It is due to a miscarriage of justice that the first celebration of Mass took place in Australia at the dawn of the 19th century, when a young Irish priest was sent into exile to a continent where Catholicism had no rights.
James Dixon was born in 1758 to a family in County Wexford, Ireland. Attracted by the priestly zeal of the parish priest, the young man decided to serve the Church by answering the divine call.
He completed his training at the prestigious seminaries of Salamanca and Louvain before returning to Ireland, where he was appointed vicar in the parish of Crossabeg, County Wexford, in his homeland, where nothing seemed to disturb the tranquility.
Alas, in 1798, a popular revolt broke out in Dublin and the surrounding area, which saw Catholics and Protestants form an alliance of circumstance to put an end to the dominion of the British crown in Ireland.
Sentenced to Death and Banished
One of the battles of these United Irishmen, Tubberneering, took place in Wexford, near Fr. Dixon’s village. Accused without proof of having fought alongside the insurgents, the young priest was sentenced to death by a military court, but the sentence was commuted into banishment for life to Botany Bay, the opposite end of the world from the Isle of Saints.
Botany Bay is the name of a British colony in New South Wales, founded on the east coast of Australia ten years earlier, not far from Sydney. The overcrowded jails of London, full of common law prisoners, were poured into it.
When Fr. Dixon arrived in the penal colony in 1800. Catholicism was still outlawed, although the Irish Catholic deportees made up about a tenth of the colony.
In order to appease the anger of the Catholics, deprived of sacraments and ever more numerous since 1798, the governor of Botany Bay obtained authorization from the Holy See to solicit the ministry of Fr. Dixon.
In this way, the first Catholic mass in Australia was celebrated in Sydney on May 15, 1803. The liturgical vestments were made from curtains, while the chalice was forged from pewter.
Less than a year later, a rebellion broke out in Botany Bay. Martial law was proclaimed, and the practice of Catholicism was again banned until 1816 on the grounds that Irish Catholics participated in the revolt. In the meantime, Fr. Dixon was released and he returned to his hometown of Wexford in 1808, where he died in 1840.
In 2019, Catholics make up 23% of the Australian population and are the largest religious group in the country.