Chapter Two. Catholic Cowra History by Fr Timothy Reen.


“The Early Fathers” of the Bathurst Mission


Our histories do not chronicle the work of contemporary priests, who laboured in the inland districts whilst Dean Grant was building up the Church at Bathurst. In this field original research remains completely unattempted. It is not proposed that this little booklet is a systematic attempt to wrest historical gems from this virgin soil, but, as we stray haltingly over its alluring terrain, we may glean some facts or unearth reminiscences that may be of use to the compiler of the future.

In 1847 a Priest whose history must be very intriguing makes his appearance on the Bathurst horizon; Father Michael McGrath from the Co. Waterford comes to labour in the hinterland of the Bathurst settlement, and mainly from King’s Plains as Headquarters, he radiates throughout the length and breadth of a vast and varied territory. In former years from 1841 onwards he had been the only Priest resident in the Goulburn district, which comprised a territory of 10,000 sq. miles. He must have teen a man inured to long journeyings, for he covered astonishing distances on horseback in an incredibly short space of time. He never ceased from this hard riding during the years he ministered here. He is in King’s Plains, for instance, on 4th of the month, in Molong on the 6th. He baptises somebody at Wellington on the l0th, arrives at Dubbo on the same day and then we find him travelling the extensive Lachlan, on towards its source, on the 24th of the same month. Although he laboured for well nigh fourteen years in these inland districts, he never really belonged to the Australian Mission. He was ordained for his own native diocese of Waterford to which he returned about the year 1854. Notwithstanding his ceaseless activity, he possessed a most methodical mind, and many years after his return home, when a disputed or doubtful matter was referred to him by the first Bishop of Bathurst, he was able to give all the necessary facts and figures to set the matter at rest. He was a man of splendid physique, alert, and extraordinarily active in his movements. In height, if not in weight, he was a prototype of his namesake the late Archdeacon McGrath, of Rockley, and popular memory has handed down a confusion of both priests when recalling feats of expert horsemanship, but they are never confounded with their other namesake Father William McGrath.

The first baptism conferred by Father Michael McGrath was at King’s Plains, when he regenerated Timothy, son of Michael McNamara and Margaret Clary, farming people of King’s Plains, on 17th September, 1847. It is interesting to note the first name on each list of a vast array of people whom he baptised in such far removed places:-

Julia – Patrick Slattery and Johanna Shea 29th Sep1847. Brown’s Creek.

Ellen – James Egan and Sarah Lester, 6th  Oct  1847. Molong.

James – John Flanagan and Mary Frazer, 6th  Oct., 1847. Carcoar.

 Bridget – Patrick Reedy and Mary Wright, 10th  Oct., 1847. Wellington.

Catherine – William Smith and Ann Mauritz, Oct. 10th , 1847. Dubbo.

John – John Walsh and Sarah Brith, Oct. 12th . District of Bathurst.

 Edmond – James Kennedy and Catherine Cody, Oct. 24th , 1847. Cowra.

Mary – Patrick Hanrahan and Bridget Hogan, Sept., 1850. Porter’s Retreat.

Andrew – Michael Burke and Catherine Cummins, Sept., 1850. “Flats.”

And now for a special list of names of small farmers along the Lachlan – (this was the official name they gave the district in those days) :-

Anne – Michael Corcoran and Rose Tully, 24th Sept., 1849, Lachlan.

Mary – Michael Walsh and Mary Fennell, 25th Sept., 1848. Lachlan.

Jane – William Hedgumpt and Johanna Clary, 25th Sept., 1848.Lachlan

Patrick – Patrick O’Brien and Helen Kewbridge. 26th Sept., 1848. Lachlan.

James – John Neville and Honorah Neville, 27th Sept., 1848. Lachlan

George – Philip Sawaker and Mary Dewry, 27th Sept., 1848. Lachlan.

Ellen – Peter Murray and Mary Jeffery. 28th Sept., 1848. Lachlan.

