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New light on a pioneer priest


By Margaret Press RSJ, St Pauls, $24.95

Reviewed by Br Brian Grenier CFC

IN filling in a form, Fr Julian Tenison Woods might have written any of the following under the heading of occupation — priest, missionary, co-founder of religious congregations, spiritual director, journalist, all-round natural scientist and educationalist.

A deeply religious and cultured Victorian gentleman, he was also a gifted musician, artist and preacher whose personal magnetism was such that ‘people did not easily ignore him or forget him’.

He was surely one of the most interesting figures in the story of the Catholic Church in Australia, and, if greatness is a quality of the mind and the heart that has nothing to do with mere celebrity, he was a great man.

In the years since Margaret Press’s excellent biography of Fr Woods first appeared in 1979, sufficient additional material on her subject has become available (including a large number of letters) to justify the publication of this revised edition.

It is a painstakingly researched work which keeps to ‘a narrow, chronological path, relying entirely on documentary sources’ and is none the less readable for being scholarly.

By no means an exercise in hagiography, the book presents us with a well rounded picture of a widely travelled polymath whose many admirable qualities are ‘balanced’ by what an earlier reviewer justly described as his ‘maddening inconsistencies’.

Of special interest to many readers will be the author’s treatment of the part that Julian Tenison Woods played in the founding of the Sisters of Perpetual Adoration and, with Blessed Mary MacKillop, the Sisters of St Joseph.

Pertinent in this connection are her reflections on his early formation as a priest and on ‘his brand of spirituality’.

Though Margaret Press does not set out to give us a history of Catholicism in Australia in the latter half of the 19th century, we do stand to learn much about the pioneering efforts of priests and the lay faithful in those days in several states and about the ecclesiastical politics which, then as now, reveal what some would call the human face of the Church.

Accompanying the text are black-and-white photographs of people and places associated with the life of its subject.

As one would expect, the book is also furnished with an adequate index and bibliography and a list of Fr Julian Tenison Woods’ own publications — some 204 titles over a 30-year period.

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