Conversation: Dr Vivienne Keely CHF, historian and author - ‘Pamphlet’ on convict priest grew into book
By Marilyn Rodrigues
“It’s very hard to know what kind of man Fr James Dixon was in the sense of what made him tick psychologically because he didn’t leave anything, that I know of, such as diaries or letters or even sermons,” says Sister of the Holy Faith, Dr Vivienne Keely (pictured), author of a book about the first priest of the Church in Australia.
“The one thing I think can say about him as a person is that he had a gift of friendship, he was able to make friends across the sectarian divide at a time when there was quite a division between Protestant and Catholic in Ireland.
“Fr Dixon’s life - and, I hope, the book itself - is a good example of how these stereotypes can’t always be applied.”
Dr Keely is a Sister of the Holy Faith, a teaching congregation founded in Dublin around the same time as the Sisters of Mercy.
Her first book, Dixon of Botany Bay: The Convict Priest from Wexford, was launched this week at the Irish Consulate-General by author Thomas Keneally, as part of celebrations for the bicent-enary of the first Mass in Sydney on May 15, 1803, and the first in Parramatta on May 22, 1803.
Like her subject, Dr Keely was born and raised in Ireland. She entered her congregation there and came to Australia in 1975.
She has been the research officer for the Parramatta diocese for two years; before that she spent nine years as director of postgraduate studies at the Sydney College of Divinity.
The Bishop of Parramatta, Bishop Kevin Manning, commissioned Dr Keely to write a pamphlet to be published for the bicentenary, but they soon realised she had enough material to make a book.
It covers Fr Dixon’s journey from Ireland to Sydney on the Friendship that arrived in Sydney in February 1800, until he left in 1809 to return to Ireland where he died in 1840 at the age of 82.
He had been sent here for his alleged involvement in the 1798 rebellion of the United Irishmen, even though his Catholic and Protestant friends protested his innocence.
Once here he was kept on the public store and later given a £60-a-year salary.
He won the respect of Governor Philip Gidley King.
And he sent a petition to Rome for the necessary faculties so he could minister to Catholics here. It was accepted.
All Catholics in the colony were asked to go to Old Government House in Parramatta to hear the Proclamation appointing Fr Dixon as their priest in May 1803.
But the priest fell out of favour with Governor King, who believed he had played a part in the 1804 Castle Hill insurrection and withdrew his permission to minister publicly.
After that Catholics and Protestants alike supported Fr Dixon financially until he returned to Ireland.
“One of interesting things in writing the book,” says Dr Keely, “was the great amount of interest it generated and the great co-operation there was from everyone, including one of Ireland’s eminent historians, Dr Kevin Whelan, and the archivist of the diocese of Ferns, Fr De Vall.”
Dr Keely says one hero of her book is Irishman Michael Hayes, who came to Australia as a convict at the same time as Fr Dixon.
He carried out a single-handed campaign to have a priest minister in the colony, with the help of his brother, Fr Richard Hayes, who represented the bishops of Ireland in Rome.
“What the book does that makes it different to anything else is it brings together the Australian and Irish elements of Fr Dixon’s life,” says Dr Keely.
“(Before now) he has turned up in Irish history, referred to briefly during discussion of the rebellion, and referred to here in discussions of early Australian history and Church history as the first priest.”
Dr Keely says the story of the birth of the Catholic Church in Australia holds lessons for today about stereotypes, treatment of minorities and interpersonal and international relations.
“The proclamation of Governor King appointing Fr Dixon is important because it says something about the recognition of the rights of a minority at the time, rights that referred to religious freedom,” she says.
“The obituary of Fr Dixon says he always spoke in forgiving terms of his time in Australia.
“If that is true then that’s the kind of lesson about personal relations in the book.
“It has something to say about how international relations mirror our personal relations.
“If we don’t get our personal relationships right in the sense of having accord with other people and ourselves and being forgiving and non-vengeful, then we’ll never have international relationships right.”
Dixon of Botany Bay: The Convict Priest from Wexford by Dr Vivienne Keely CHF, can be purchased for $19.95 plus postage from the Parramatta diocese. Call (02) 9683 6277.