Father Julian Tenison Woods is the co-Founder of the Sisters of St Joseph. To honour the centenary of his death, I spent some months of research in the Tasmanian State Library. It was about the years he spent in Tasmania. The results I put into an imaginary interview with him. His answers are the words he actually used.
M A R Y I N A N I M A G I N A R Y I N T E R V I E W
F A T H E R J U L I A N T E N I S O N W O O D S
Mary: Although you died in 1889, Father Julian, I know you are with us in spirit. To tell the story of the two occasions when you spent time in Tasmania, it feels right to conduct it as an interview.
First of all, are you happy for me to call you Father Julian?
Father Julian: Yes, that is most appropriate. It was while I was in Tasmania that people called me Father Julian because there was another Father Charles Woods in the diocese. The use of my Christian name saved confusion.
M. What feelings do you have when you think back on your time in Tasmania?
J. That time was of great significance to me. When I left England, it was Tasmania that acted like a magnet, drawing me to this great Southern Land of the Holy Spirit. Little did I dream, upon my arrival here, that I would never see my homeland again.
My second visit to the island was the high point of my priesthood. There, I experienced its fullness.
M. How did it happen that it was Tasmania that drew you to the Southern Hemisphere?
J. It was my meeting with Lady Shrewsbury. During some time I spent in Europe, it happened that she was holidaying there, too.
M. Why did you go to Europe?
J. At the age of 17, I had set out to become a priest. By 1855, the time I turned 22, I had experienced so many setbacks with my health that the doctor advised me to take a holiday and leave England. It was as I travelled around Europe that I met Lady Shrewsbury.
Then I found work teaching in the college at La Seyne.
There I became friendly with Father Julian Eymard who strongly encouraged me to continue on my path to the priesthood.
“You will find some special design of God, connected with your vocation, ” he remarked.
M. So, Father Julian, do you consider that your meeting with Lady Shrewsbury to be that sign?
J. I do, You see, she was a friend of Bishop Willson of Hobart. Before going out to the colonies, he had been her parish priest in Nottingham.
M. But, as he was so far away, how could your meeting with Lady Shrewsbury bring you together with Bishop Willson?
J. Well, while he was in Van Dieman’s Land, he wore himself out in his struggle to free Tasmania from the stain of the transportation of convicts. His health suffered, and his doctor ordered him to take a long sea voyage. Naturally, he chose to go back to England for a time.
When I returned from my holiday in Europe, I attended Vespers in St George’s Church, one evening. A visiting Bishop was kneeling in the sanctuary. It was Bishop Willson.
Also present at Vespers that evening was Lady Shrewsbury. Nothing would do her but to introduce me to her episcopal friend, the Bishop.
I found him fully recovered and very excited. For one thing, he had heard from the British Government that no more convicts would be sent to Tasmania.
Moreover, he had just returned from Rome where he had attended the ordination of his Hobart protégé, Father John Fitzgerald.
The Bishop was full of praise for the growth of the Church in his tiny colony.
Then he suddenly looked at me: “Why don’t you come out to the colony with us?”
M. What reply did you give to this rather impromptu request, seemingly made on the spur of the moment?
J. I don’t know what possessed me to agree to go. Until that moment, I had looked upon exile to the colonies with the greatest aversion. It seemed to me that it could be undertaken, only in the spirit of most heroic devotion.
M. Can we take it, then, that you went with this spirit of heroic devotion?
J. No, not really. I thought of it as a temporary visit. You know how interested I am in the environment in which God has placed us. I saw this as a chance to examine the marvels of His creation in a different area – new plants, shells, animals, rock formations.
M. How was your trip to Tasmania financed?
J. Any money the Bishop had he had spent on vestments, church furnishings – whatever he needed to set up the churches he hoped to have built in the colony.
However, he found a way of paying the fares for Father John and me. He suggested that we both offer our services to the British Government as Assistant Chaplains in Tasmania’s prisons. Thus we were able to travel free of charge.
M. It seems strange that the Bishop wanted you, still a layman, when it was priests he needed.
J. Yes, true. But the Bishop had a secret hope that he could ordain me after my studies were completed. That is why I spent a lot of time in my cabin on the way out, studying scripture and theology.
M. What more could you tell me about that journey out?
J. On the whole, I felt homesick. I had very little time to farewell my relatives. We were to leave only two weeks after Bishop Willson first asked me to come with him.
