One Hundred and Fifty Years since the death of Bishop William Willson

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Home > Archbishop > Homilies > One Hundred and Fifty Years since the death of Bishop William Willson

This significant memorial crept up on us – or at least on me as Archbishop of Hobart. The founding bishop of this diocese, Bishop William Willson, died on 30th June, 1866, one hundred and fifty years ago today. It is most fitting that we honour this milestone with our Mass tonight in this his Cathedral which he commenced in 1860. It is a pity that we have not done more to give appropriate focus on this great man.

He has captured my attention since being appointed eleventh bishop of Hobart. I chose to carry his crosier when I was installed as Archbishop in September 2013. This began my relationship with him. The more I have come to know of him the more I am humbled to be a successor of this extraordinary man and inspirational bishop and Church leader.

He was an Englishman. Of him it has been remarked by the eminent British historian Philip Hughes that he was “undoubtedly a great man, that rare figure indeed in our modern Catholic history, who has exercised a real influence upon the public social development of his time”. Hughes also noted that Willson was the striking exception to the eminent Cardinal Manning’s judgment that “in all the great English humanitarian activity of the early nineteenth century there was no Catholic name”.

William Willson was born in 1794. When, in early adulthood he first felt the stirrings of a religious vocation he never dreamed of doing more than entering as a humble lay brother in some monastery. However, the great Bishop Milner convinced him to study for the priesthood, and he was ordained in 1824. He was assigned to the Catholic mission in Nottingham. Catholics were still under suspicion and suffered under many restrictions in England at this time. He had only a diminutive chapel, a small room at the end of a blind alley, in which to celebrate Mass with his parishioners. Such was his apostolic zeal that his flock expanded rapidly and he was obliged to build a church, designed by his architect brother, which was completed in 1828. This was soon outgrown and he embarked upon the construction of a great church designed by his architect friend Pugin which was opened in 1844. The largest Catholic church to be built in England since the Reformation, it would later become the Cathedral of St Barnabas.

His parish duties led him to take an interest in prisons and those in lunatic asylums (as they were then called). This began a lifelong quest to improve the conditions of the inmates in these institutions. He had a practical social conscience and was accepted by all men of goodwill for his absolute lack of religious bigotry. Thus the Nottingham Corporation, all Protestants, could state in their 1842 testimonial to the Pope begging that Willson not be taken from their midst to Van Diemen’s Land, that his “clerical influence, and excellent character, give him an extraordinary personal influence over the classes of the community where such influence is particularly important.”

He was appointed bishop of the new See of Hobart Town, Tasmania, in 1842, the second diocese formed in the new colonies in the antipodes. What would he have experienced as he stepped ashore on 14 May 1844? The words of the Gospel tonight may give some clue: “When he saw the crowds he felt sorry for them because they were harassed and dejected, like sheep without a shepherd”. Indeed, one of the party who accompanied him on the voyage from England noted: “Amongst the first beings we saw, were a lot of prisoners, a long string of them, marching two abreast to Mass. There were between two and three hundred of them, forlorn, wretched-looking men.” He faced the challenge of a diocese composed chiefly of convicts. His work to improve their lot and ensure appropriate respect for the religious freedom of Catholics occupied his ministry. He travelled to England to seek improvement to the convict system. He visited Norfolk Island and was further spurred on in seeking reform.

Of course his particular work was to establish the Catholic Church in Tasmania. He established parishes, engaged the services of priests, introduced religious sisters. He came to gain increasing respect among the people of this island, both Catholic and Protestant, just as he had done during his nineteen years in Nottingham. He was not without many trials including struggles with the strong and idiosyncratic Fr John Joseph Therry who served here prior to his arrival and found it difficult to accept the authority of the new bishop.

He took several trips to England but always intended to live out his years of retirement in Tasmania. Despite his universally acclaimed reputation for humanitarian works he was refused a pension by the Imperial Government, so he came up with a novel solution for an income in retirement. Through a lay intermediary he purchased a ‘pub’. The building still exists on the corner of Brisbane and Harrington Streets, close to his cathedral. On a final trip back to England in 1865 he suffered a severe stroke and died a year later, unable to return to his diocese. He is buried in the crypt of St Barnabas’ Cathedral, Nottingham.

He is our first bishop. He should be present here in Hobart. We are about to undertake works to complete the crypt. I have commenced proceedings to bring his body back home to Hobart and have him interred in the crypt.
The reading from St Paul this evening is appropriate for this holy priest and bishop and captures I believe the spirit of his life and ministry: “People must think of us as Christ’s servants, stewards entrusted with the mysteries of God”.

He was an apostolic priest and a dedicated bishop who sought first to care for the needs of his people and who simply saw himself as Christ’s servant. Indeed he was.

I hope that before the year is out we may be able to welcome him back to his diocese and give him a resting place among us.

Archbishop Julian Porteous
Wednesday, June 29, 2016