Feature by Neill Fitzpatrick
A Family and Colonial History
In August 2018, Sydney’s St Mary’s Cathedral celebrated its bicentenary with a solemn High Mass. The celebrant was Bishop Umbers, a member of Opus Dei, who in a 13-minute homily paid particular tribute to the choir and its founder Catherine Fitzpatrick. The front rows in the cathedral were filled by the expected dignitaries of church and state and by former members of the choir.
About five rows from the front were members of the extended Fitzpatrick family. It was an occasion of great pride for them to find their grandmother from four generations earlier remembered in such a formal way. The Umbers homily was unscripted.’I imagine,’ he said, ‘for Catherine Fitzpatrick that she was able to help with that choir for Archbishop Polding – that may well have been the sum-total of her thought, I don’t know, I haven’t seen the diary, I’m not sure what she was saying. … Here we are, 200 years later, in a congregation that is raising its heart to God in prayer, aided by what I have been told and I have heard with my own senses, is the best choir in the Anglosphere.’ Strong praise indeed.
We know a great deal about Catherine Fitzpatrick. She was born Catherine Milling in Dublin in 1775. Unusually for a young woman at that time, she was well educated and there is a suggestion that at a time when Catholics had limited civil rights, she ran a school. At the age of 21, she married Barnaby Fitzpatrick. He was a postman who, three years later, was found guilty of embezzlement of a bank post bill and sentenced to death. The sentence was commuted to transportation and he was one of the convicts on the Providence when it docked in Sydney in 1811. Also on the ship as free settlers were Catherine and her two young sons, John aged 3 and Columbus an infant.
That a young woman, possibly of some means, should follow her convict husband into exile in a distant country was an act which by any standards bespoke of great love and considerable courage. The couple lived in Sackville Reach near Windsor, north-west of Sydney for some time until Barnaby was given an absolute pardon in 1818. A third son whom they named Ambrose was born while they were in the country; when Catherine became pregnant again, the family moved to Parramatta where she gave birth to their fourth boy, Michael.
The family were ordered by Hannibal Macarthur, nephew of the sheep baron and himself a pastoralist of considerable influence, to send their children to the Protestant Sunday School. Catherine refused and moved to Sussex Street in Sydney. Barnaby appears to have had less influence on the family from then on, becoming respectable and ending up in the constabulary. Now in her early thirties, Catherine became involved in the fledgling Catholic community, becoming friendly with the Dempsey and Davis families who were involved in the visit and sheltering of Fr Jeremiah O’Flynn* in 1817 and the later protection of the consecrated host.
After O’Flynn was expelled in 1818, Catherine and a man named McGuire worked to train a choir to sing at Mass. When Fr Therry and Fr Conolly arrived two years later, they were amazed to find that there was a choir who could sing for the liturgy. Writing many years later about Fr Therry, Columbus Fitzpatrick said, ‘When he came to the colony, he was surprised and delighted to find a couple of boys able to serve at Mass, and a few people who could sing the church services.’ In 1821, Governor Macquarie laid the foundation stone for the first St Mary’s Cathedral, the blessing carried out by Fr Therry. At that event and in subsequent liturgies, the cathedral choir provided music, with Catherine Fitzpatrick as its first conductor.
It is not easy for us today to appreciate how extraordinary it was to have a woman in such a senior church role. Catherine Fitzpatrick continued to conduct the choir for many years, at the same time as running her own Catholic school and raising her four boys. The census of 1828 has her age as 40 and says that she is living with John (20), Columbus (18), Ambrose (14) and Michael (11) in Sussex Street. She was still living there according to the Sands Directory of 1858-59; she continued as a teacher up to her death in 1861. Her grave is in the Field of Mars cemetery in the section set aside for priests and nuns.
It is interesting to follow the five men in Catherine’s life. Barnaby died by his own hand in 1839; he was given a Catholic burial at St John’s Cemetery Campbelltown; the entry in the church register is written in Latin. After some moving around, Columbus settled in Goulburn where he served in a number of civic positions, being the kind of politician who today would be comfortable in the ALP; he also distinguished himself as a historian and writer. He died in 1877 in Goulburn. Ambrose lived in Hunters Hill in Sydney and became involved in civic affairs as an Alderman and Mayor; he died in 1904. The youngest boy, Michael, after retiring from the civil service, went into politics and was elected on multiple occasions as member for the Yass district; he was closely involved in the debate on state aid for schools. He died in 1881 and is buried in the Catholic cemetery at Petersham.
Which leaves the oldest of the four boys, John. It is known that he married a woman named Alice Lacy. He tried his hand as a boat builder, horse breeder, and publican before becoming the first Chief Constable in Binalong. He ended up in Ballarat, after moving around the Victorian goldfields for over 25 years and was buried in an unmarked grave in 1882.
Returning for a moment to that celebration Mass in 2018. The ears of the Fitzpatrick clan pricked up when the bishop mentioned that he had not seen the diary kept by Catherine and retained in the Cathedral archives. They are very keen to read the diary, but have been told that this is not possible except by an academic and on payment of a significant sum.
Neill Fitzpatrick is a fourth generation descendant of John Fitzpatrick, the oldest of Catherine’s sons. His father was named John, keeping alive the family tradition of naming the first born son ‘John’. Neil is a retired Finance Manager. He has travelled to Ireland to play golf but at the time wasn’t aware of his family history. Now as an avid family historian he may well have to return to Dublin.
*For more on Fr O’Flynn see http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/oflynn-jeremiah-francis-2521) See also Where First I Took Two Small Steps by Dennis Dempsey, https://www.worldcat.org/title/where-first-i-took-two-small-steps-the-dempsey-story-1802-to-2002/oclc/223373336, the story of the Dempsey family and their part in keeping the sacred host in the two years between the departure of O’Flynn and the arrival of Therry.