On the other hand, there were happy features. It was a fine, new ship, the Berenicia, and this was her maiden voyage. The Bishop had booked a complete saloon for his small party.
Besides himself, there was Father John Fitzgerald, a serving-man for his house, and I. Only one other passenger was on board. The remaining nineteen were crew members.
Often, the seas were rough. Father John suffered from sea-sickness and spent most of his time in his cabin.
I did the same, but it was in order to study. After completing my priestly studies, I would go on to the different branches of mathematics, allowing a set time for algebra, Euclid, trigonometry, logarithms, and equations. This is when I learnt the great value of organising my time in a systematic way. I continued this practice all my life.
That is why, in future years, I was able to find time daily for my prayer and the apostolate, as well as my scientific studies.
M. I find it hard to imagine a man of your calibre staying always in his cabin
J. You are right. The bishop liked Father John and me to take turns about, accompanying him in a walk on the deck.
Father John was so often sick that the task fell mostly to me. Hardly a task! As you have imagined, I loved to observe the changing moods of sky and ocean. And there was the animal life: the whales sailing by; birds perched on the rigging; other things moving in the ocean like the gruesome jetsam of a corpse, and a huge iceberg.
M. Did you learn something about Tasmania in your talks with the Bishop?
J. Yes, especially at meals. The Bishop liked to share his dreams for the diocese. In particular, when Fr John was able to join us, he would discuss what plans he had for him. I learned later of John’s nickname in the island: “the Bishop’s pet.” I could see that Dr Willson was full of praise for his first Australian-born diocesan priest.
We talked a lot about the parish of Campbell Town where the Bishop was going to send Father John.
A classmate of the Bishop’s was the famous architect, Pugin. The Bishop liked to show off the plans he had received from Pugin for a fine Gothic church, the one he wanted Father John to build in Campbell Town. (It is the one that stands there today – of interest to me as I worked as a Parish Sister in Campbell town for about 6 years).
M. What about his plans for you?
J. He constantly spoke about the fact that there was no Catholic institute of learning for boys. He hoped to set up one which he would call St Mary’s Seminary. He spoke of my being a Professor on the staff.
M. I believe that there was a warm welcome awaiting you on your arrival in Hobart Town.
J. Not really for me! Rather, to greet the Bishop returning to his diocese after ten years’ absence. The Vicar-General, who had been in charge of the diocese, led a huge crowd. The Fitzgerald family was there to greet their son who had been overseas for five years.
Military and civic leaders were among the crowd, eager to welcome this compassionate Bishop. He had succeeded in putting an end to the transportation of convicts, raising the colony to a higher level.
Indeed, so many thronged about us that I could never call to mind all the people to whom I was introduced.
It had been a long, long journey. We had set out on October 13, 1854. We dropped anchor in the fine Derwent River on January 20, 1855.
Once we ran out of hosts and wine, we were no longer able to have the Mass. So it was with joy that I joined the crowds as we climbed the Harrington Street hill to St Joseph’s Church.
There, we offered prayers of thanksgiving for our safe arrival.
M. How did you feel about your decision to come to Tasmania, once you had settled into your new way of life?
J. Because I was a Government employee, I was assigned good living quarters, excellent food rationing, and a horse of my own.
I must say that Hobart is a beautiful town, nestling at the foot of Mount Wellington. It was Summer, and the skies were as blue as ever I’d seen. I loved the atmosphere of quiet peacefulness.
But, on the other hand, I still felt homesick. I missed my family and friends on the other side of the world. And I missed the city life of London. Here, there was only a sprinkling of houses, with grass growing in the streets.
Even the peacefulness was shattered, once I took up my work among the convicts.
M. What was your first experience with the convicts in Tasmania?
J. In Hobart, there were three prisons for me to visit.
One was for convicts who had received a second sentence here. For them, I had to lead Morning and Evening Prayers each day.
The other two prisons, one for hardened convicts, and the other, the military prison, I had to visit frequently.
There were the outlying prisons as well, the main one being at Port Arthur. I was also to call on them whenever I could.
I found I was, in general, unable to appeal to these convicts. Instead, many of them liked to see me, a young man, as a new chum whom they could make the most of. After a visit, I often found little things filched from my pockets.
What I disliked particularly were the funeral services for the deceased convicts. Cold, heartless affairs, they were – with rough, unpainted boxes for coffins, unnamed; and holes, carelessly dug by fellow convicts.
