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2000-09, 327, Archives, Book Reviews, Frank Carleton

Book Review

Guide to the records of baptisms, deaths, (sic) and marriages in the Archives of St. Mary’s Cathedral (sic), Sydney. Sydney: Archives Authority of NSW, 1988 (4), iv, 34p. ISBN 0-7240-7998-X

Church registers of baptisms, marriages and burials, when their custodians have been so incautious as to expose them for ad libitum use, have sometimes become the happy ancestor hunting grounds of those family “historians” whom Sir Ninian Stephen once characterised, in an address to librarians, as “that grim array of insatiable genealogists in search of a family tree”.1 Of course, genealogy is an ancient pursuit, socially and economically necessary in times past, and still a useful ancillary historical discipline, indispensable to the biographer. But genealogy as an ancillary historical discipline is not necessarily the same thing as family history hobbyism.

Given the extent of the enthusiasm for family history in Australia, it is surprising that, as far as this writer has been able to establish, no review of this guide to early church registers has been published since it appeared at the end of the Bicentennial year. It was not reviewed in Archives and Manuscripts, the journal of the Australian Society of Archivists, nor in the former Church Archi-vists’ Society Newsletter.2

The publication’s purpose is vaguely stated in the final sentence of the one page anonymous preface on behalf of the publishing body, the Archives Authority of New South Wales:

It is hoped that the compilation and publication of a detailed finding-aid to the important genealogical sources held in the archives of St. Mary’s Cathedral (sic) will promote better understanding of the nature of its collection.

As a comment on the archives concerned this sentence is devoid of any significant meaning.

By its advice that this publication “was financed by the New South Wales Bicentennial Archives Program, which was Adminis-tered by the Archives Authority of New South Wales … ” 3 the preface makes clear that it was generated with public money.

The absence of any review of such a publication issued with the authority and imprint of the public body in New South Wales with statutory responsibility for public archives4 (but not for church, or any other species of private, archives) in likely periodicals is quite remarkable.

The guide’s title is particularly curious. It denotes the Sydney Archdiocesan Archives at St. Mary‟s Cathedral (as they are properly entitled in the bibliographies of numerous works of Australian Catholic history by professional historians)5 as the “Archives of St. Mary’s Cathedral, Sydney”. The Archdiocesan Archives in that location have holdings reaching back to before the inception of the Archdiocese in 1842.6 Apart from archives of the building and administration of St. Mary’s Cathedral there are Archdiocesan records for parishes, clergy and religious orders and the surviving official and private papers of past Archbishops of Sydney like the second, R.B. Vaughan OSB (1877-1883),7 and the third, Patrick Francis Cardinal Moran (1884-1911). They are, or at least should be, subject to the relevant provisions of the 1983 Code of Canon Law governing diocesan archives.8 Moreover, the guide includes descriptions of twenty registers of churches other than the Cathedral, including St. Mathew’s Catholic Church, Windsor, St. Pat-rick‟s Church, Parramatta, and All Saints’ Catholic Church, Liverpool.

Concerning the word “deaths” in the title, it may be noted that the primary and explicit purposes of the registers concerned was to record burials, notwithstanding dates of death recorded in them. Other than Roman Catholics will know that there is a difference between dying and being buried – with Catholic rites. The title is otherwise imprecise in failing to mention confirmations. The entries for two confirmation registers are on pp.9-10, the first recording confirmations by John Bede Polding OSB (1794-1877), the first Archbishop of Sydney during the period 12 December, 1858 – 11 November, 1860, the second recording confirmations in churches of the Archdiocese of Sydney from 1896 to 1901 during the archiepiscopate of Cardinal Moran.

The entries for the registers are of varying lengths and consist of the following elements:

the name of the early Catholic priests like the Revd. John McEncroe (1795-1868) on p.7, or of the church, like St. John‟s Church, Campbelltown on pp.20-21, responsible for the creation of the registers described;

the title of the registers;

the inclusive date range(s);

details of historical contexts, contents and any unusual features of the volume(s) concerned;

indexes, if any;

shelf location number;

microfilm references for registers so reproduced.

