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Beverley Zimmerman. The Making of a Diocese: Maitland, its bishop, priests and people 1866-1909.

BEVERLEY ZIMMERMAN. The Making of a Diocese: Maitland, its bishop, priests and people 1866-1909. Melbourne, Melbourne University Press, 2000; xvi + 252 pages.

This book has its genesis in a doctoral thesis undertaken at the University of New England. It has much to recommend it in the scope and particularity with which the supporting research was undertaken, put in context and shaped into a readable and informative whole. Needless to say, such local studies provide the bedrock on which a more comprehensive and nuanced history of Catholicism in Australia will be progressively based. Beverley Zimmerman knows her diocese well and from that base offers both a factual account of its development and much interpretation of the factors and human agencies which initially enabled and then fashioned this development.

The time frame of the study is established by the episcopal reign of Maitland's first resident bishop, James Murray. After ecclesiastical studies in Rome, teaching experience in the college of his cousin, James Quinn, in Dublin and a period as secretary to Archbishop (later Cardinal) Cullen, he was appointed, aged 37, as Bishop of Maitland. Murray--capable, strong, discerning and shrewd--was to remain the focal figure in the diocese until his widely lamented death in 1909. The research on Murray's life is careful, and the resulting estimate of his character, style and influence a rounded one. This is somewhat a 'domestic' portrait of Murray: the scope of the study does not permit a fuller analysis of his intervention and influence in the wider field of Australian church politics. Nor does it mention that on at least two occasions Murray appeared likely to resign the diocese.

Successive chapters deal with topics such as 'The People', 'The Secular Clergy', 'Hard-headed Spirituality and Soft-hearted Piety', 'Schooling: Status, Opportunity and Hierarchy' and 'Religious Daughters of the Diocese'. The latter reference is to the three groups of women religious whom Murray brought to the diocese: the Dominicans in 1867, the Sisters of Mercy in 1875--both founding communities coming from Ireland, and diocesan Josephite Sisters from the Bathurst diocese. For each of these, the bishop had a clearly defined area of educational ministry in mind. While all taught children in their local parish schools, the Dominicans with their long teaching tradition established leading boarding schools for the well-to-do in the largest urban centres in the diocese, the Mercy Sisters, apart from their similar boarding school in Singleton, provided day high schools in developing regional towns, while the Josephites, true to the inspiration of Mary MacKillop and Julian Tenison Woods, went into the smallest settlements where they staffed primary schools for otherwise spiritually and often materially deprived local children.

Beverley Zimmerman's chapter on 'The People', based on a range of research material and statistically supported, is an excellent model of a local study; it also corroborates the findings of other in-depth regional studies in Australia. The leading Catholics of the Maitland diocese were well established and well-to-do. They knew what they were doing as they sought, and continued to support, new parishes and schools across the far-flung diocese. They were also intent on playing their part in the developing civic and social life of these areas. While seeking to preserve a distinctive faith and culture, they claimed full integration in colonial society and its aspirations. As the author is aware, this came to create some ambivalences later.

The statistics for priests in the diocese are interesting: 13% had attended Italian seminaries; 2% came from St Charles' Seminary in Bathurst and St Patrick's, Manly; 28% were from All Hallows, Dublin, while 57% came from six other Irish colleges (p.70). While these figures reflect Murray's careful selection of his clergy, they belie the generalised picture which has often been given of almost all Irish-born priests in Australia coming from the one missionary college of All Hallows.

The author is at pains to offer interpretations of the facts she presents, especially in terms of power and class. Some of these appear a little facile; for example, on p.82 she speaks of Catholic communities petitioning Murray to supply them with a priest, 'for without one they could not attain forgiveness or heaven'. One wonders how these hardy people, here seemingly so fearful, were able to venture into the remote priestless areas they did. On p.100 there is reference to 'the miracle of papal acceptance' of centralised government for the Australian Josephite Sisters. From the 1850s on, in the developing Roman policy of the time, new religious institutes seeking papal approbation were required to be centralised, as evinced in the experience of many 19th century foundations.

This book remains a significant and, I feel, a ground-breaking study.

Rosa MacGinley pbvm
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Author:MacGinley, Rosa
Publication:Journal of the Australian Catholic Historical Society
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Jan 1, 2001
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