the other side, but this latter he gave up for a school room at the time we came to reside in our present Convent.

“His third habitation was the belfry – a little wooden building, just like those boxes you may have seen at the bathing place, except the boards of which it was made are much fewer and farther apart; in fact, there is free access to the weather on all sides,” she wrote.

“Indeed, he is generally obliged to have an umbrella spread to keep off the rain and, notwithstanding this precaution, he’s often forced to abandon this room and take refuge in the church,” she wrote.

Brady remained in his well-ventilated quarters until the winter rains compelled him to move into better lodgings.

Fr Dowd and Mgr O’Loughlin agree Bishop Brady was, on a spiritual and pastoral level, a fine man, especially given the huge size of the Colony and diocese.

“Under conditions of great difficulty and privation, at the pastoral, priestly level, he did very well,” Fr Dowd says, adding that there was “a lot of anti-Catholic feeling from the Protestant part that would have made life difficult too.”

But, as an administrator, Brady appears “imprudent and incompetent,” Fr Dowd says.

In an 1847 letter, Sr Ursula wrote that the Bishop revealed that funds of the Mission were exclusively derived from the Propagation of the Faith (PFC) which explained why he was living in a belfry: the funds were “too small to admit of his allowing himself any other mode of living at present”.

Brady & Money: not a good mix – Brady: in debt
By 1849, Brady had run up a debt that, for the times, was enormous.

Somewhere in the vicinity of 10,000 pounds, it had accumulated as Brady bought land for farming and agriculture “to raise money to support this exaggerated, over-inflated number of pastors and teachers,” Fr Dowd says.

Adelaide-based historian Fr Christopher Dowd OP, outside the church that Brady built. He sees Brady as, in-part, ambitious. Some of his actions are hard to explain. The “collossal” mental strain of dealing with so many problems simultaneously may have produced a breakdown, he suggests. Photo: Peter Rosengren

It seems likely that it was John Brady’s inability to handle the temporal affairs of his diocese that ultimately led to his exile.

His character since has been called into question but the facts are that Bishop Brady, through 1846 and 1847, “deluged” the Congregation of the Propagation of the Faith with “contradictory” letters that combined descriptions of the marvels being achieved with “bitter complaints about practically everybody engaged in the mission”, according to Fr Dowd.

Brady sent the Spanish Benedictine Dom Serra overseas to raise funds for the diocese but once Serra got to Rome he was consecrated Bishop of Port Victoria (near Darwin) on 15 August 1848 and proceeded to collect funds from wealthy contacts in Spain and Italy.

When Brady heard of this, he “assumed” the funds would be diverted to the new See, Fr Dowd says, and sent Dom Salvado to Rome applying for a coadjutor (assistant) Bishop and asking that Salvado be appointed.

Meanwhile, the Vatican curia were in disarray. An insurrection in Rome tied to the political struggle to unify Italy led to the Pope escaping the city to Gaeta while Cardinals sought refuge in other parts of Italy.

Members of Propaganda were separated and, despite Brady’s two letters appealing for the appointment of Salvado, the Pope decided Serra would be Brady’s Coadjutor and Salvado would be consecrated Bishop for the diocese of Port Victoria.

The Urqhart Factor: friend or foe?

The Pope wrote to Brady, personally informing him of Serra’s appointment and sent the papal briefs to Brady for him to pass on to Serra.
It might not have been the best strategy for maintaining peace in the growing diocese.

Fr Dowd says that Bishops Serra and Salvado were to return to Perth together but when the would-be colony in Salvado’s new diocese was abandoned, Salvado chose to stay behind in Europe and await further instructions from the Vatican.

Serra sailed on, taking with him a native English speaker for a secretary, five Spanish priests, seven Neapolitan Brothers and 25 Spanish brothers.

Since Serra was after a native, English-speaking secretary, Dominic Urquhart, an Irish Cistercian, was recommended to him. When Urquhart’s superior heard the request, he consented immediately, Fr Dowd writes.

Little did Serra know that Urquhart had been a Dominican before he became a Cistercian and had resided in four other Cistercian houses before his most recent one.

“In all of them, Urquhart had been involved in rancorous disagreements,” Fr Dowd writes in Rome in Australia.