The Register for entering marriages in those days was issued by the Government to the Priest, but a point worthy of notice is that it was a special register for the Roman Catholic denomination. The wording of the certificate form would seem to leave no room for what we call “mixed marriages.” Here is a transcription of the wording of the form and of the first marriage registered:-

No. 1.

 I-John Kinsella-do hereby declare that I am a member of. or hold Communion with the Roman Catholic Church.

I-Bridget Flynne-do hereby declare that I am a member of. or hold Communion with the Roman Catholic Church.

I-Michael McGrath-of Bathurst-Minister of Carcoar. do hereby certify that-John Kinsella-of Wellington and Bridget Flynne-of Wellington were joined together in Holy Wedlock by me. on the- Fourth day of-January-1848-at-Wellington. in the presence of-

Michael Shea

Mary Shea.

Witnesses :-Both of Wellington.

Michael McGrath. C.C.

So to Wellington goes the honour of this Nuptial. when brevity was the soul of wit. and marriage certificates conveyed what they meant. But by 1856 they have changed all this and issued a new Register.

It may be interesting to note also the first marriages in diverse districts :-

Those of Patrick Byrnes and Anne Sullivan both of Carcoar married in Carcoar 12th Feb. 1848;-of

Patrick Kelly and Anne Keenan of King’s Plains married at King’s Plains on 16th May 1848;-of

John Costello and Mary Flood of King’s Plains 16th August 1848.

Michael Connors and Ellen Connors both of Bathurst married at Bathurst 18th Jan. 1850.

These marriages were performed by Father Michael McGrafh.

There is a well preserved record in the copperplate handwriting of Father McGrath giving the first subscribers to the erection of the Catholic Churches of Carcoar and King’s Plains. The list begins thus:

“Mrs. Edward Markham .. .. .. .. .. .. . £10 0 0

           Thomas Slattery .. ..                                 1 0 0

           Rev. Michael McGrath                            2 0 0

           Mr. Tim Su1livan .. ..                                5 0 0”

The names of Michael O’Neil, Michael Flanagan, Patrick Grace, Peter White, James Grant. John Grant, Owen O’Neil, Mrs. O’Neil, John Sullivan, William Shine, Connor Shine, James Dowly, James Kennedy, Patrick Byrne, James Slattery, Thomas Neville, William Bass, John Nowlan, W. R. Watt, Peter Boland, Edmond Neville, Michael Walsh, Thomas Duffy, Peter Dwyer, Peter Murray, Denis Hanrahan. Duncan McKillop, Laurence Rice, Nicholas Jordan, Henry KeIIy, and James Keenan are outstanding for their generosity.

It is probable that the honour of celebrating Holy Mass for the first time in the historic township of Carcoar belongs to Fr. McGrath. Before 1848 Mass was celebrated at “Mallowgrove,” the station homestead of the grand old pioneering Catholic family of John Connolly. This homestead was situated ‘on the left of the Neville road about six miles from the Blayney-Carcoar road. About this time the number of Catholics in the township proper must have called for consideration, for we have still extant the reply to Father Michael McGrath’s request for the use of the Carcoar Court House to celebrate Mass for them. It is written from the Court House Carcoar, is dated 29th June. 1848, and is addressed to the Rev. Fr. McGrath, King’s Plains. It reads as follows:-

My Dear Sir,-

Your application for the use of the Court House here for the purpose of celebrating Divine Service once in every month was laid this day before the Bench (consisting of Mr. Rothery and myself) and I am happy to inform you that the Court House wiII be at your service any Sunday you may think proper, only giving the Chief Constable notice a day or two previously.

I am,

My Dear Sir,

Yours Very Truly – S. NORTH.

It is indeed a document redolent with a spirit of generosity reflecting credit on the memories of the two who composed the Bench at Carcoar in 1848. It is a warm hearted reply with a ring of hospitality peculiar to the Australian bush, but then Priests of the old days evoked noble strains from the hearts of friend and foe. It is in such a halo of light that we linger to watch Father Michael McGrath ride away into the distant past and turning greet his well remembered and beloved successor Father Bernard Murphy.



