ITALIAN troops had breached a point in the Aurelian Walls while Pope Pius IX’s forces mounted the defence of Rome, and caught in the skirmish, comforting the wounded and dying Papal Zouaves, was Brisbane’s first Bishop James Quinn.
He was in Rome for the First Vatican Council when the Papal States fell to Kingdom of Italy on September 20, 1870.
This was one story spun among many in Fr Chris Hanlon’s new book The Catholic Church in Colonial Queensland 1859-1918, which was launched by Brisbane Archbishop Mark Coleridge at the Francis Rush Centre on August 4.
Archbishop Coleridge said the book captured his attention because of how Fr Hanlon did not just write about historical events, but the personalities of those caught up in the events.
He said Fr Hanlon had a way of connecting dots that he had never connected before, like Bishop Quinn in Rome.
“Fascinatingly, he was at the fall of Rome in 1870, giving drinks of water and tending to the Papal Zouaves,” he said.
The book threw a different “shaft of light on the very complex personality of the first bishop of Brisbane”.
But the book was not just about Bishop Quinn, it discussed other historical characters like Ellen Thompson, who was the only woman to be hanged in Queensland.
Fr Hanlon’s book explained the details of her murder case but also the story of her confessor Fr Denis Fouhy, who was working as the chaplain of Boggo Road gaol where Mrs Thompson was hanged.
“He attended Mrs Thompson at her trial and at her execution,” Fr Hanlon said at the book launch.
“It was a very emotive occasion because Ellen Thompson maintained right until she died on the scaffold that she was innocent, not guilty.
“And Fr Fouhy wrote to Bishop John Hutchinson, the Augustinian vicar apostolic in Cook Town, that ‘It is generally felt here to have been a terrible miscarriage of justice to execute this woman’.
“‘She was, I am quite convinced, innocent of the murder’, and he goes on.”
Fr Hanlon said Fr Fouhy heard Mrs Thompson’s confession before she died – that’s as much as he could say without breaching the Seal of Confession.
Fr Fouhy’s story is expanded in the book – about his appeals to the government for clemency and how he even became guardian of Mrs Thompson’s children.
Later, Queensland became the first state in the British Empire to abolish the death penalty, too.
Fr Hanlon said that was something the state often did not talk about but could be proud of.
“Queensland has a fascinating story and it’s a story not just about the Church,” Archbishop Coleridge said.
“This was a sense I had very powerfully about this book – that to tell the story of the Catholic Church in Queensland is not just to tell the story of some tiny little sectarian group.
“It’s a large, minority community so embedded in the life of the society generally that in a sense to tell the story of the Catholic Church in Queensland is to tell the story of Queensland.”
He said if you tried to extract the story of the Church from Australian history, the story itself would be unrecognisable and in many ways untellable.
Archbishop Coleridge said it often struck him though that Australia was “the land of the great forgetting”.
He said part of that was because people had escaped to Australia to forget wars, poverty and the horrors of the old world.
But stories from the past were essential, he said.
“Unless we have some sense of where we’ve come from, we can have little or no sense of where we’re going,” Archbishop Coleridge said.
“The past is never passed – it is with us now.”
The Catholic Church in Colonial Queensland 1859-1918 can be purchased from St Paul’s Book Shop or at the Brisbane archdiocese archives.