The entries account for nineteen pages of this forty-two page publication. The remainder consists of a titlepage, a one page preface, a two page table of contents and an undated six page paper “The early registers of St. Mary‟s” pp.27-33, by the late Monsignor C.J. Duffy, Archdiocesan Archivist, 1964-1983, which was written years before the publication of this guide. The item is also filled out with eight pages of random reproductions from the registers described, which are captioned “facsimiles” and have the appearance of indifferent photocopies.

The holding of registers described in the guide begin with Father Therry’s six registers (1819-1856), have an overall date range from 1819 to 1952 and include some of the earliest documentation of the pastoral ministry of the Catholic Church in Australia, the majority of the registers being pre-1900. Despite the numerous references throughout the guide to people, places and churches it contains no index – customarily a sine qua non for the name-spotting family history hobbyist.

Nor is the physical condition of any of the registers described. In August, 1986, the Archdiocesan Archivist reported:

Nearly ninety eight percent of all working time in the Ar-chives is spent in the area of people researching family trees (probably looking for the sap).9

In an April, 1987, Catholic Weekly article the then Dean of St. Mary’s Cathedral announced that the Archives “have been be-sieged for information, so much so that they no longer research family history … .10 How curious then that this guide issued by the Archives Authority at the end of the following year lays so much emphasis on the registers (which are but a small fraction of the total holdings of the Archdiocesan Archives) as a family history re-source.

A more intriguing omission than the lack of an index perhaps is the absence of the name of any individual responsible for assembling an aggregation of separate descriptions to make up this ad hoc publication.

A companion publication with the same imprint issued at the same time and also not reviewed in likely periodicals is Guide to the records of Rev. John Joseph Therry and to related papers held in the Archives of St. Mary’s Cathedral (sic), Sydney. Including Rev. Philip Conolly, Rev. Daniel Power, John O’Sullivan. Sydney. Archives Authority of N.S.W., 1988 (4), iv, 36p. ISBN 0-7240-7990-4.

This too is an anonymous publication. The text of its pp.9 and 11, which describes Father Therry’s registers, is repeated, minus three footnotes on p.11, on pp.1 and 3 of the guide to the registers. Precisely the same text is repeated on pp.16-20 of J.H. Donohoe’s The Catholics of New South Wales 1788-1820 and their families,11 which also bears the imprint of the Archives Authority of New South Wales and the same publication date as the two guides. None of the three publications cites another as the original source nor acknowledges the repetition of a triplicated text in any way.

It was I who arranged and described all the registers concerned in the first half of 1987 while engaged as the Project-Archivist at St. Mary’s Cathedral for the New South Wales Bicentennial Archives Program under the auspices of the Archives Authority of New South Wales (not, surprisingly, the Mitchell Library which had, and has, longstanding experience in the arrangement and dscription of private archives).

While a not inconsiderable holding, the registers were but a small proportion of the total holdings of the Sydney Archdiocesan Archives. In the practice of ancestor pursuit over many years sun-dry registers, including some of the earliest, namely those of Father Therry, had been subjected to various sorts of mistreatment. These included gormless biro annotations, including pagination and crude name “indexes” that had been added by various hands plainly ignorant of the most elementary criteria necessary to preserve the evidential integrity of original historical documents.

With numerous errors the guide merely reproduced the description I did in the first half of 1987, photocopies of which I then took. To preserve the registers from further physical abuse I never contemplated issuing the description of the registers as a guide. Microfilms of the registers which are referenced in the guide had lain unused in the Archives for years.

The separate Therry guide, even including the repeated description of that priest’s registers, describes but a small fraction of his papers, being estrays from the vast bulk of those papers which were lodged in the Mitchell Library by the Jesuit Fathers in the 1960’s.

