Bishop James Alipius Goold, the first bishop of Melbourne, was known for being a man of strong resolve, rarely welcoming interference in the governance of his diocese.

So when a formal meeting in Sydney in September 1873 decided that the diocese of Melbourne, then encompassing the whole of Victoria, would be split into five dioceses, and without his approval, his letter to Rome was blunt.

‘I do not understand who has handed over my diocese to these Prelates to dismember it in their own fashion, without my consent,’ he wrote. ‘This appears to be not the canonical usage of the Church.’

While Goold himself could not attend the meeting, he had reluctantly agreed beforehand to the creation of two new dioceses—Ballarat and Sandhurst—and Archbishop John Bede Polding was to push for this outcome on his behalf. As it turned out, however, Polding was the only one barracking for Goold at the meeting, and the other bishops outvoted him.

I do not understand who has handed over my diocese to these Prelates to dismember it in their own fashion, without my consent.

Not only did they nominate the four new dioceses to be created, but they also made recommendations about who should be appointed as the new bishops, none of whom Goold was happy with.

Even the creation of two new dioceses had been a concession for Goold, and for years he had resisted his diocese being divided, despite its breadth.

By 1873, the only things forcing his hand were time and circumstances. Since the gold rush of 1851, the population of Victoria had grown rapidly. Within the space of a decade, it had increased sevenfold from just under 80,000 people to over 500,000. At the time of the fateful bishops’ meeting, New South Wales had a smaller population but five dioceses, so for Victoria to remain as a single diocese seemed ridiculous.

As dioceses grew larger, it was only natural for them to be divided, and such a division would make Melbourne a Metropolitan See (an ‘Archdiocese’). So why did Goold resist it for so long?

As it turns out, below the surface of this tussle between Melbourne and the bishops of New South Wales, tensions were simmering between Goold and a highly influential prelate in Rome—another Irishman—whom Goold seems to have been resisting all along: Cardinal Paul Cullen.

Cardinal Paul Cullen archbishop of Dublin
Cardinal Paul Cullen (1803–78).

The rise and influence of the ‘Cullenites’

Paul Cullen (1803–78) was the very first Irish cardinal.

Originally from County Kildare, Cullen went to Rome in 1820 to study with what was then known as the Sacred Congregation for the Propagation of the Faith (known today as the Dicastery for Evangelisation). After being a student there, he became a professor and adviser on English-speaking affairs, and was admitted to Pope Gregory XVI’s inner circle. He was Archbishop of Armagh (1849–52) and then of Dublin until his death in 1878.

Cullen was constantly interfering in the appointment of bishops, in many cases completely ignoring the recommendations made by local bishops.

As well as being influential in his home country, Cullen is recognised as having played a significant role in the dogmatic definition of papal infallibility and was an ardent promoter of Catholic devotions such as the Sacred Heart and forty hours’ devotion to the Blessed Sacrament. He developed an international network of like-minded allies who, in the face of growing Protestant and secularist influence around the world, were known for their vocal allegiance to Rome and their commitment to buttressing Church orthodoxy and discipline.

At a time when the Church was experiencing turbulence and division around the world, Cullen and his allies wanted to consolidate and strengthen the Catholic faith. What this meant in practice, however, was a tendency to trust only Irish clergyman of a certain ilk, making life exceptionally difficult for others—particularly English bishops like Polding, but also for Goold.

It also meant that Cullen was constantly interfering in the appointment of bishops, in many cases completely ignoring the recommendations made by local bishops.

Both Polding and Goold felt that Cullen’s influence in Australian affairs was disproportionate. But Cullen’s experience within the Congregation and Rome, and his many connections, assured his influence on a wide range of matters, not only in Australia but in the United States too.

Archbishop Polding would refer to Cullen and the ‘Cullenites’ as an imperium in imperio: an empire within the empire.

While the Sacred Congregation began with the intention of improving papal supervision of global missionary efforts, it earned an unfortunate reputation as an overly centralised governing authority, especially with Cullen at the helm. In England, John Henry Newman would complain about the Congregation’s ‘arbitrary, military power’ and that it was the ‘only court of appeal’ on several issues. In Australia, Polding would refer to Cullen and the ‘Cullenites’—as historian Colin Barr calls them—as an imperium in imperio: an empire within the empire.

Barr has wryly observed that Cullen’s influence in the Australian colonies is so well recognised that he has the rare honour of being featured in the Australian Dictionary of Biography, despite never having set foot in the country. He writes, ‘The scope of Cullen’s involvement in the Australian Church—and its enduring legacy—seems beyond question.’

To give a sense of his influence, Australia’s first cardinal, Archbishop of Sydney Patrick Francis Moran, was Cullen’s nephew. Also among the bishops who deliberated on Melbourne’s future at the Sydney meeting were brothers Bishop James Quinn of Brisbane and Bishop Matthew Quinn of Bathurst (both favoured students of Cullen in Rome), their cousin Bishop James Murray of Maitland (Cullen’s secretary in Dublin) and Bishop Timothy O’Mahoney of Armidale (another student at the Congregation’s Irish College in Rome).

In Sydney, Polding—an English Benedictine—had expressed his discontent on a number of occasions about Cullen’s influence in appointments within the dioceses that were meant to be under his supervision. Cullen regularly ignored his choices in favour of his own. This seems to have been one of the main reasons Goold wanted Victoria to remain undivided for so long. Observing Polding’s impotence in the face of these appointments, he didn’t want the same thing to happen to him.

Fluent in Italian and very well connected, Goold had always had an advantage in Roman affairs.

For a long time, according to Barr, in a bid to prevent Cullen’s attention from turning to Victoria, Goold pursued a strategy of placation, doing his utmost to keep the cardinal ‘on side’. But this strategy could only work for so long. In the end, Victoria had to have more than one diocese.

James Gooldsmall
Bishop James Alipius Goold (1812–86).

Not a total loss for Goold

While the meeting in Sydney had agreed on the creation of four new dioceses, that was not the end of Goold’s fight. He took it directly to Rome.

After firing off his terse letter to the Vatican, he took a steamer to Rome in November 1873. Fluent in Italian and very well connected, Goold had always had an advantage in Roman affairs, though admittedly nowhere near as great as Cullen’s. While in Rome, not only did he speak extensively with Church officials, but he also demonstrated his intimate knowledge of Victoria, a land he regularly traversed on horseback.

Although it took some months, Goold finally managed to talk Rome down to the two suffragan dioceses he had originally proposed, along with his suggested boundaries. His own recommendations for bishops were also accepted: Michael O’Connor for Ballarat and Martin Crane OSA for Sandhurst.

Finally, on 31 March 1874, a papal bull elevated Melbourne to a Metropolitan See, thus making it an Archdiocese.

It was only a year after Goold’s death, in 1887, that the Diocese of Sale was created.

It seems that despite being a fellow Irishman, Goold and others found the scale of Cullen’s influence deeply problematic. In the end, however, Goold was able to resist, for the most part, the imperium in imperio, and the Archdiocese of Melbourne was born.


Father D F Bourke, ‘A History of the Catholic Church in Victoria’, commissioned and published by the Catholic Bishops of Victoria, 1988.

Colin Barr, ‘A baroque bishop in Catholicism’s greater Ireland: the global context of Archbishop James Alipius Goold of Melbourne’, in Jaynie Anderson & Max Volola (eds), The Invention of Melbourne, Melbourne University Publishing, Melbourne, 2019.

Colin Barr, ‘“Imperium in imperio: Irish episcopal imperialism in the nineteenth century’, in The English Historical Review, vol 123, no 502, June 2008, pp. 611–50.