POLDING, John Bede (1794-1877)

POLDING, John Bede (1794-1877)
first Roman Catholic archbishop of Sydney
was born on 18 October 1794 at Liverpool, England. His mother was a sister of the Very Rev. Father Bede Brewer, president general of the English Benedictine congregation. Polding's father died when he was eight and his education was supervised by an uncle. He was sent to the Benedictine school at Acton Burnell and received the religious habit in his seventeenth year. In 1814 he went to Downside near Bath, and continuing his studies was eventually ordained priest on 4 March 1819. He was appointed prefect, and his sympathetic nature gave him much influence over the boys in his care. In 1824 he became novice-master in 1826 secretary to the president general, and on 29 June 1834 was consecrated the first Australian bishop. He had previously declined the see of Madras. He reached Sydney in September 1835. He had brought some clergy with him to reinforce the few already in the colony, and retaining one at Sydney he divided the interior into large missionary districts and placed a priest in charge of each. He had been received by Ullathorne (q.v.), the vicar-general, who was able to tell him of the moral degradation of most of the convicts, and though Polding realized that his greatest hope must he with the rising generation, for many years much of his time was taken up in missionary work with the convict population. His other chief tasks were the provision of schools and the building of churches. In his earlier days in Sydney he had the valuable help of Ullathorne, who by looking after the business of the diocese, was able to free Polding for his missionary labours. Another pressing matter was the completion of the building of the first St. Mary's cathedral, the funds for which had to be collected from a comparatively small community. In 1840 Ullathorne left Australia and Polding went with him to Europe to obtain more clergy, for though the number of priests had increased from eight to nineteen in five years, many more were required. At Rome the question of an Australian Hierarchy was brought forward, and by March 1842 it had been decided that Australia should have three episcopal sees, Sydney, Hobart and Adelaide. Polding had been made an archbishop before he left for Sydney, where he arrived on 9 March 1843. During this visit he was made a Count of the Holy Roman Empire. His title "Archbishop of Sydney" was protested against by the Anglican bishop W. G. Broughton (q.v.) without effect.
Polding found that his boundaries were constantly widening. The new settlement at Melbourne had to be provided with clergy, and a new see had been erected at Perth. He visited Europe again in 1847 and the needs of Melbourne were brought before the propaganda authorities. It was arranged that Polding should have a coadjutor, and the Right Rev. Henry Charles Davis was given this position with the title of bishop of Maitland. Polding returned to Sydney in March 1848 and towards the end of that year a new diocese was created at Melbourne. With all his merits Polding was not a strong administrator and had much worry over financial matters, though Dr Davis was now taking these in hand. In 1854 Polding again visited Rome and it has been stated that his simple and touching words during the discussion upon the dogma of the Immaculate Conception had a great effect upon the assembled bishops. Unfortunately the health of his coadjutor, Bishop Davis, broke down and he died on 17 May 1854. While Polding was at Rome the sending of a petition from some members of the community of St Mary's at Sydney praying for the removal from all authority over them of Dr Gregory, the vicar-general, led to Polding asking to be allowed to resign his see. He was, however, assured that there was the fullest confidence in his diocesan administration. He was much interested after his return in the erection of St John's College at the university of Sydney, and following that the completion of the cathedral of St Mary. The work was steadily carried on and much had been done when on 29 June 1865 the cathedral was laid in ruins by a fire. Undeterred by this disaster the foundations of the new cathedral were laid a few months later. But Polding was now past 70 years of age and felt the need of a vigorous coadjutor. Going to Europe again in November 1865 he was much attracted to Roger William Bede Vaughan (q.v.) and asked that he might be given that position. His request was not granted until 1873. From the end of that year he was freed from the active duties of the diocese. He died on 16 March 1877.
Polding's overflowing kindness, sympathy and humility, helped him to do wonderful work among the neglected convicts during his early days in Australia. But these very qualities led at times to indecision and weakness in administrative work. A dignified, scholarly and eloquent preacher, he was loved by all his flock and respected by all outside it.
H. N. Birt, Benedictine Pioneers in Australia; P. F. Moran, History of the Catholic Church in Australasia; The Catholic Encyclopaedia, vol. XII; The Sydney Morning Herald, 17 March 1877.

Dictionary of Australian Biography by PERCIVAL SERLE. . 1949.

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