In March of the year 1853, we find this able bodied horseman riding into the vicinity of Carcoar. He too is made welcome at “Mallowgrove”, and celebrates Holy Mass there frequently during his visits. Although Fr. Murphy’s territory is somewhat less extensive than that of his predecessor – for we no longer find him cantering beyond the reaches of Wellington – nevertheless the boundary riding that his care of souls entails covers country large enough for a kingdom. There is no place from Vittoria to Boorowa, and from Campbell’s River to Forbes and Wellington, through which he has not ridden like a knight in shining armour. ‘Who was the first priest you ever remember?’ one is moved to ask of old people with the look of eternity in their eyes. “Well, I don’t know, I’m sure now, but Fr. Bernard Murphy baptised me.” and they were but in babyhood when baptised. How many of us trouble to enquire, much less to remember, the name of the priest who baptised us? Whilst it may well be the common fault of our day, this lack or interest and gratitude for the inheritance such hands bestowed, let us give the credit of this abiding memory of Father Murphy to his own benign and ever-green personality. For he was a genial man and, despite his bluff appearance, his frankness and good humour lent weight to his words as well as to his person. It needed a strong horse, and full-blooded, to carry such a stout heart. He is particularly the saggart aroon of the ancients of the Cowra District and, from Forbes through Cowra and Spring Vale on to the Abercrombie Mountains he is familiarly remembered as “the Parish Priest of the Lachlan.”




He obtained from the Government a block of ground overlooking the main street of the original township of Cowra. This was in the year 1854. It was fenced and remained in use as a sheep paddock until 1858, when Father Murphy invited Archbishop Polding, assisted by Father Brennan of Windsor, to lay the foundation stone of Cowra’s first Church. This structure, built completely of stone, although small in dimensions, was nevertheless on true Gothic lines. ‘The purity of style may still be discerned in its arches, windows and buttresses, for it remains to this day as the kernel round which the modern Brigidine Convent is constructed, and it has served for many years now as a cool and spacious community room for the Sisters. When opened for public worship in 1858 for the flock that Christ seeks. a congregation of fifty or sixty travelled from a twenty mile radius to hear Holy Mass in this first House of God, along the course of the River Lachlan.

A burnished memory of Father Bernard is preserved amongst the heads of the most ancient clans of Cowra district. The Markhams. Jordans, Whittys, the O’Briens and O’Dwyers, the Dalys, Walshes, Searsons-all are proud to summon up his ghost and give it local habitation.. He is pictured riding down from Mt. McDonald into Spring Vale, to celebrate the Holy Sacrifice for this closely populated, if isolated. Catholic Settlement. The present heads of these clans are conscious that to him is due the. credit of conferring on their generation the heritage of the Children of God. When “Paddy” O’Dwyer armed with his fiddle rode with Patrick O’Brien and company from the districts of Morongla and the middle Lachlan to the hospitable home of the Markhams for a periodical night of dancing, we can feel sure that Fr. Bernard sometimes graced their happy gatherings. Patrick O’Brien from County Limerick, ancestor of the many O’Briens now residing in Woodstock, was Father Murphy’s right hand man and Chief Scout when he wished to find scattered souls that lived beyond the Lachlan. Likewise, Patrick O’Dwyer, from County Tipperary, carpenter and successful selector, was a tried man true as steel, who was honoured to erect a fence round Cowra’s first and most beautiful Church. Father Murphy must have had an especial love for the people of this valley. and their descendants of to-day. remarkable above all things for their love, loyalty and reverence for the priest, unconsciously offer perpetual incense to the shrine of his memory. For over ten years he brightened their lives with thoughts of things divine, but he may be as well remembered in other parts, for did he not build the first Catholic School in Orange. A glance at the first baptisms conferred by him indicate the variety of places to which he travelled:-

John W. Carroll and Catherine Good, April 1853, Frederick’s Valley

Thomas – Thos. Boland and Isabella Taylor, May 1853, Bald Hill.