I tried to bring solace to those in solitary confinement. But, with excessive cruelty still prevalent, I found that I could do little for these embittered men and women.
M. What about your teaching experience in Tasmania? That would surely be more suited to a person of your disposition, Father Julian?
J. Not at all! It seems that the Bishop’s idea of a Professor, and mine, differed. Once his dream of St Mary’s Seminary was started, it was overcrowded with small boys, the children of the soldiers. the businessmen, the civic leaders, and the farmers of the little colony. I was hardly an educator; I felt more like, as we would say in the 20th century, a baby-sitter.
This in no way suited me, and I let the Bishop know this, quite definitely.
M. You must have felt like heading back to England at this point?
J. I did, But I decided that, through the circumstances of my life, God would reveal to me what to do. I would go to St Mary’s Cathedral, whenever I could. I would sit there before the Blessed Sacrament and pray for the guidance of the Spirit.
I used to notice one little girl, coming in to make a visit. Years later, she wrote to me about how intrigued she was by my motionless posture, curtailing her inclination to go for a romp in God’s house.
What I was trying to do was to sit quietly in God’s presence, allowing Him to show me what I was to do.
M. Did He give you another sign?
J. Well, yes. It was an unfortunate one for the victims. There was an outbreak of scarlet fever in the school where I was teaching. It had to be temporarily closed. That gave me my chance to go.
Of course, the Bishop was very disappointed in me. He had made it possible for me to come to Tasmania; and here I was, wanting to go again, after I had been there for only a couple of months.
M. It seems that you would be stranded, with no money, and nowhere to go.
J. No. My eldest brother, Edward, was living in Melbourne where he was a journalist with the Melbourne Argus. I wrote to him early in March, 1856.
A reply came on March 11: “If the job is not what you were led to expect, of course, leave! Come to Melbourne, where you can be sure of a welcome.”
Later, this same brother, Edward, paid my fare to go to Adelaide where another brother, James, was now living, with his wife, Catherine. I accepted. Thus, by following where God’s plan was leading me, I finally reached Adelaide.
I believe that is where God wanted me all the time. It was there that I was able to achieve great things, enabling me to play my part in helping the Kingdom of God to come to Australia.
It was there, also, that the sword of sorrow pierced my soul.
M. And so ended your first short period in our island of Tasmania. At least, it was the means of bringing you to our country!
But, then, you came again. You said that this second visit marked the high point of your priesthood. Why do you say that?
J. So often, I am remembered, and judged, for my part in founding the Sisters of St Joseph and the Sisters of Perpetual Adoration. My historians forget what was the real goal of my life.
It was not to be a Founder; it was to be a Priest.
All my years of searching, of anguish, of hopes and disappointments – it all came to a glorious climax on January 4, 1857. It was the day of my ordination to the priesthood.
M. Before we move on to your second visit to Tasmania, Father Julian, we would like to hear what steps led to your reaching the priesthood.
J. When I arrived in Adelaide, I found myself well accepted by the Younger Set. A man of 23, I played the piano, enjoyed singing, and conversing at social gatherings. It was nice to find that young ladies were drawn to me. I even came close to making a proposal!
But the old desire for the priesthood, which had guided my life before I left England, was still in my heart. It urged me to visit Bishop Murphy, of Adelaide. He arranged for me to attend the Jesuit Seminary at Sevenhill.
I went there, with alacrity and delight. And so it was that Bishop Murphy ordained me at St Patrick’s, West Terrace, the only Catholic church in Adelaide at that time.
M. However, it was not until 1874 that you came to visit our island again, to experience here the fullness of your priesthood?
J. True! With all my heart, I longed to do the missionary work of the Church, to play my part in spreading the Good News.
But I was unable to devote much of my time to this aspect of the apostolate because of the direction my life took.
Seeing the needs of the country children in South Australia’s outback, and through my meeting with Mary MacKillop, I felt called to found, with Mary, the Sisters of St Joseph.
There were anxieties and heartaches arising from my appointment to be the Director of Education. Add this to the ups and downs of launching the new Congregation of Sisters, and you can understand why I felt removed from the fullness of my priesthood.
Then came a call to return to Tasmania. It was like an oasis in my desert of suffering and rejection.
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(Part 2 of this Imaginary Interview will cover Father Julian’s second period in Tasmania).