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Pioneer of justice

Bishop Robert Willson

 

Pioneer of justice

IN a comprehensive set of plans for the restoration of St Mary’s Cathedral in Hobart, a crypt is to be excavated under a new narthex, where the remains of the first bishop will be re-interred from their current burial place in the crypt of St Barnabas’ Cathedral in Nottingham, England.

He was laid to rest there 140 years ago, but the saintly prelate’s final resting place will be in the diocese he founded, the second oldest in Australia.

Robert William Willson (1794-1866), pioneer Catholic bishop and outstanding social worker in Van Diemen’s Land (Tasmania), came to the colony in 1844.

Born at Lincoln, England, the third son of William James Willson, a builder, and Clarissa Tenney, he was educated at the local grammar school and Oscott College, where he was ordained a priest in 1824. He served as pastor of Nottingham for the next 20 years.

In Tasmania from 1844-65, Bishop Willson distinguished himself working assiduously among convicts, who formed the bulk of the Catholic population.

Constant horseback visitation of 35 scattered probation stations, the penitentiary at Port Arthur, gaols, hospitals and houses of correction, led the prelate to enunciate major principals of penology.

He became convinced of the need to promote “an efficient system of moral culture” in the rehabilitation of transported criminals.

At least a third of the bishop’s prison “flock” was composed of women, whom he encouraged to become decent wives and mothers.

He frequently championed their cause when they complained to him of unjust and harsh treatment in the “female factories” and on board a hulk anchored in the Derwent River.

In 1847, Bishop Willson returned to the home country where he told the British Parliament the horrifying truth about convict culture on Norfolk Island.

His first-hand revelations of torture and excessive cruelty directly brought about its abandonment as a harsh penal settlement.

While willing to trace out specific areas of reform, Bishop Willson staunchly opposed the British transportation system as “a mode of punishment unlawful for a Christian nation knowingly to inflict”.

He pointed out that there was no punishment short of death more dreaded by convicts than exile to Van Diemen’s Land.

As a Christian social reformer, the first Catholic bishop of Hobart stressed the need for meditation, spiritual reading and counselling in the painful process of moral enlightenment and improvement of wretched felons.

He personally attended dozens of condemned criminals at the scaffold and left no stone unturned to obtain a reversal of decisions whereby capital offenders had been unjustly convicted.

In ferreting out concealed abuses within the colonial penal department, Bishop Willson, an experienced and evangelically motivated churchman, ensured that the full glare of a searching episcopal spotlight was brought to bear on the whole system.

He strongly objected to corporal punishment as degrading and counterproductive and succeeded in gaining abolition of the inhuman lash, as well as a ban on the hideous tube-gag, employed as an extreme form of punishment for convicts caught using blasphemous or obscene language.

The Tasmanian also intervened in NSW, where his “fearful” tale of extensive homosexual practices in dungeon-like “living tombs” rocked public opinion.

His keen interest in penal reform extended as far as Italy and England.

In 1847, at the express invitation of Pope Pius IX, he reported on shocking conditions in Rome’s overcrowded and insanitary Via Julia prison.

The same year the English Catholic Vicars Apostolic asked Bishop Willson to set out principles of prison reform based on his colonial experience, to be presented to the British Government.

Despite pressing poverty in the new diocese, Bishop Willson invited three Irish Sisters of Charity to assist dissolute and uncouth women convicts in Hobart and conduct a school for the poor.

By 1853, worn out by arduous work for prisoners and crushed by the enervating effects of an ongoing dispute over Church debts, he went back to Europe for two years of sick leave.

On returning to the colony, Bishop Willson launched a new energetic apostolate to the insane in three Australian colonies – Tasmania, Victoria and NSW.

Pushing with great enthusiasm, scientifically advanced ideas on day-to-day management of the mentally ill, as well as questions of siting and accommodation at asylums, he won wide community acclaim for outstanding success.

His name became a household word around Australia as a leader in the moral and social rehabilitation of such afflicted people. Melbourne’s Kew Asylum was built on a site selected by him.

As a community leader of a struggling Church, Bishop Willson sponsored Sunday catechetical classes, mainly for children from the ragged schools and fostered Catholic education on the larger towns.

He fought strenuously against discrimination in order to gain an equitable distribution of state aid, proportionate to his Church’s population, for his clergy.

Despite the bishop’s unusual degree of tolerance, which was appreciated within the colonial community, interdenominational relationships during his episcopate were generally marked by hostility and bigotry.

The Anglican prelate denounced him and his Church from the altar of St David’s Cathedral.

Bishop Willson intervened to help the Irish political exiles, Smith O’Brien, Kevin O’Doherty, Terence McManus and Patrick O’Donohoe.

Traits of character which played a crucial part in Bishop Willson’s overall pastoral achievements, which included the founding of 12 parishes, included a rich sense of humour, dogged refusal to take the course of expedience in ecclesiastical or community affairs, and constant recourse to Bible reading and prayer.

He suffered a severe stroke in 1865 on a voyage to England, where he died the following year.

He was buried in the crypt of a church he had built, St Barnabas’ Cathedral, Nottingham.


Fr Terry Southerwood is parish priest of Launceston in Tasmania and is the author of several works on Bishop Robert Willson and the Prayer Calendar of Deceased Priests in Australia, a new edition of which has recently been published.

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