History of West Australia/Matthew Gibney

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GREAT and powerful is the Roman Catholic Church in Australia. This ancient body had its origin at just about the time when present-day civilisation was springing into being, and has wielded a larger influence over that civilisation than any other denomination. During its history European nations have been very widely and very powerfully swayed by the heads of the Church, who have held the fate of monarchies on their mental scales, and in cases the fate of nations themselves.

Rev Dr Gibney HOFWA.jpg
Photo by
Greenham & Evans.

The Roman Catholic Church must ever receive praise for her practical encouragement of art in all its forms. Painting and music, as the arts which are most closely associated with the emotions of man, received great stimulus in early times from the Church. The Christian era was yet extremely young when a liberal and enlightened Pope — Pope Gregory,— after deep meditation, composed for an accessory to worship what is esteemed as the origin of modern music. He recognised that music and worship are closely related. Strange and weird was the influence which his chants had over the old-time people. These chants form the foundation of the music peculiar of to-day. Then, in painting—also a supreme and beautiful factor of emotion,—the great cathedrals of Rome and other old world cities contain some of the sweetest and most masterful representations ever painted. It was the substantial encouragement of the Roman Church which brought out the genius of the great mediæval masters, and made painting almost a divine art. Knowledge is indeed power—knowledge should conduce to a more ideal state of existence: and the contributions of the Church to all kinds of knowledge cannot be weighed.

Down through the dim, dark ages, amid the rise and fall of nations, the progress of society; through upheavals which drew into oblivion monarchies; through prosperity, famine, and death; through ignorance and lust; through the upward rise to a more enlightened people; through the ever-changing history of the past nineteen centuries, the great Roman Church has stood upon a firm foundation, substantially unmoved, throwing out branches in every direction, and taking nations under her wings as does the hen her chickens. Great Britain, in common with other nations, has been affected more than she knows of by this Church, and now the Greater Britain—her dependencies in every clime—feel the all-pervading power. In America and Australia the Roman Catholic Church has strong footholds, and her presence is felt in the politics of the countries and is influencing their destinies to a peculiar degree. Silently but surely she is working among the people, and her wealth and importance are undoubtedly growing apace.

Max O'Rell, during his recent visit to Australia, particularly observed, as all must observe, the splendid buildings which were everywhere possessed by the Roman Church. They are generally to be found on the hill-tops, on the most favoured sites of the cities or towns, and there they stand, looking down, as it were, with a fatherly eye on the moving populations below. But seventy years ago Australia was almost a waste. Since then people have been choosing the goodly places and cities and villages have grown, and soon after them have come the Catholic clergy. In the cities, in the towns, in the smallest villages, in the agricultural districts, and even in the "back blocks," where sheep and cattle almost run wild, and but few white men are seen, the Catholic Church is already established. Throughout the length and breadth of Western Australia there are its temples, and among white and black its priests labour in the propagation of their religious principles. Their influence in this colony has already been materially demonstrated, and the buildings of the Church are among the finest in the land.

The head of the Catholic Church in Western Australia is the Most Rev. Dr. Gibney, D.D. This reverend gentleman has shown an estimable devotion to his cause, and his labours in this colony have been untiring, and filled with laudable earnestness. Many monuments of his sojourn and influence are apparent, and under his special guidance the Roman Catholic denomination has increased tenfold. Bishop Matthew Gibney, D.D., was born in County Cavenagh, Ireland, in 1839. When his dawning reason enabled him to look out over the fields of life to choose that in which he would most love to work, his eyes rested with gladness on the Church. There, he believed, was sphere for altruistic labour where temporary aggrandisement had no place, and where unselfishness and devotion to one's fellows, and charity, embraced life's Alpha and Omega. He determined to enter the Roman Catholic Church as a novice, and, if worthy, to eventually be ordained and live as one apart from men, but yet labouring day by day to benefit them. In the abstract, this is the very ideal of life. With such a noble resolve ever before him the lad pursued his studies, and then entered All Hallows College, Dublin. There, separated from the busy, jostling crowd, he laboured constantly to prepare himself for his life's mission. He strove to cast aside as much as possible the allurements of the world, and to purge from his mind the passions which annihilate so many beings. Those "fond offences" which cling so pertinaciously to man must be cast out, or, at least, made subservient to the dominant object of the young student's future. In 1863 he was ordained into the priesthood at Dublin, and in the same year he came to Western Australia to apply his energy and his earnestness in the service of his Church. He had now left all his old associations and his previous life far behind, and he set to work with untiring constancy in this young land. Quietly and without ostentation he toiled year by year in Perth, and his greatest happiness was attained when he observed some visible result. Often he had to endure hardships enough, but being strong and fearless they troubled him not. Conscious of his own rectitude and high purpose, he went about among rich and poor propagating his Messages of Peace.

The first distinguishing and apparent memorial of his Australian career lay in the establishment of an orphanage for poor boys. He obtained from the Government a grant of land at Subiaco, and erected suitable buildings upon it. The boys received a splendid education and religious instruction at the orphanage, and were taught avocations which would be useful to them when they became men. Much of the large grant of land was cultivated by the lads, and thus their lives were made as happy as possible in the absence of the much-loved and well-remembered home influences. The Boys' Orphanage still carries on its altruistic work. So successful was this endeavour that Father Gibney turned his attention to orphan girls. He worked eagerly to open an orphanage for them, and was at last successful, and now many little waifs live happily in their orphanage, tended and taught the most useful lessons of life by Sisters of Mercy. If for nothing else these two institutions merit for Father Gibney blessings from every West Australian.

