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Frank Tenison Brennan on Julian Tenison Woods

Frank Brennan |  25 May 2010

We come to commemorate a remarkable priest who travelled Australia extensively in his all too brief life, he having died before his 57th birthday. I am delighted to accept the invitation of the Penola Parish Pastoral Council, the Penola Branch of the Knights of the Southern Cross, the Gartner family and the relatives of Fr Julian Tenison Woods to participate in this blessing and unveiling of sculptures here in Fr Woods Park. I acknowledge the Pinjunga people, the traditional owners of this place and I am delighted to meet Valerie Brennan who is here representing the Indigenous people of this region.

Others here will attest his great contribution to science, to Catholic education in South Australia, and to the development of the Sisters of St Joseph. I come to acknowledge his relationship with the Jesuits, his concern for the plight of indigenous Australians, and his contribution to the fledgling church in remoter parts of Australia where new migrants were doing it tough trying to live a life of faith and service.

His early attempts at religious life took him to the Passionists and the Marists. Only after migrating to Australia and deciding to seek out his brother in Adelaide did he make sustained contact with the Jesuits — at Sevenhill in the Clare Valley. Fr Tappeiner SJ accompanied him on the path to prompt ordination. Julian befriended Fr John Hinteroecker SJ who like Woods was a very European naturalist. These two made scientific expeditions together and maintained contact until Hinteroecker died in 1872. In later years Woods became suspicious of Jesuit spirituality which he thought diluted the original vision of poverty and obedience for the Sisters of St Joseph. But he always held the Jesuits he knew in high regard. I am sure he would be well pleased with the contribution made by Fr Paul Gardiner SJ to the forthcoming canonisation of Mary MacKillop.

During his ten years at Penola he encountered first hand the plight of Aboriginal Australians in the 19th century colonial Australian bush. During his last year there, he put a proposal to Fr Smyth, the Vicar General, for the care of Aboriginal Australians. He proposed the construction of a hospital which could accommodate the relatives of the patients nearby. Smyth was very wary in response:

I read with peculiar pleasure your intention to try something for the amelioration of the poor blacks' condition in the district of Penola. For such an enterprise as you have shadowed forth in your letter great prudence as well as great zeal will be necessary, lest by aiming at too much the whole plan fall by its own weight.

Smyth seems to have been aware that Woods was about to be transferred back to Adelaide, He asked, 'What is exactly your idea? Could it be taken up by your successor in that district and be carried out by him?' Smyth said, 'In my opinion the attempt at permanence with failure is far less desirable than desultory or transitory charity with the measure of success which necessarily attends it.'

A month later the Border Watch sent a correspondent to report on the situation in Penola. The correspondent reported on the three major grievances of the local community as expressed by Fr Woods. The main complaint was the perennial concern about the mail delivery service. But the second grievance was 'the state of the aboriginal population, which I am assured is a disgrace to a Christian community'. The third grievance — education — was one which Woods would address once he was transferred to Adelaide as Director of Catholic Education for the whole colony. The correspondent reports:

The Crown Lands Ranger, Mr Egan, is the nominal protector of the blacks, and under him the police at various places dispense the rations. The whole thing, however, is done in a clumsy and perfunctory manner. The police are the worst persons the Government could appoint to give out the rations as the poor blacks have a natural dread of these gentlemen. A case recently occurred here when some of the natives obtained grog and got drunk, and because they would not inform the police where they obtained the drink, the rations of the whole company were stopped for a fortnight. One poor creature actually died of starvation. Father Woods heard of the case, and visited the poor fellow, and gave him medicine and food, but he was too far gone — the man died from sheer inanition. The protection of the aborigines in the South-East I am assured is a mere farce, and the question is asked why Dr Walker does not come down frequently and look after them.

Ten days later, Woods wrote a very spirited letter to The Register which excited many responses with the result that it was then reprinted in full in the Border Watch on 27 June 1866. Woods wrote, 'I have no doubt that your able correspondent is substantially correct in his account of my conversation with him at his recent visit to Penola; but as my complaint, as now published, seems liable to some little apprehension, perhaps you will allow me to add a few words of explanation.' He started with a rehearsal of the deficiencies in the mail system but then wrote at length about the treatment of Aborigines. He wrote:

Your correspondent has called attention to the sad state of the natives in this district. Well I say most conscientiously that a more hideous crying evil does not exist among Christians. These poor savages, often degraded and diseased by the vices of — shall we call it civilization — are left to die in our midst of starvation. I do not believe that I should obtain credence for one half the misery I have seen among these poor, helpless, lost creatures. I have seen them dying of starvation within a stone's throw of abundance and luxury. I have seen them so corroded by disease that they might be said to be rotting away even in life, and there was none to give them aid. I have even found one lying in the water, where he had been left by his companions, whose emaciated condition would not enable them to carry him further through a morass. I have known them to die of cold, of starvation, and of drunkenness; and all these things amongst men who had grown rich on their lands and boasted of the Christian name.

