It was nearly midnight in Paris, in July 1830, when Catherine Labouré experienced what she called ‘the sweetest moment of my life’: an apparition of the Blessed Virgin Mary. She spent the rest of that night resting her head on Mary’s lap, talking gently with her.
Towards the end of that same year, Our Lady would appear to Catherine again at the Rue de Bac Chapel, this time in an image that would be, at Mary’s request, imprinted upon medals and distributed among the people. This medal—featuring the image of Mary standing atop the earth, crushing the head of a serpent, palms outstretched—would become known as a Miraculous Medal, and its wearers were promised the grace of Our Lady’s protection.
Around the edge of the medal were inscribed the words ‘O Mary conceived without sin pray for us who have recourse to thee.’
Twenty-four years later, Pope Pius IX pronounced the dogma of the Immaculate Conception in Ineffabilis Deus. Dignitaries from around the world attended this momentous—and controversial—event, including Archbishop John Bede Polding from Sydney.
Although Melbourne’s first bishop, James Alipius Goold, wasn’t able to attend, a generous gesture on his part meant that the newly established city of Melbourne became inextricably and perhaps surprisingly connected to this extraordinary moment in the life of the Church.
In June 1854, when the Colony of Victoria was still in the earliest throes of the gold rushes, Goold sent a bag of golden nuggets as a gift to Pope Pius IX. In an accompanying letter, dated 27 June, he wrote:
James Alipius, by the grace of God and favour of the Holy See … offers this gold, dug out of Australasian soil, in the province of Victoria, as his own gift as well as that of his Clergy and faithful people, to your Holiness, in testimony of fidelity towards the person of your Holiness, and to the Apostolic See.
Compared with the quantity of gold being discovered at that time in Victoria, it was insignificant amount. Yet in August of that year, the pontiff wrote to Goold thanking him. How had he decided to use that gold? Enlisting the help of sculptor and medallist Bonfiglio Zaccagnini (1793–1867), Pius had the nuggets melted down and minted into 303 of the most beautiful, golden Miraculous Medals. On the front each medal, the Blessed Virgin is surrounded by a halo of rays and stars, and on the back, the prayer is inscribed in Latin.
These medals were given to the dignitaries attending the solemn proclamation of the Immaculate Conception in Rome on 8 December 1854. Although Goold himself was unable to attend, Archbishop Polding brought one back from Rome with him and gave it to Goold.
The proclamation of the dogma itself was a long-awaited event for many people, and a cause of great celebration. It’s hard to know the exact identities of the hundreds of dignitaries who gathered that day to listen to Pope Pius IX speak and to pray with him. But whether they were bishops, cardinals, priests or laity, each of them—perhaps unwittingly—carried a small piece of the Antipodes with them in the shiny medals they wore around their necks, newly minted from a gift of Victorian gold.
Main image: the front (L) and back (R) of one the Miraculous Medals that Pope Pius IX had minted from Victorian gold. Photo courtesy Catholic Archdiocese of Melbourne Archive.
Melbourne Catholic03 March 2024
Melbourne Catholic01 March 2024