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Dempsey family treasures find a home at St Mary’s Cathedral

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Images by Giovanni Portelli Photography © 2024

As a child Marguerite Conaghan would watch her grandmother Marguerite Dempsey light candles in the gleaming candlesticks kept on her sideboard in the hallway of her home whenever someone needed prayers.

Those same candlesticks along with a crucifix lovingly prayed with and handed down through the Dempsey family for generations have now been transferred into the safekeeping of the Catholic Archdiocese of Sydney.

Their well-known ancestor James Dempsey was a stonemason who oversaw the building of Sydney’s first bridge, barracks and hospital.

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His home was a gathering place for Catholics of the early colony during the years when there was no priest.

With the arrival of Fr John Joseph Therry in 1820, Dempsey helped to build the first St Mary’s Cathedral.

His candlesticks and crucifix are among the first known sacramental items of Australia’s first Catholics.

Dean of St Mary’s Cathedral Fr Don Richardson said it was a privilege to receive them.

“They’re part of the whole story of the church in Sydney and connected very closely to the origins of the cathedral,” he said.

Descendants of James Dempsey, Helen Turner, Marguerite Conaghan and Yvette Conaghan. Images by Giovanni Portelli Photography © 2024

“They help us to anchor the present in the past and I hope they will help people to connect not only with the historical origins of the Catholic Church here but with real faith and the handing on of that to new generations.

“In the Dempsey family we see a real model of that for the future.”

Lienntje Cornelissen, archdiocesan archivist said it had been an “absolute delight” to work with Yvette Conaghan, Marguerite Dempsey’s daughter, on the transfer.

“I’m in awe of the trust that the Dempsey family has shown in passing over these extremely significant artefacts to the care of the archdiocese,” she said.

Representatives of the large Dempsey clan met at Cathedral House on 25 June to deliver the precious items.

“My mother would be very happy to see them brought here, as would my cousin Veronica who couldn’t make it today but said her mother’s wish was that these resided at St Mary’s,” said Yvette.

“Faith was really important in our family, and my mother was so excited when the crucifix and candles came back to live at our house, but they had been given to us to look after as we had the Dempsey name.”

In 2017 Archbishop Anthony Fisher OP instituted the Dempsey Medal in honour of the lay Catholic pioneer who had been transported to Sydney in 1802 for his involvement in the Vinegar Hill rebellion in Ireland’s County Wexford, and later pardoned.

It is awarded each year to Sydney Catholics who have made outstanding contributions in parishes and the wider community. This year the treasured items will be on display at the Mass.

“James’ religion meant everything to him and it’s really special to have a medal in his memory because he did so much in the early days in the church to help people,” said Yvette.

“It’s very much a continuation of James’ work, his faith and his philosophy on life.”

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