Now, I am well aware that the blacks will be degraded no matter what we do, because they are savages. I know, too, that their mode of life was one which entailed much suffering and misery before we came near them at all. But I say that if there were degraded before, we have degraded them more. If they were miserable at first, they are now more miserable than ever, and I do assert most vehemently that we are bound to do something for them; if only to smooth their path to the grave. True, the Government does something, but a more wretched inefficient system could not be devised. Here is a specimen — Our principal Protector here is the Crown Lands Ranger. He lives with his son who keeps a public house. It is a wayside inn far from any police protection — at least 18 miles. Here the rations are kept, and here the blacks congregate in numbers, and there also congregate the usual society of a bush public-house. Alas! I have often wished that there were no rations there at all.

Here is another instance. Blankets are or should be provided for the natives. The other day a poor native, dying at my place, suffered much from cold. I applied for blankets for him. Yes, I was told there were blankets, but they were at Robe — 75 miles from here. Another instance. This native died — a good, poor lad, with many fine points in his character, savage though he was, and I wished to have him buried with some respect to his human nature, and thought that Christ had shed his blood for him as for all. Oh yes, he could be buried at Government expense, but no coffin would be allowed. What, then? A cart. Could he have blankets? They were at Robe. Could he have any covering? The Government would not pay for it. Poor Tommy! He sleeps in an old cloak of mine; his pillow, I trust, none the harder for the treatment of his more civilized brethren.

I have often thought of writing to the Commissioner of Crown Lands to take the rations from the police and from the public house, and of asking for some sort of supervision to see that justice is done in the distribution. I have even thought that their flour rations should be made into bread for them, because flour is useless often to the sick and to the aged. I have, I say, thought of all this, but to whom would I write. Let anyone turn over the official correspondence of Adelaide and see has the idea occurred to any one before and has anything been done or even an answer returned? O, good Christian people of Adelaide, who respect your characters as men of humanity, and wish your names to go down to posterity with something better than execration for your treatment of this fast-fading race, do something for them in the name of God. If you only saw their state; if you only saw their rations. But I have said enough — for I feel sure that better days are in store.

He then added this postscript:

I should like to add the names of those settlers in the district who have distinguished themselves above all others in their care of the blacks, and their unfailing kindness to them. They are — Messrs. Lawson, Bonney, and McLeod, in the Tatiara; Messrs. Henry Jones, James Hunter, and Andrew Watson for the rest of the district.

His first major biographer, the Jesuit George O'Neill wrote in 1929: '[Woods'] experiences with the aborigines were, however, not numerous or remarkable.' Fourteen years after leaving Penola, Woods wrote from Townsville in 1881 after his visit to the tin mines in far north Queensland:

I made one expedition with the native troopers to try and open up some friendly communication with the natives. We had a very fatiguing search for them, but at last stole on them at night near Cape Grafton. After some hesitation, with the help of a little boy who could speak their language, we got them to lay aside their arms and sit down with us. There were eighteen of them — all most miserably poor and wretched specimens of humanity. We gave them fishing lines, hooks, shirts and blankets. We gave them food., too, which they did not much relish, the bread particularly, nor would they touch it till we ate some of it.

Meanwhile on 10 July 1863, the 40-year-old Irish widow Annie Brennan had arrived in Maryborough Queensland on board the David McIvor with her five children including Martin aged 11. Martin's brother Patrick then aged 18 was later to go into partnership with Martin Geraghty who married another of the Brennan children, Catherine. In 1871 the Brennan and Geraghty store was built — they were importers of general merchandise. The store is a National Trust building in Maryborough to this day.

When Tenison Woods was no longer welcome in the south, he came and conducted many scientific expeditions and parish missions in Queensland. He passed through Maryborough on about 10 occasions between 1872 and 1881. In February 1881, he conducted a parish mission in Maryborough over many days. Family folklore has it that he got Martin Brennan off the grog and back to church. Martin was my great-grandfather. My grandfather was then born almost four years later. The effects of the mission must have been long lasting as my grandfather was named Frank Tenison Brennan, as am I. I can only presume that ours is not the only Catholic family in Australia owing an inter-generational debt to the peripatetic priest scientist who always combined scientific inquiry with sacramental service in the most remote parts of the country.

Four generations on, I am delighted to be here in Penola to pay tribute to 'this creative, enigmatic and sometimes controversial figure', Julian Tenison Woods. Sr Margaret Press RSJ who would love to be here today says of Woods: 'He was a man of his times, yet beneath the outwardly recognisable exterior of Victorian gentleman-scholar-missionary can be clearly recognised those timeless qualities which belong to the Kingdom.'8 May Tenison Woods long speak to us at the interface between science and spirituality, with a passion for justice and a surety 'that better days are in store' for all, including Aboriginal Australians and new migrants like Annie Brennan and her kids seeking a fresh start.


Frank BrennanFrank Brennan SJ is professor of law at the Australian Catholic University and Adjunct Professor at the Australian National University. The statues at the Julian Tenison Woods Park, carved from the trunks of pine trees planted in 1951, were unveiled and blessed on Sunday 23 May by Archbishop Phillip Wilson. 

 



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