Errors of omission and commission in both guides were corrected, by the present writer, in errata and addenda sheets, numbering three leaves for the guide to the registers and four leaves for the Therry guides which, along with a separate six leaf index of names and locations in the former, were lodged by this writer in the deposit libraries in 1989. Copies were advertised as available for sale in the July 1989 issue of the New South Wales Public Libraries Division Newsletter by courtesy of the editor.

Both guides may be a sort of monument to publicly funded institutional narcissism and elementary ancestor pursuit. These loosely organised ad hoc publications are of little or no value to historical research and do nothing for the physical preservation of the archives described in them

Frank Carleton


  • 1 Sir Ninian Stephen Address at the opening of the 54th Conference of the International Federation of Library Associations and Institutions, 30 August, 1988, Incite: Newsletter of the Library Association of Australia  9 (17) October, 1988, p.1.
  • 2 Church Archivists’ Society Newsletter. Toowoomba, Qld. Nos. 1-100, November, 1981-October, 1991.
  • 3 The “Archives of St. Mary‟s Cathedral (sic)”, in receipt of a Bicenten-nial grant of $100,000, was one of three such publicly funded projects of the two year New South Wales Bicentennial Archives Program, co-ordinated by “the Senior Archivist, Repository Services, Mr. John Burke”. Report of the Archives Authority of New South Wales for the year ended 30 June, 1988. p.59, paras, 1-3.
  • 4 See New South Wales Archives Act. 1960, n.46.
  • 5 E.g. M. Shanahan. Out of time, out of place: Henry Gregory and the Benedictine Order in Colonial Australia. Canberra: ANU Press, 1970 “Abbreviations”, p.ix; T.L. Suttor. Hierarchy and democracy in Austra-lia, 1788-1870: the formation of Australian Catholicism. Melbourne: Melbourne University Press, 1965, “Some notes concerning sources”, p.318; James Waldersee. Catholic Society in New South Wales, 1788-1860. Sydney: Sydney University Press, 1974, “Bibliography”, p.294.
  • 6 Henry Norbert Birt. Benedictine pioneers in Australia. Vol. 2. London: Herbert & Daniel, 1911, p.13.
  • 7 For a detailed description of Archbishop Vaughan‟s surviving papers see F. Carleton‟s “Some archives of Benedictine provenance at St. Mary‟s, Sydney, Tjurunga  37, 1989, pp.62-77 (III. The Vaughan Papers pp.66-77).
  • 8 See especially Canons 486, 487, 489 and 491. Codex iuris canonici. Auctoritate Ioannis Pauli PP.II promulgatus. Libreria Editrice Vaticana, 1983, pp.89-00. For an exposition of these canons and their application see P. Ingman, “The new Code of canon law and archives”, Catholic Archives 5, 1985, pp.50-55. Canon 491 (2) states: “The diocesan bishop is also to see to it that there is an historical archive in the diocese in which documents having an historical value are diligently preserved and systematically arranged.”
  • 9 “Letter from Mr. John Cummins – Archivist, St. Mary‟s Cathedral, Syd-ney”, Church Archivist’s Society Newsletter  48, August, 1986, p.4.
  • 10 Lex Johnson, “Restoration of the Chapter Hall” Catholic Weekly, 29 April, 1987, p.10.
  • 11 For a summary critique of this publication see F. Carleton “One (or two) French priests and the „Catholics of New South Wales‟ in 1788”, Australian Book Collector 61, April 1995 pp.14-17.
  • 12 PLD Newsletter, July, 1989, p.23. A subsequent request from the State Library of New South Wales for permission to photocopy the deposit copies of the errata and addenda and index sheets, “as the State Li-brary … holds three copies of the Archives Authority Guides … “, was received and complied with Library Deposit Librarian, State Library of New South Wales. Letter to F. Carleton, 20 July, 1989; his reply 28 July, 1989.


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