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Putting the pieces together

In November, the Diocese of Maitland-Newcastle will celebrate 150 years since its first resident bishop, Bishop Murray, arrived in the Diocese, declaring the parish church of St John the Baptist his cathedral.

​​​Building a living history of the Diocese of Maitland Newcastle

While the Diocese of Maitland (limited to the territory of East Maitland as it was known then) was initially established nearly 20 years earlier, Bishop Murray's arrival in 1866 is generally regarded as the moment the Diocese was born. The first bishop of the Diocese, Bishop Davis, was granted special leave by the Holy See not to reside in Maitland, and then died prematurely without ever having taken possession of his See.

At the time of Bishop Murray's arrival, the Diocese was bounded by Coonamble, Gunnedah and Tamworth to west and Redhead to Camden Haven on the coast; with St John the Baptist at its heart.​ The much anticipated re-opening of St John's will be the pinnacle of anniversary celebrations after an intensive two-year, $5.3 million restoration program, which includes the refurbishment of the adjoining Bishop's House and surrounding grounds.

The former cathedral closed its doors in 2010 when its deteriorating condition was deemed a safety risk. It remained that way, empty and fenced off, until the launch of an appeal to raise funds for its refurbishment in early 2014. "St John's was significant to the settlement and development of the Hunter Region and Northern New South Wales," says Barry Urwin, Manager, Business and Community Engagement, for the Diocese.

"Local historian and Maitland parishioner, Dr Michael Belcher, has been looking at pages from the local paper, the Maitland Mercury, back when they ran the original appeal to build St John's," says Barry. "The list of contributors is a remarkable mix of Catholic, Jewish and Protestant people from across the Colony."

"What this tells us is that St John's was a very important part of the community of Maitland, not just the Catholic community. Having a magnificent new church afforded the town extra status and this meant a lot to local people and businesses, Catholic or not."

"St John's is not only significant to the people of Maitland," says Bishop of the Diocese Bishop Bill Wright. "It also provides a connection to family for many Catholics within the Diocese as well as those dispersed by family history and movement more broadly, around Australia and overseas."

More details for the anniversary will be released as the year progresses, but celebrations will include a pilgrimage from the site of the original parish church in Morpeth, the main port and landing point for people and goods, via the site of the first church in the region in East Maitland, and on to St Johns.  

Do you have a story to share?

To help celebrate the occasion, the Diocese is reaching out to local people in the region, as well as all Australians – both at home and internationally, for help to assist them in piecing together the story of the birth and life of the Diocese.

"We have the chronology, but this only gives us so much," says Barry. "What we're missing is the anecdotal family narrative to fill the story out. The living history of the Diocese as it were."

They are hoping to hear from people who've had any connection with St John's or the Diocese. "It could be a personal experience or a story that involves their forebears," he says.

"We know that many families left the area after major crop failures in the 1860's, resettling further north and to the west, with the lure of work building the railway taking others to the north as well. It's unlikely these people returned to the Diocese. We'd love to hear from their descendants."

CCI's own Leeanne Lynch was born and educated in the Diocese of Maitland-Newcastle and now serves the Diocese as their Account Executive.

"It's wonderful to see the growth that's happened in the Diocese in recent years, especially in the area of education," says Leeanne. "And we look forward to seeing the extensive work on St John's finally come to fruition."

"The Diocese is also in the process of digitising its archival material. Preserving fragile Diocesan documents for generations to come and ensuring they will be accessible to anyone who wants to learn more about the Diocese, its people and its history. CCI is extremely pleased to be able to provide financial support for this important project."

If you have a story to share please contact Barry Urwin, Manager, Business and Community Engagement, Diocese of Maitland Newcastle at barry.urwin@mn.catholic.org.au or on 02 4979 1142.

Visit the Maitland Newcastle website to read more about their 150th anniversary celebrations.

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