Cardinal Fransoni did write to warn him but the ship had already set sail.
DF Bourke’s history adds that, while on the ship, Urquhart formed an alliance with the ship’s captain, Quesada, a Spaniard “of the anti-clerical persuasion”.

There was a quarrel between Serra and either Quesada or Urquhart.
Either way, Urquhart wrote a calumnious letter dated 17 November 1849 against Serra and sent it to the entire College of Cardinals.

In the first month of Serra’s arrival, Brady wrote to Cardinal Fransoni to accept Serra’s appointment in January 1850 but, once the debts were paid, Brady appointed Urquhart as his Vicar General and then wrote to Rome seeking to have Serra removed for being “disobedient to the Holy See” and for being the principal cause of the diocesan debt.

Brady then sailed for Rome to follow up on his request, leaving Urquhart behind in control and Serra powerless, since he had not yet received the papal brief announcing his appointment.

Fr Dowd – relying on letters and documents in the Vatican Archives, including letters from Prefect of Propaganda Fide, Cardinal Fransoni to various personages, and the diaries of Bishop Salvado OSB and Dom Venancio Garrido OSB – relates precise details of Brady’s movements in Europe, just when his control of the Perth Diocese was in jeopardy.

Meanwhile, back in Perth, the Pope’s manoeuvre to gently break the news of the co-adjutor appointment backfired when Urquhart found a package addressed to Brady in the post office.

Suspecting what it contained, he sent it back to Brady in Rome, Fr Dowd says.

And so it was that the papal brief appointing Serra as Co-Adjutor Bishop went ‘missing’ and, by April 1850, Serra could not officially perform any duties as Temporal Administrator of the diocese such as obtain the deeds to any diocesan property.

In Rome, Brady had two papal audiences with Pope Pius IX, during one of which he offered to resign the Bishopric and asked for permission to go to the British Isles. The Pope declined the offer since Propaganda Fide’s handling of the matter was still in motion.

Meanwhile, Propaganda Fide’s Cardinals had sought the opinion of Salvado who was then residing in Naples. On 6 June 1850, they decreed a formal transference of the entire government of the Church of Western Australia from Brady to Serra.

Cardinal Fransoni sent the decree directly to Serra along with a cover letter cancelling Urquhart’s office and ordering him to leave Australia.

This package arrived in October and, by Christmas Eve, Serra could announce to the congregation that he was relieved to have “unfettered control of the finances and property of the Diocese”.

For Brady, it must have been a crushing blow. Still in Rome, he was asked to renounce the diocese but, Fr Dowd says, “resolutely declined.”

Brady goes missing, then comes back to Australia

In late 1850, Brady – still in Rome – asked permission to go to England but the Pontifical Passport Office was instructed to refuse any request by him.

In early 1851, he asked the Pope for leave to go on a health trip to Malta, but was refused. He was allowed to go to up into the Roman hills to take the air.

Instead, he headed for Naples, sailed up to Civitavechhia, then to Toulon and made his way through France to England.

Brady was Missing In Action – as far as the Congregation knew. “It activated the English and Irish hierarchies and the papal diplomatic service in Italy, France and Spain in a frantic attempt to locate him,” Fr Dowd writes. In the second half of 1851, Brady wrote letters to the Pope, Cardinals Fransoni, Barnabo and Vespasiani justifying his departure.

In September 1851, he informed the Congregation that he had obtained a free passage from the British government on a convict ship, destined for Fremantle.

What was the Pope to do?
A congregation of three Cardinals met on 23 September 1851 ‘under pontifical secrecy’ to discuss the Brady case.

In his history of the affair, Fr Dowd writes that Cardinal Patrizi argued that Brady should be deposed, but the majority urged that he be ordered to renounce Perth and in the meantime be suspended to avoid the complicated, lengthy canonical process that deposition would entail.

Under this plan, Serra would be constituted Apostolic Administrator of Perth with right of succession and Brady would be provided a suitable pension and asked to send an exact account of the financial state of the mission.

Salvado was to remain Bishop of Port Victoria but to reside at New Norcia under Serra’s jurisdiction and with responsibility for conversion of the Aborigines.

