A short history of the Dominican Friars
in Australia and the Western Pacific region

Vicars Provincial 
1924-29  Fr Jordan Powell
1929-34  Fr Benedict O'Sullivan
1934-38  Fr Bertrand Curran
1938-46  Fr Ambrose Crofts
1946-50  Fr Mannes Cussen

Priors Provincial
1950-56  Fr Mannes Cussen
1956-72  Fr Jerome O'Rorke
1972-80  Fr Peter Galvin
1981-89  Fr Nicholas Punch
1989-92  Fr David Halstead
1992-00  Fr Mark O'Brien
2000-08  Fr Thomas Cassidy
2008-      Fr Kevin Saunders

The presence
of the Dominican Order in Australasia is essentially a product of a very great expansion of the Catholic Church's global missionary outreach in the nineteenth century, sustained by thousands of priests, brothers and nuns who left their homes in countries such as France, Ireland, Belgium and Italy for the "foreign missions". The chief home source for manpower for the Australasian Dominican mission was Ireland where the Church was undergoing revitalisation and growth with the passing of the penal era. Nevertheless, the first recorded visit of a Dominican friar to the territory of the present Province of the Order, which embraces Australia, New Zealand, the Solomon Islands and Papua New Guinea, was a Frenchman. A French vessel lay at anchor in Doubtless Bay, New Zealand, on Christmas Day, 1769. On board was a Dominican priest, Paul-Antoine Léonard de Villefeix, who presumably celebrated Mass that day.†

It is possible that Dominican friars accompanied Spanish voyages of exploration in the Pacific Ocean, some of which passed through the Solomon Islands in the seventeenth century. Even earlier, the Portuguese Dominicans were in the East Indies in the sixteenth century and it cannot be ruled out that one or more of them might have reached the northern coast of Australia. However, speculation about the very early entry of Spanish and Portuguese Dominicans is just that, speculation.

The first Dominican known for sure to have stepped on to Australian soil was Vincent Christopher Dowling, born in Dublin but a member of the Province of England, who arrived in Sydney in 1831 as a government-sponsored chaplain to the Catholic community. (There is a vague suggestion that a Dominican priest was transported to New South Wales in 1798 for political offences, but this is so far not established.) Around ten Dominicans, mainly Irish but also a few Englishmen, laboured as missionaries in the colonies of New South Wales, Victoria and South Australia in the mid- and later nineteenth century. All operated as individuals, more or less as secular priests. Moves to establish a Dominican community in Melbourne in the 1860s came to nothing.

The first community of friars was established in Adelaide in 1898. The initiator of this move was Archpriest Bernard Nevin who had been a Dominican novice in Ireland and had had to leave because of poor health but he retained an affection for the Dominican tradition. He suggested to the then Archbishop of Adelaide, John O'Reily, that the Irish Dominicans be asked to make a foundation. After negotiations with the Irish Provincial, Joseph Hickey, the invitation was accepted and three Irish Dominicans arrived on board the Oriental at Outer Harbour on the 18 September, 1898. They were assigned to the parish of North Adelaide which was later extended to suburbs to the north, Prospect and Kilburn. They immediately commenced planning for a suitable residence and the foundation stone of St Laurence's Priory, named after the saint to whom the North Adelaide parish church is dedicated, was laid by Archbishop O'Reily less than a year after the arrival of the friars. The leader of the first group of Dominicans, Robert Spence, born in Cork, became Archbishop of Adelaide on the death of O'Reily and was in office from 1914 to 1934. (He was the only Dominican to be a bishop in Australia until Anthony Fisher was consecrated as an auxiliary bishop for the Archdiocese of Sydney in 2003.)

The Irish Dominican men came to Adelaide as parish priests and parish work provided the pattern of ministry as the Order became active in other parts of Australia. Foundations attached to parishes were opened in Helensburgh on the south coast of New South Wales in 1923, East Camberwell, a suburb of Melbourne, in 1924, Wahroonga, a suburb of Sydney, in 1948, Brisbane in 1951, Perth in 1954, Canberra in 1958 and Newcastle in 1972. The Newcastle foundation was opened in partnership with the Spanish Holy Rosary Province.

The on-going presence of the friars' branch of the Order in New Zealand was pioneered by two Englishmen who ministered in Auckland in the early years of the twentieth century, Benedict Tickell and Gilbert Tigar. Common life commenced in 1949 with a foundation in Remuera, a suburb of Auckland, from where the friars were chaplains to the Catholic Teachers' College and to a large school conducted by the Sacre Coeur Sisters. The Dominican community transferred to the parish of Blockhouse Bay in 1960, which was exchanged for St Benedict's parish, Newton, fifteen years later. In 1949 the Order also accepted the care of North East Valley parish in Dunedin. In the 1990s there was a short-lived parish-based presence in Wellington.

