Short of height but large in girth, he tipped the scales at 127 kilos (twenty stone), Bishop Elzear Torreggiani arrived in Melbourne in November 1879. Two weeks later, he arrived in Armidale to take up his new bishopric. This was, in some ways, a very political appointment, but also an inspired one.
The Catholic diocese of Armidale was created in November 1862, but the first bishop, Dr Timothy O’Mahony, was not consecrated until 1869. Bishop O’Mahony’s arrival in Armidale was delayed by his attendance at the First Vatican Council (December 1869- October1870). Finally, on 23 March 1871, he took possession of his new see.
Bishop O’Mahony threw himself into the organisation .and development of the Armidale diocese. However, scandal now intervened. To understand this, we need to understand a little of church politics.
The then head of the Roman Catholic Church in Australia, Archbishop John Polding was an English Benedictine. Polding’s views on the role of the Church were opposed by some of the majority Irish clergy. In February 1873 and at Polding’s insistence, Roger William Bede Vaughan was appointed coadjutor Archbishop.
An Englishman like Polding, Vaugan’s appointment was supported by Cardinal Manning, the Catholic Archbishop of Canterbury and indeed the British Government itself. However, Vaughan proved to be a somewhat difficult man who soon formed an extremely critical view of Polding’s administration.
O’Mahony, friendly, hospitable and a bright conversationalist, was initially favoured Vauhan. However, not long after Vaughan arrived, O’Mahony involved himself in colonial church politics, signing with his fellow Irish suffragans a post-factum objection to Vaughan as Archbishop.
Rumours began circulating the clergy and laity in the north. O’Mahony’s jovial habits were interpreted as intemperance, while a claim against him by a young woman about the paternity of her child became public knowledge. Later this charge was withdrawn and the author of the blackmail, a priest whom O'Mahony had trusted, was named. However, by then it was too late.
In 1874, Archbishop Vaughan formally referred the rumours and charges against O’Mahony to Rome and was directed to investigate. He was then accused of bias in his selection of witnesses by Bishop James Quinn of Brisbane.
Quinn was concerned for the prestige of the Irish bishops and scented a conspiracy against them. He therefore sent Father George Dillon to Armidale to obtain evidence to clear O'Mahony from the charge of being 'a perpetual drunkard' and mounted a violent counter-attack in Australia and the Irish College.
In 1875, Vaughan reported to Rome that he found the main charge unproven, but recommended that O'Mahony resign and go to Rome. Mahony had little choice but to accept. Vaughan then appointed Torreggiani, an Italian, as O’Mahony’s replacement in part on the grounds that he was neither English nor Irish!
In my next column, I will continue the remarkable story of Elzear Torreggiani and the mark he left upon Armidale.
Note to readers: This post appeared as a column in the Armidale Express Extra on 9 October 2013. I am repeating the columns here with a lag because the columns are not on line outside subscription. You can see all the Belshaw World and History Revisited columns by clicking here for 2009, here for 2010, here for 2011, here for 2012, here for 2013.