The Centenary of the Death of Bishop Jeremiah Doyle

June 9, 2009 3:12 pm

St Carthage’s Cathedral, Lismore, 3 June 2009.

Readings: Ecclus. 44:1-15; Mt. 7:21-29.

This week a century ago also occurred between Pentecost and Trinity Sundays. For generations later, as we mark this centenary with a celebration of thankfulness to God for the life and work of Lismore’s first Bishop, we can only imagine the sadness and shock that filled the hearts of the people of this city as the news went around of the Bishop’s sudden and untimely death.

Bishop Doyle was only 59 when he died. On the Friday night of Whitsun week he had given Benediction to the sisters in the convent chapel, commenting to the nuns as he left: “I love Benediction; next to the Sacrifice of the Mass, I love Benediction!” It was the last Benediction he gave: next morning he did not appear for the 7 o’clock Mass and was later discovered to have died as he was going to bed. A contemporary chronicler records that “when the news became known in the town, a hush of awe and solemnity seemed to pervade the atmosphere, and in many of the homes of the old residents there was weeping and shock. Flags were everywhere placed at half-mast, and a number of the business people had the windows of their premises draped in black.” His funeral took place immediately as tributes poured in recalling the Bishop’s great qualities as a churchman and civic leader. His body was buried in the place prepared for it in front of the Lady Chapel altar of his beloved Cathedral which he had laboured so hard to build.

One hundred years on, we live in a different Lismore, a different Australia, a different world. Tonight we recall the memory of one man who laid strong foundations on which we continue to build. Not many citizens of Lismore today would have reason to recall the pioneering efforts of Bishop Doyle in the late years of the nineteenth century, yet as we know from the historical records, our modern city remains in debt to him, as our City Council has acknowledges. It is among ourselves, in a true sense the spiritual children of our founding father, that his memory lives on, is treasured, and celebrated. And we have good reason.

Jeremiah Joseph Doyle sailed out from Ireland, just newly ordained, in 1875 to be a priest of the Diocese of Armidale. In those days it was a vast diocese which reached from the tableland down to the coast and up to the Queensland border. Three years later Bishop Torregiani asked Father Doyle to take temporary charge of the Richmond region, a charge which was to extend over thirty years. It took Father Doyle seven days on horseback to reach Lismore, travelling by way of Grafton, Casino and Coraki. The streets of this town were boggy tracks, there were only small and scattered numbers of Catholics. But these were to be years of rapid growth and expansion. After ten years Pope Leo XIII acted to create a new Diocese along the far north coast, and in 1887 Father Doyle of Lismore was appointed the first Bishop of the new see of Grafton. After six months residence in that city, the new Bishop decided to leave the Clarence for the Richmond, and petitioned the Holy See to transfer the centre of the Diocese to Lismore. Although this did not take place formally until 1900, Bishop Doyle drew up plans for this Cathedral as early as 1892, and despite great difficulties was able to it through to its completion in 1907. It was to become the symbol of his achievement as a pastor and leader in all the areas of the Church’s mission within his own community as well as his contribution in social and civic spheres. It was to be the citizens of Lismore at a public meeting chaired by the Mayor who proposed to install in the Cathedral tower the peal of bells from Dublin as their memorial to the Bishop, which, they said, “will compel the admiration of contemporaries and endure the gratitude of posterity.” The Catholics of the time had seen Bishop Doyle open 17 parishes and 46 churches, gather 20 priests and 109 religious sisters, and establish 12 primary schools and 6 boarding schools for 2,000 children out of a Catholic population of twenty thousand.

It is the gratitude of posterity which we express in this centenary Mass. Israel of old regarded such expression as an important virtue, and spoke in the Book of Wisdom of the praise due to the great leaders of past generations. “Their posterity will continue for ever, their memory will not be blotted out. Their bodies are buried in peace, but their name lives to all generations. Peoples will declare their wisdom, and the congregation proclaims their praise.” While Bishop Doyle’s work in the wider community has been well acknowledged and chronicled, tonight our principal reason for honouring Bishop Doyle arises from the appreciation of faith. It is through Bishop Doyle, as our founding Bishop, that the succession that comes from the Apostles established the Diocese of Lismore as an organic, living, part of the One, Holy Catholic and Apostolic Church, established by Jesus Christ, the Son of God, and founded upon Peter the rock as the sign of her enduring unity and authenticity. That apostolic line has continued on through Bishop Doyle’s four successors to this very moment. Each of us has held, as I hold now, this crosier of Bishop Doyle, the symbol of apostolic office as shepherd and pastor. Through our founding bishop we have as members of God’s one Church the sign and pledge of the grace that flows from the Spirit’s outpouring at Pentecost through every celebration of each sacrament. Through the Church, her faith and her sacraments, the Lord wills to be present and active in the lives of all who believe in Him. When Christ spoke in the gospel of the house founded on rock, guaranteed secure against all the fury of deluge and gale, He was speaking of the Church he had founded, the Church in which he had planted his Word, the Gospel, to be transmitted to every generation. It was a great characteristic of the Catholic people of a century ago to be steeped in a profound love and loyalty to the Church as Christ among us, the presence of His Kingdom on earth, the pledge of the Kingdom yet to be revealed. To the extent that today it seems this appreciation of Church’s real nature and character, and the understanding of the seriousness of her mission is weakened, it is not long before false ideas weaken faith itself and can lead to a merely nominal Catholic identity. All the more resolutely do we pursue the work of the New Evangelisation.

More than anything else that Bishop Doyle achieved, this Cathedral represents his vision of the Church and her mission to link time and eternity, to unite us strangers and pilgrims to the eternal God, our Father. He gathered all his efforts around the primary Christian conviction that the worship of God comes before all else, and is the foundation and inspiration of the Church’s mission and of every good work done in Christ’s name. He appealed to his people for the money to build this house of God, this gate of heaven, to mostly poor but faithful people, who month by month gave their sixpences and shillings that ran into pounds, and watched it rise brick by brick. Even then there was criticism and gainsaying from a vocal minority who said the Bishop’s ideas were too grand for a place like Lismore, and money was being wasted on lofty architecture, stained glass windows and marble altars when it could be spent on the urgent needs of schools and welfare. But Bishop Doyle was not deflected in his purpose. He knew the power of the Catholic use of sign and symbol, made by human mind and skill, of beautiful and artistic expression that raised the eyes of the soul to glimpse the transcendent, to contemplate that other world where God is all in all and where we all are meant to find a home which endures when our earthly habitation is no more. In its time, this Cathedral was almost an outrageous project, but it has stood the test of time to remain still a more than great symbol of faith in the secular city we have become. Bishop Doyle could not wait to celebrate the first Mass in this building; he did so on a temporary altar in a cleared space in the sanctuary on his ordination anniversary in 1907, months ahead of its opening, with a little congregation of workmen and nuns. He lived only long enough to celebrate the full and beautiful ceremonies of one Christmas and one Easter after its dedication.

So in this Cathedral, which was described by a contemporary as one of the high achievements of his episcopal ministry, let us remember Bishop Doyle, we sons and daughters of our founder who built us onto the apostolic rock. One century on let us gather at his tomb to pray for the repose of his soul and to offer this great Sacrifice of the Redeemer which he so loved. Thus we show our gratitude for all we have inherited from his vision, his faith, and his labours, and thus give thanks to our heavenly Father, to whom be glory and praise, for ever and ever. Amen.