For missionaries to colonial Australia, there was a sense that a new world was being born; it was—to their way of thinking—an undeveloped world, brimming with potential. But what kind of world would this be?
Ludwig I, King of Bavaria, received a letter in 1842 from Australia’s very first bishop, John Bede Polding, in which the man explained the task he thought lay before him: ‘In fine we have a Christian world to create.’ This task was not simply a matter of evangelisation; for Polding, as he said elsewhere, it was also important to support ‘the diffusion of sound taste and love of the fine arts.’
It was under Polding’s term as Archbishop that enormous amounts of money would be spent cultivating this love of the fine arts: whenever he went to Rome, he would go on spending sprees, purchasing works of art, books, vestments, vessels, relics and all manner of things that would elevate the cultural aesthetics of his diocese. The Sydney Benedictine Library, especially, was a source of great pride for Polding.
Sadly, much of the art that Polding purchased in Rome was lost in the 1865 fire that burned down St Mary’s Cathedral.
However, while Polding was Archbishop of Sydney, a young priest came from Ireland to dedicate himself to this mission territory. This priest was James Alipius Goold, the man who would later become Melbourne’s very first bishop. He spent eleven years in Campbelltown under Polding, watching and learning what it meant to be a missionary in colonial Australia.
From these men we can glean that to be a missionary is not simply to spread the word about Jesus. It is about investing in the culture of a place; about having an eye to the future, to the kind of world in which future generations would grow up. Would it be a recognisably Christian world?
Much has happened since Goold was bishop. The world has changed dramatically, to the extent that Australia is sometimes described as a ‘post-Christian nation’. It would be fascinating to have Goold’s thoughts on the Church today.
But the world was changing already for the Church in the 19th century. The British historian Christopher Dawson described that century as both ‘creative and destructive’. The apostles of Enlightenment ‘hacked’ their way through the roots of traditional belief with the ‘ruthlessness of pioneers in the tropical jungle.’
Even as the gold rush gripped the imagination of Australia and the wider world, this combination of creativity and destruction was on display: profound advances were made technologically, economically and politically in Victoria and elsewhere. But culturally?
As one visitor to Melbourne wrote:
Religion is neglected, education despised, the libraries are almost deserted ... everybody is engrossed by the simple object of making money in a very short time.
Religion and culture are vital to a society’s wellbeing. Without them, the society can feel soulless.
Into this situation of booming wealth, Goold acted as a missionary. He recognised that, in the turbulence of Australia becoming its own El Dorado, creative work had to be done. The future had to be invested in. It wasn’t simply the needs of the present that were important but also the development of a cultural patrimony for future generations to enjoy.
Because of the gold rush, Goold was a bishop with a lot more funding than Polding had previously enjoyed. The people of Victoria were also incredibly generous with their funds.
Sadly, there are no traces of Goold’s spending. There are no bank accounts, nothing to help us track the money. But it’s safe to say much of it was gold rush money, coming by way of rich and poor alike. It wasn’t only because of Goold’s fundraising either: the influx of gold bars became so overwhelming that Goold had to politely request that people send him notes instead. Understandably, travelling with gold bars to Rome wasn’t the easiest thing to do.
Most of us never have to think about how to use vast sums of money coming our way—not unless we’re leaders in business, politics or other large organisations. Most of us never have to think about how to spend mounting piles of gold bars.
Like Polding, Goold wanted a holistic approach to building his diocese. The first thirteen years of Goold’s ministry saw Melbourne undergo a dramatic transformation: Victoria went from having only two churches to 64; it went from having no religious orders to many; Goold commissioned what is considered to be the finest example of neo-Gothic architecture in the southern hemisphere, St Patrick’s Cathedral, and he gave the Church a patrimony of art unlike that of any other place in Australia.
Goold had a particular taste for what’s known as late baroque art—artworks created between 1642 and 1740. He would receive shipments from Europe with large cases of paintings, many of them originals, which were used to fit out churches throughout Victoria.
The purpose of this investment was not simply aesthetic. As Rachel Naughton writes in The Invention of Melbourne (2019):
Goold used paintings and other artworks in the way that the Church has always used them: to teach, to evangelise ... to represent a link with the universal Church and its very long history.
There was, in a sense, a sacramental quality to art. Through this visual medium, people could touch and see heaven in a new, tangible light.
We have already seen the kinds of things people would do to acquire gold. But the question of what to do with it once it’s acquired is another matter entirely.
Formed as we are by modern sensibilities, it’s easy to look at bishops like Goold as stuffy figures from a past that doesn’t exist anymore. We might ask: Who are these strange people who have busts made of themselves? Who sit for hours on end for a portrait? Who spend buckets of gold and money on extraordinary works of art and architecture? Who are these people who wear large crosses and vestments and some of the oddest attire imaginable?
These are understandable questions. One response might be to point out that someone like Goold had a keen sense of his responsibilities, especially at a time when the Church saw itself as being a patron of the arts. An appreciation of Goold’s creative investments might lead us to ask what it might look like for us today to ‘create a Christian world,’ to think differently about what it means to be a missionary in a post-Christian world.
Could we become a patron of the arts once again?
Gold: A Pictorial History of the Australian Goldrush by Geoff Hocking (The Five Mile Press, 2006)
A Concise History of Australia by Stuart Macintyre (Cambridge University Press, 2004)
The Invention of Melbourne: A Baroque Archbishop and a Gothic Architect, ed. Jaynie Anderson, Max Vodola & Shane Carmody (The Miegunyah Press, 2019)
Enquiries into Religion and Culture by Christopher Dawson (1933)
Christian Bergmann12 August 2022
Fiona Basile10 August 2022