Hitherto a dependency of the Irish Dominicans, Australia and New Zealand were erected as a Province in its own right in 1950 and dedicated to Our Lady Assumed into Heaven, Pope Pius XII having proclaimed the dogma in the same year. Up to the time of writing (2006), there have been seven Priors Provincial, the first two Irishmen, the others Australians, Mannes Cussen (1950-1956), Jerome O'Rorke (1956-1972), Peter Galvin (1972-1980), Nicholas Punch (1980-1989), David Halstead (1989-1993), Mark O'Brien (1993-2000) and Thomas Cassidy (elected 2000).

In 1940, even before receiving the status of a Province, the Order in Australia opened its own novitiate and house of studies at East Camberwell. Candidates had previously been trained in Ireland. The house of studies was divided into philosophy and theology sections in 1948, the former remaining in Melbourne, the latter transferring to Wahroonga. The two sections of the studentate were brought together again in 1966 with the opening, by the then Master General of the Order, Aniceto Fernandez, of a new house of studies at Blackfriars Priory, Canberra. This was a noble building designed by the Irish Dominican architect, Bonaventure Leahy, whose other designs in Australia include the striking church of the Holy Rosary in Perth. A shift in the preferred model of seminary education together with declining numbers of students and lecturers caused the house of studies to move back to Melbourne in 1974 and establish links with the Yarra Theological Union, a consortium of the lecturing staff of various clerical religious orders. Blackfriars Priory became the novitiate and a retreat and conference centre.

Dominicans in Australia and New Zealand have been deeply involved in the educational apostolate. Blackfriars Priory School for boys opened in 1953. The Province then established a succession of residential halls for university students, Aquinas Hall at the University of Otago, Dunedin, in 1954, John XXIII College at the Australian National University, Canberra, in 1967, Mannix College at Monash University, Melbourne, in 1969 and St Albert's College at the University of New England, Armidale, in the same year. In Australia the construction of colleges was made possible by the influx of commonwealth government funds for university capital works. Dominicans also held the Catholic chaplaincies to all of the above universities, plus the Universities of Auckland and Newcastle. The Order has also contributed to the inauguration of Australia's two Catholic universities, the Australian Catholic University and Notre Dame University.

Dominicans have been lecturers in various academic disciplines at a range of seminaries, theological colleges and universities, in Melbourne, Sydney, Canberra, Auckland, Dunedin, Bomana and Honiara. Individual friars are currently doing similar work outside the Province, in Rome and Oxford. Australian Dominican academics have published scholarly books and articles in such areas as philosophy, scripture, patristics, theology, history, bioethics, education and social questions. The Province itself has sponsored a number of its own publications, including the 'Holy Name Monthly', 'Dominican News from the Solomon Islands', 'Bulletin of Christian Affairs', 'Journal of Justice and Peace' and 'The Star: Rosary Newsletter'.

At the invitation of the Holy See the friars entered into partnership with the Dominican sisters and lay associates in 1956 to open a mission in the Solomon Islands. The first mission party, which included two friars, Peter McDonald and Dominic Mahony, was formally farewelled at a liturgical ceremony held in Sydney on 20 January of that year, at Santa Sabina Dominican convent, Strathfield, presided over by the Apostolic Delegate for Australia, Archbishop Romolo Carboni. The first mission station was established at Nila on Poporang, one of the Shortland Islands, which expanded into a network of similar stations throughout the Western Province of the Solomon Islands. The emphasis was on evangelisation, catechesis, education and health care. To facilitate communication between these widely-separated places a second-hand naval boat was acquired and outfitted in 1957. Renamed the Salve Regina, it was blessed by Cardinal Norman Gilroy, Archbishop of Sydney, and launched by Countess Nina Poninska, wife of a Polish diplomat. The vessel was then sailed from Sydney to Nila, a voyage taking two weeks. The vessel saw service until 1970 when it was wrecked on a reef in Choiseul Bay.

In 1960 the territory of the mission was placed under direct episcopal supervision by the creation of the Vicariate Apostolic of the Western Solomons. An Irish Australian Dominican priest, Eusebius Crawford, was named first bishop and was consecrated by Pope John XXIII. Six years later the Vicariate Apostolic was raised to the status of a diocese, that of Gizo. The second Dominican Bishop of Gizo was Bernard O'Grady who succeeded Bishop Crawford in 1995. A third Dominican bishop appeared when Christopher Cardone of the Order's New York Province, was appointed as auxiliary bishop in Gizo in 2001. Three years later he was name Bishop of Auki on the island of Malaita.

