The Dominicans – 1923 to 1948

An extract from an unpublished history of the Dominican Friars in Australia by Fr T P Fitzgerald O.P.

“…….Perhaps to convince the Province in Ireland of the continuing viability of the Australian Foundation the fathers, led by Fr Hogan in 1923 approached the Archbishops of Sydney (Archbishop Michael Kelly) and Melbourne (Archbishop Daniel Mannix) for permission to make foundations in their Diocese.

Archbishop Spence supported these moves and cabled Ireland to encourage the Provincial to authorize these steps.

A cable to Fr Hogan from Father (later Archbishop of Port of Spain) Finbar Ryan gave the necessary permissions: “You have full authority to act concerning Melbourne and Sydney. Master General has cabled his consent”.

No doubt Archbishop Spence’s cable had had the desired effect and help to overcome the reluctance in Ireland to approve the accepting new foundations.


So, in November 1923 Fr Raphael Oxenham took up residence in Helensburg, in the Archdiocese of Sydney. He would later remark halfway through his long tenure there “Out of Helensburg there is no redemption”.

We are indebted once again to the house Chronicle of St Laurence’s and to the addition made by Fr F X Corry in 1950 for our information about the foundation in Helensburg (though canonically it never was a foundation) from its beginnings in 1923 to its closure in 1948.

Helensburg is a small mining township on the south Coast of New South Wales. It is 32 miles from Sydney and it was well known when the Dominicans went there for its Sanatorium for the treatment of tuberculosis. The Parish in the care of the secular clergy was founded in 1913-14.

As Fr Corry notes “It is merely accurate to say that neither our secular predecessors nor ourselves ever found the parish self-supporting and it is known the four secular pastors who preceded us had to be subsidized by the Arthbishop”. (Chronicle).

This should come as no surprise to the Dominicans. In a letter to Fr Hogan of 26 January, 1924, a copy of which is in the North Adelaide archives, Archbishop Kelly had written “Until the population becomes normal for a separate district the Father in charge will not be bound to residence as Pastor. It will suffice to have someone ready for sick calls, etc.” He goes on to describe the qualities he expected in “the conductors of missions and retreats: “In the selection of missionaries the appreciation of the clergy and of the religious counts much with us.”

Obviously His Grace welcomed a group of priests who would be self supporting in Helensburg, not needing to be subsidized by him!

Whatever his motives he made no alternative offer to us during our twenty five years there, and despite many requests for a more suitable foundation.

Although Fr Hogan incurred a good deal of criticism from the brethren for accepting a parish so far from the city of Sydney, and likely to be a strain on the finances of the Order, the Fathers were faithful to the work of the parish and also made use of Helensburg as a base of operations for preaching and retreats.

A telegram from the Dominican Sisters of Strathfield and Waratah gave the Fathers “a hearty welcome to NSW to the sons of St Dominic”, a welcome with its implied promise of support and encouragement which still remains after more than three quarters of our first century in Australia.

Fr Corry lists the Fathers who lived and worked in Helensburg from 1923 to 1948.

As recorded the “founding Father” was Fr Raphael Oxenham whose service lasted for 18 years.

Other names in the record are Fr Benedict O’Sullivan who as Vicar Provincial lived there for some time. Fr Rupert Roche, a former chaplain in the British Army who won the Military Cross in Archangel at the end of the Great War. He was engaged in giving missions. Fr James O’Doherty lived there briefly in 1925. Fr Nicholas Baldwin was in charge of the parish (such as it was). Fr Colman Kean was in charge from 1932-35. Fr Albert Fogarty gave missions from there. Fr Antoninus Costello was in charge from 1944-48. Fr Joachim O’Sullivan and Fr Edward O’Leary formed a mission staff, and Fr David Lewis was in charge in 1948 until the parish was handed back to the Archdiocese in exchange for that of Wahroonga.

The story is told of Fr David Lewis, formerly a Squadron Leader Chaplain in the R.A.F and who, quite illegally, used to wear his Royal Air Force uniform on any and every occasion, having a glass of beer thrown over him in a local hotel bar by someone, a miner perhaps, who did not like officers, especially Royal Air Force officers. This incident, not unnaturally, did little to increase Fr David’s already less than favourable opinion of Australian natives!

Fr Corry notes further that “frequent efforts were also made to induce the Archbishop (who was a relative of Fr McEvoy) to allow us to occupy another place in the Archdiocese, but these were unavailing so long as Archbishop Kelly lived.

The Fathers resisted the temptation to withdraw from Helensburg altogether fearing that to do so “might exclude us either permanently or for many years to come” from Sydney.

Archbishop Kelly died in 1940 and Fr McEvoy, because he was a relative of the late Archbishop was given permission by the Railway authorities who were restricting all rail travel to defence personnel, to travel to Sydney for the Archbishop’s funeral.

In December, 1948 Helensburg was handed back to the Archdiocese, Archbishop Norman Gilroy, later Cardinal Sir Norman Gilroy, having offered the Dominicans the parish of Wahroonga.”