In order that Roman Catholics in the colony should have healthy literature, specially dealing with matters in which they all had some interest, he conceived the determination to publish a newspaper. Out of his private funds and the fertility of his own mind he gave birth to the Record, which at once became the official organ of the Church. In addition to religious news, this paper gives a general résumé of contemporary matters. It has now been in existence twenty-three years, and for a period Father Gibney personally edited it. As the publication grew larger, and the demands on his own time became more numerous, he handed this part of the work over to priests. About twenty years ago he opened a private school in Irwin Street, and now a community of pupils, numbering 130, is presided over by the Christian Brothers. Last year Bishop Gibney presented them with a grant of land in St. George's Road, worth £10,000, on which a wing of a prospective large structure has been erected, wherein reside over sixty boarders. He also presented the Oblates of Mercy with 300 acres at Subiaco, where (1896) a public school is in course of erection.

All this time Dr. Gibney rose in his Church, and became the chief pastor or vicar-general of the body in Western Australia. When Governor Weld introduced his measure for Government assisted denominational schools, Father Gibney was an earnest supporter of it, and he was able to substantially help in the final passage of the Bill. This Act was in operation until 1895, when it was abolished, and the Roman Catholic Church received as compensation £15,000. Such activity as Father Gibney displayed in watching over the interests of his flock was bound to have its good effect, and the Church expanded rapidly. It threw tentacles out in every direction until it had adherents and churches in all the chief centres of population. The colony was in 1886 erected into a see, and as Dr. Gibney's work stood out in bolder relief than that of anyone else, he had the distinction of being raised to the episcopal chair. On 23rd January, 1887, amid much pomp and ceremony, he was solemnly consecrated bishop by Cardinal Moran. That was the climax of the early ambitions of the lad. He had laboured in the field he chose from among all others, and that one portion of his labour had not been in vain was demonstrated. It was the solemn, serious, and beautiful reward for the sincerity and earnestness and value of his work in this colony. Since then the Roman Catholic Church in Western Australia has expanded most remarkably, and both in wealth and adherents it at present probably doubles what it possessed in 1887. In 1889 Bishop Gibney opened a Mission for Natives in the Kimberley district, which, although under his superintendence, is directly controlled by he Trappists' Order. The mission is situated at Beagle Bay, and is known as the Dampier Land Mission. Twenty priests devote their lives to the enlightening and religious raining of the sable heirs to West Australian lands, and their work is as successful as the characteristics and ignorance of the poor natives will allow. The courage and simple earnestness of Bishop Gibney's character were well demonstrated some years ago in Victoria. He was visiting the colony collecting funds for his Church in Western Australia when the Kelly bushrangers were prosecuting their marauds. While in the Glenrowan (Kelly) country, he happened to be present when the gang was trapped in a hotel. Mr. J. F. Hogan, member of the British House of Commons, in his work, "The Irish in Australia," writes:—"The outlaws, who had long defied capture, and had carried on a career of murder and robbery, descended from their haunts in the mountain ranges and took possession of the village, making all the inhabitants prisoners. They cut the telegraph wires and tore up the railway; nevertheless, the authorities in Melbourne were apprised of this daring outrage, and despatched a large force to the locality. The bushrangers, taken by surprise, threw themselves into the village hotel, which they defended against the besiegers for the greater part of the day. Father Gibney, who happened to be in the neighbourhood at the time, hastened to the scene of strife, so that the services of a priest might not be wanting, if required. At an early stage of the conflict he endeavoured to advance through the open and exert his influence with the besieged bushrangers to induce them to surrender, and thereby avert further bloodshed. He was confident that even such desperadoes would not fire on a priest; but the officers in command thought differently, and declined to allow him to place his life in jeopardy. When, however, late in the afternoon the hotel was seen to be in flames, the brave priest refused to be kept back any longer, and rushed to the burning building in the hope of being able to administer the last sacraments of the Church to any of the surviving bushrangers within. He was watched with eager and breathless attention as he crossed the open space in front of the outlaws' citadel, the general fear being that he would be shot down before he reached the house. A cheer went up from the excited spectators as they saw him rush through the flames into the interior of the hotel, and a number of them were emboldened to follow in his footsteps. When Father Gibney got within the blazing building, he saw the bodies of the bushrangers lying on the floor, having apparently preferred to shoot themselves or each other rather than fall into the hands of the authorities. He had just time to touch their bodies, and ascertain that they were lifeless, before the advancing flames compelled him to beat a hasty retreat in order to save his own life. The courage and intrepidity displayed by Father Gibney on this occasion won universal admiration, and the news of his elevation to the mitre was received with cordial approval by the press and the public of all the colonies." This shows that the Bishop is an earnest and fearless follower of the faith, and is not afraid to endanger his life in the service of his Master.

Little more remains to be added. Bishop Gibney's work will leave a lasting mark on the history of Western Australia. A simple, earnest man; he toils eagerly, at all hours, for his fellows. Of kindly disposition and generous nature, he has widespread popularity, and is loved, not only by his own people, but by all who know his goodness throughout the colony. He watches over his flock as carefully and zealously as the shepherd tends his sheep, and he leads them to the good pasture land, where their souls may fatten. Guided by such altruistic spirits as he, it is no wonder that the Roman Catholic Church becomes a great power in the land.