In 1980 the Order established a presence in Papua New Guinea when local students for the priesthood were sent for their studies at the Catholic Theological Institute in Bomana. Four years later a residential Dominican college, dedicated to St Martin de Porres, was opened. In 1989 a foundation was established at Tetere on the island of Guadalcanal in the Solomons. This was later moved to the capital of the Solomons, Honiara, where a house of studies for Solomonese students was established in the suburb of Henderson in association with the Holy Name of Mary Seminary. In 1985 the Solomon Islands and Papua New Guinea were constituted as a vicariate of the Assumption Province.

Over the years, both in the Province and its Vicariate, the friars have collaborated closely with the Dominican sisters and have also supported a variety of lay groups who have had a long identification with the Order's spiritual traditions, including the Holy Name Society, the Rosary Confraternity and the Dominican laity.

In addition to the works already mentioned, Dominican involvements are, or have been, along a broad spectrum of activity: retreats and conferences; spiritual direction; itinerant team preaching; chaplaincies to convents, schools, hospitals, police and prisons; support for youth in crisis, problems of homelessness and addiction, and social justice outreach in the inner city and outer West regions of Sydney (which were all generously supported by the parishioners of Wahroonga); journalism and talk-back radio; military, naval and air force chaplaincies (including active service in the first and second world wars and the Vietnam war); diocesan and educational administration; clinical psychology and counselling; scholarly engagement with indigenous cultures in Australia (aborigine) and New Zealand (Maori); pastoral assistance to Eastern-rite Catholic churches; dialogue with Islam; and a wide range of migrant chaplaincies to communities of Hungarians, Poles, Croatians, Ukrainians, Russians, Spaniards, Vietnamese, Tamils, Cook Islanders and Indonesians.

The Australasian Dominican Order began as an Irish mission. Some 70 Irish friars served in this Province in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries and, currently, there are still two active Irish priests. The Irish have been predominant, whether from Ireland or from Irish Australian and New Zealand families, but the friars who have worked, or are still working, in this part of the world have been drawn from a remarkable diversity of other nationalities: French, English, Italian, Spanish, Maltese, Dutch, Hungarian, Polish, Slovak, Indian, Vietnamese, Solomonese, Papua New Guinean, Gilbertese, American.

The 1950s and 1960s were a period of rapid expansion of the Order's activity in the territory of the Province, typical in many ways of the pre-conciliar era of energetically building up resources and structures and the conciliar years of vibrant enthusiasm for new ways. By way of contrast, the post-conciliar years have been a testing time for the Dominicans, as for other orders and ecclesiastical entities here and overseas. Comfortable certainties and ancient customs have disappeared; agreement about identity, purpose and strategy is harder to achieve; in the Church as in society at large, change is now the order of the day after a long period of stability. Confronted with a marked decline in recruiting and the consequent ageing of its personnel, the Order in Australia and New Zealand has found it impossible to sustain all of the initiatives and projects taken on in the confident period of growth and now finds itself in a painful process of retrenchment. All of the university colleges have been surrendered with the exception of John XXIII College, as have some of the university chaplaincies. The Dominican presence in Dunedin has come to an end. With deep regret, the friars left the parish of Wahroonga in 1997 although, after several tentative starts, they have regrouped as a community in Glebe from where they are working in the parishes of Forest Lodge-Pyrmont and Broadway, the chaplaincies to the University of Sydney and Notre Dame University, and lecturing at the Catholic Institute of Sydney. Reluctantly, in 2004 the Province had to relinquish Blackfriars Priory in Canberra.

Today, Dominicans struggle to staff their far-flung existing commitments. Even in the Vicariate, where recruiting patterns are brighter, there is a chronic shortage of manpower. Nevertheless, animated by the priorities set for community and mission in the contemporary world by a series of general chapters of the Order and in the context of a new emphasis on co-operation among Dominican entities in the Asia-Pacific region, the Dominicans of the Assumption Province, currently numbering 92, go forward to meet the challenges and changes of the future.

Christopher Dowd, OP
Provincial Historian

† Dunmore, John. "Le Père de Villefeix et al: Première Messe en Nouvelle Zélande." Société des Océanistes Journal XXV (1969) 305-6.

Resources regarding the Order's History

Otto Vervaart's catalogue of resources on Dominican history