The Pope confirmed these decisions and Cardinal Fransoni wrote to Brady to notify him that he had been relieved of all authority of the diocese, which now rested with Serra. He was ordered by the Pope to depart Australia and was informed he would be suspended as long as he stayed.

Brady v Serra
In mid-December 1851, Brady disregarded the Papal decisions and, according to Fr Dowd’s account, was “claiming he had not received any correspondence from Propaganda Fide and clinging to his story that the Pope told him to return to his diocese”.

Serra informed Brady of the decree which was in force unless Brady had any more recent documentation. Brady said he did, but would not let Serra see it.

Serra then banned Brady from using his Priestly and Episcopal authority, including celebrating the Liturgy.

At this point, as Fr Dowd writes, “violent brawling” broke out in the streets of Perth between Brady-ites and Serra-ites for possession of the Cathedral – now St John’s Pro-Cathedral. The police had to be summoned.

It was ecclesiastical civil war. In February 1852, Serra wrote to Propaganda Fide asking to leave the colony. Brady’s supporters had mounted a violent attack on his Episcopal residence.

Two months later, a Pontifical brief dated 3 October 1851 arrived, making Serra Apostolic Administrator. Brady refused to accept it – arguing that “since the brief suspending him from the government of the diocese of Perth addressed him as Bishop of Perth, he still held jurisdiction to the office from which nobody could dismiss him,” Fr Dowd narrates.

Polding saves the day

From Rome, Cardinal Fransoni wrote to Polding, asking him to do all in his power – as Fr Dowd narrates, citing a letter dated 11 October 1851 – to “obviate the grave threat posed to the Church in Perth by the return of Brady”. Serra also wrote to Polding in December and January 1852.

In March, Polding made what was by the standards of the day a momentous journey, sailing from Sydney to Adelaide; then on to Albany and finally, by horseback, from Albany to Perth. He arrived in June.

Polding issued a Pastoral Letter to the people of the Swan River Colony calling for an end of the party spirit and submission to the Papal decrees.

On 4 July 1852, Brady submitted to the Papal sentence of suspension, promised to observe it until canonically absolved, unreservedly handed over to Polding all financial and property claims, expressed regret for disruption and scandal and undertook to follow Polding’s instructions.

In late August 1852, Brady left Fremantle for Melbourne never to return alive to Perth. Not long after that, Cardinal Fransoni wrote to Bishop Serra, enclosing a personal letter from the Pope addressed to Brady. It commanded him to leave Australia but arrived too late as Brady had already departed.

In Ireland, Archbishop Cullen was given special faculties to absolve Brady, perhaps in order to minimise further embarrassment for Brady in Rome.

Cullen was advised by Fransoni to forbid Brady from returning to Australia and to keep him in Ireland.

Brady: Still a Mystery?

These fine details of hasty trips in 1849-52 and the Episcopal correspondence of all parties involved, leave us wondering as to the character of the first Bishop of Perth.

Do his decisions in these years affect historians’ judgement of his overall character? Fr Dowd posits that Brady “suffered some kind of mental breakdown”.

“We don’t have any clinical proof of this, but he was under colossal mental strain. For a Bishop to refuse a personal papal command, that’s very serious,” he told The Record.

“I’m wondering whether he hadn’t suffered some kind of mental collapse or breakdown,” he says.

But the issue modern historians can’t quite work out is why Brady was so disobedient to the supreme power in the Church, Papal authority?

Polding told Cardinal Fransoni that he had heard of a mental disturbance in the Brady family but there is no evidence of this, Fr Dowd says.

“But if that is true, it could explain why Brady acted so bizarrely,” he said. Brady was clearly resorting to pretty desperate measures, Fr Dowd says, when he accused Serra of forging his letter of appointment.

“That’s a very serious, a very silly thing to say, but he had to find some way of blocking Serra and regaining money,” he says.

As for the way the Pope attempted to tread lightly with Brady when appointing Serra as Apostolic Administrator – an approach that backfired when Urquhart redirected the mail – was this a question of caring for his health and wellbeing or was it because of his character?

Fr Dowd said that “if we speculate that he was proud, he would have felt badly treated, exposed, humiliated, put down and incompetent” to have control of the finances taken away with Serra’s appointment.