Catherine – Chas. Smyth and Mary Williams, May 1853, Canowindra.

Maria – James Neville and Agnes Charters, May 1853, “Tom and Bill.”

Mary Ann – Michael Kennedy and Margaret Taylor, August 1853, Boree.

Bridget  -Patrick Walsh and Mary Curry, October 1853, Weddin Mts.

He also leaves a long list of baptisms conferred in the Forbes district, and heading the list is:-

Anne Elizabeth – James Wark and Mary Myers, February 1862, Forbes

His last recorded baptism is on October 21st, 1862.

From marriage performed by Father Murphy, we will select the following:-

John Walsh and Margaret Lake, both of Triangle Flat, 10th June, 1853

John Grant and Johanna Dooley, of Mt. Macquarie, 19th June, 1853

Charles Jones and Margaret Fiaghy, of Orange, 12th July, 1853.

After his work of ten years in this district, Father Murphy was transferred to Maitland, which was still administered from Sydney: We will not follow him except to record that he died in harness, circumstance of death which is the secret wish of every good priest He was riding towards MuswelIbrook when he got one of his periodical heart attacks and, upon his dismounting to rest under a gum tree. his soul passed into the next world. His lonely altar-boy stood guard over the body of his Father in God ,until help arrived to take the corpse to Singleton, where it was laid to rest. in the churchyard. His grave is to this day kept with reverence and honour, whilst Bathurst Cathedral has a stained-glass window of St Bernard to hts memory.



Like the ever pulsing vitality of the Church itself, in 1862, the year of Father Murphy’s departure, Father Timothy McCarthy came galloping hard from the Maitland district and following the fresh prints of his predecessor, his career was that of the comet type, shcrt but brilliant. The name of “Father Tim” will ever be associated with th notorious bushrangers of these and many other districts. His must have been a strong but gentle character, for whilst standing openly on the side of law and order, he won the hearts of these wayward, emblttered outlaws. and was their mediator before the Bar of Justice. For many of these he obtained an unconditioned pardon which enabled them to return to normal civic life, and their subsequent careers were a standing testimonial to the extraordinary influence for good which he possessed. Much to his disappointment, however, he was unsuccessful in obtaining an absolute reprieve for the Bushranger Vane. but through his pleading. a lighter sentence was imposed, whilst he refuse, the £1,000 reward which the Government offered. We will let others, better informed, chronicle the exploits of Father McCarthy with the Bushrangers. His stay in these parts was of short duration, and whilst he is working around the Carcoar and Abercrombie districts in particular, Father Denis McGuinn, of the clan McGuinn of Dubbo. is recording baptisms from the Forbes district and, moving down the Lachlan, he eventually overlaps the territory of Fr McCarthy and continues to record his ministrations up to 21st November 1866. On this date he enters the baptism of Henry Joseph, son of Joseph Thompson and Bridget Burke and then his name appears no more. During hsi last years in the Carcoar territory, Father McGuinn was a very sick man, residing for the most part at ‘Mallowgrove” from which the. family of Connolly had departed, one by one, on reaching marriageable age. Father McGuinn was so invalided that he needed the constant care of his sister, and shortly after 1866 he moved to a convalescent home at Sydney.

These illustrious names already mentioned, with the name of Father Phelan, of Hartley, appearing at rare intervals, constitute the last of those who were the “Early Fathers” of these districts. With their passing, we move into a new historic era, when the Bathurst Mission becomes the Bathurst Diocese and the Most Rev. Dr Matthew Quinn makes his triumphal journey over the Blue Mountains to take possession of the See of St Michael. and St John, as first Bishop of Bathurst.

To go to Chapter Three – Creation of the Bathurst Diocese – click here.