Discussions on the history and historiography of Australia's New England

Wednesday, October 23, 2013

History revisited - Torreggiani makes his mark

In my last column, I referred to the unfortunate political circumstances that led to the sudden departure of Armidale’s first Roman Catholic Bishop, Bishop O’Mahony. I also suggested that Elzear Torreggiani was selected as replacement because he was neither English nor Irish!

Aloysius, he received the name Ezra when he joined the Order of St Francis, was born in Italy in 1830. After studying philosophy and theology at Ancona, he volunteered for the foreign missions. To his surprise, he was sent to England: “I knew it must be the will of God” he said later, “because there was none of my own in it.”

His success in Wales and England as a missioner and administrator drew him to the attention of Archbishop Vaughan of Sydney as a possible replacement to Bishop O’Mahony. Torreggiani accepted the call, arriving in Sydney in March 1879.

Torreggiani’s new post was a real challenge. It was geographically huge, covering the Western Slopes, Tablelands and much of the North Coast, with no railways and very few defined roads. There were some 10,000 Catholics in the diocese, served by only nine priests and two schools. He had to heal the divisions created by the disputes over Bishop O’Mahony, while managing fundamental changes in the Church itself.

The new Bishop decided that his first task must be to visit every corner of his vast territory. Over the next three years, he traveled by steamer, by coach, in buggies and by horseback, crisscrossing east to west and north to south. In all, he covered over 64,000 km (40,000 miles), returning to Armidale briefly in breaks to carry out necessary business.

Torreggiani’s weight (133 kg) added to his difficulties, but he seemed to thrive. Later, he would delight in recounting stories of his travels. He had, he would say, wrecked two buggies and almost wrecked two steamers, one of which had run aground on a sandbank near Lismore.

To those who feared for his safety during this time, he said that instead of getting killed he had become stouter and was increasing daily in health and strength!

Torreggiani’s personality shines through in the stories about him. In the twenty-five years he shared a house with the Bishop, Patrick O’Connor later wrote, he had never seem him once ruffled despite circumstances that would almost tempt a saint.

As we shall see next week in the last episode in this story, Bishop Torreggiani would need those strengths.

Note to readers: This post appeared as a column in the Armidale Express Extra on 16 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.

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