“Brady probably felt embarrassed and refused to accept it,” he said.

Mgr O’Loughlin said that he “admires” Bishop Brady for coming here as the leader of the first missionaries. But he remains an “enigma,” as far as Perth’s present Vicar General is concerned.

“I do not think you can be conclusive about a man about whom we know so little. We know a lot of what he did, but we do not know much about the man himself,” Monsignor O’Loughlin says.

Mgr O’Loughlin, also a canon lawyer who acts as a judge on the Western Australian and national appeal tribunals, is uncomfortable about making a character assessment of Perth’s first Bishop.

He knows what happened and he is embarrassed by it, but why it happened, he says, he does not know. “The fact that we have not got those elementary documents makes me unwilling to speculate,” he says, referring to Brady’s birth and ordination certificates.

“When things fall apart, they fall apart most dramatically; the fights and squabbles, the schism of the early Church in Perth. It is unseemly, it is unChristian, but as to why – I do not think we know and so that is the reason I am not prepared to speculate,” he says.

Sr Stibi believes that the living conditions of Perth in its early days were a big factor in the Brady incident.

“As far as I can see, he was an ordinary priest, and an ordinary Bishop doing an ordinary job under very extraordinary circumstances,” she says.

The fact that the Swan River Colony had only been established 14 years prior to the arrival of Catholic clergy is an important factor in discovering the true nature of Bishop Brady in context, she asserts.

“Nobody was settled in Perth; it was too hard – that’s my opinion – they weren’t into comforts but they missed the civilising places in Europe. It was too primitive here,” she says. “The living conditions were abysmal.”

Perth historian Odhran O’Brien seated in the dining room of Cathedral House with a portrait of Bishop Brady behind him to the left. Brady was not ambitious, or malicious, he says, but was inconsiderate in some of his decisions. Photo: Peter Rosengren.

Odhran O’Brien, meanwhile, maintains that Bishop Serra was equally to blame for what occurred in the Colony.

“I’ve seen several letters between him and Serra during the whole debacle and there is no doubt that Brady is very vicious during that time; and he very much tries to regain control over Serra and let him know that he is Bishop of Perth.

“But equally so, Serra sends letters to him; basically telling him that he has no authority any more. So in terms of the correspondence I have seen, Serra and Brady are equally to blame for the tension that mounts within the Catholic community during those few years,” he says.

He also agrees with Sr Frances that the privations of the colony were a factor and suggests this was possibly a factor in Brady’s possible mental breakdown, describing this as “very possible.”

“He was probably suffering from exposure; he was living in the belfry. It’s a medical term … he was literally open to all the elements … sleep deprivation, stress, malnutrition, the whole lot. So was he in his right mind when he was making decisions? Probably not,” he says.

But as to whether it was a mental illness, nobody can judge, Mr O’Brien says, because “you’ve got to take into consideration all the environmental factors he was experiencing at the time”.

“People who haven’t had sleep, who haven’t eaten, who are living in a space where they’re exposed to the elements are not going to make logical, well-considered decisions,” he points out.

Mr O’Brien also prefers to see Brady as a zealous visionary who, unfortunately, was not good at handling money.

“The 10,000 pound debt that Brady accumulated is a fact – no one is disputing that,” he says, noting that such a result indicates carelessness on Brady’s part.

But he thought there were all these “souls to be saved,” Mr O’Brien says, referring to Brady’s letters to the Vatican. Brady’s primary aim, he says, was to evangelise the natives.

“He wasn’t like Bishops Griver or Serra who meticulously planned what they were going to do,” he says.

So what is the O’Brien assessment of Brady, the controversial first Bishop of Perth?

“I think he was a good man, a holy man with good intentions,” he says, before asking a few questions of his own.

“Was he a saint? I don’t know about that. Does he need to be a saint? Does he need to be a saint to do amazing things?”

We will probably never know the answers. But whatever the truth about why Brady did the things he did, one thing remains true: the Catholic Church has flourished in Perth and across Western Australia since 1845 and now comprises hundreds of parishes and Catholic schools as well as major institutions such as a healthcare system.

In a very real sense, they all began with Bishop John Brady.