Exactly 200 years ago this month, Fr Jeremiah O’Flynn—the only Catholic priest in the colony of Sydney—was arrested and deported, as a way of keeping the troublesome Irish Catholics in check.
Before he boarded the ship however, Fr O’Flynn left behind something that would give enormous consolation to the Catholics of the colony—the Blessed Sacrament.
“[As a priest] you do what’s necessary,” says Fr Michael Whelan SM, Parish Priest of St Patrick’s Parish in the Rocks. “He saw the plight of these people… Plus he was Irish. It’s in their blood.”
It is believed that in May 1818—in true Irish style—the rebellious Fr O’Flynn left the Blessed Sacrament at the home of either William Davis or James Dempsey. Fr O’Flynn regularly celebrated clandestine Masses in the homes of both men.
Both Davis and Dempsey were Irish convicts transported to Australia for allegedly taking part in anti-British activities. Both their homes were in the vicinity of St Patrick’s Church in the Rocks, as it stands today.
Tradition has it that after losing their only priest, and therefore access to the sacraments, the Catholics of the colony would congregate together, in one or both of these houses, to pray before the Eucharist.
When the foundation stone of St Patrick’s Church was laid in 1840, Archbishop John Bede Polding—first Archbishop of Sydney and first bishop in Australia—was recorded as saying, “See that cottage! There twenty years ago was our religion cradled and concealed, there its mysteries worshipped.”
While many believe the Archbishop was referring to Davis’ cottage, others think Dempsey’s house the more likely candidate.
Australian artist Paul Newton depicted in one of his paintings the Catholic community of Sydney in 1818 praying before the Blessed Sacrament in a private home.
“It’s a beautiful painting and it epitomises what we’re celebrating—the lay faithful gather around the Eucharist, forming a Eucharistic community and keeping the faith alive against the odds,” Fr Whelan said.
This Sunday 6 May at 12pm Archbishop Anthony Fisher OP will be joined by numerous bishops, priests and parishioners as he celebrates Mass at St Patrick’s Church in the Rocks to mark 200 years of the Preservation of the Blessed Sacrament in Australia.
There will also be an exhibition of precious relics and historical items in the church’s crypt, including a pyx (vessel used to transport the Eucharist) dating back to 1818 and candlesticks from the Davis home.