Fr Joseph Dalton SJ (1817 –1905), Father of the Australian Jesuit Colleges (painted by Signor Celli after Fr Dalton’s death).
The story of Fr Joseph Dalton really begins with another Irish priest, a diocesan one, Fr John Therry. He was a greatly loved chaplain to the Irish convicts and the working class. Some of those poor ones were soon to make their way in society and their fortune. Therry was the recipient of their gratitude and largesse – and died a rich man in 1865. Though he would hardly have known a Jesuit in his life, Therry left his estate to the Irish Province. The following year the Irish Jesuits began their mission to Australia.
Joseph Dalton was educated at Clongowes Wood College and returned there to teach after joining the Jesuits and being ordained. Following a Rectorship elsewhere, he departed for the Australian mission in his 50th year. His Irish colleagues of the time described him as a “man of great energy and vision, who communicated a driving ambition for the success of any venture to which he committed himself”.
Dalton arrived in Melbourne in 1866 as superior of the Jesuit mission in Australia. He was accompanied by two priests and two brothers. One brother soon departed to marry and the other just ran off! The first of Dalton’s many tasks was to revive St Patrick’s College, which had opened at East Melbourne in 1854 with a government grant, but closed after eight years through maladministration. Dalton worked towards building the grandiose St Ignatius’ Church in Richmond, designed by William Wardell (a future Riverview parent), capable of seating almost his entire 4000 parishioners. In his district he built other chapels, schools and churches, including the Church of the Immaculate Conception, Hawthorn. He gave many retreats, lectured often on secular education, and engaged in controversy which led once to litigation. On seventy acres of land bought at Kew in 1871, he built Xavier College which opened in 1878, costing £40,000.
The Jesuits were keen to move to Sydney but the Archbishop Vaughan was suspicious. He had a brother, also a bishop, in England who advised him that, were he to invite the Jesuits into his Archdiocese, he would be “making a rod for his own back”. Added to this there were many parliamentary and protestant forces aligning against any such move of the Jesuits. But as it happened, the Irish Jesuit Mission was invited to Sydney in 1878. As superior there, Dalton took charge within eight months of the North Sydney “parish” (which stretched from the harbor to Broken Bay!). Those early Jesuits lived simply in a four room shanty built from corrugated iron and flattened kerosene tins. In 1879, Dalton started St Kilda House in Woolloomooloo (the precursor of St Aloysius’ College), and was its Rector for one year. He provided a parish priest for St Mary’s, North Sydney, he purchased two acres in Lavender Bay for St Francis Xavier’s Church and built another church at St Leonards. Then he established St Ignatius’ College, Riverview, in 1880 with its 118 acres. There he lived after his retirement in 1883 and died on 5 January 1905. His funeral from St Mary’s North Sydney was huge. His transparency and goodness had melted away any hostilities or suspicions over the years. Dalton’s only “failure” was St Aloysius’ College which he established in Dunedin, New Zealand, which closed in 1883 due to staffing shortage.
Dalton was revered and loved by his former students. “There was a pervading kindness about his personality which captivated all who met him; but with it all, he was a keen judge of character.” His firm but kindly style was recalled. “I would rather take a hiding than hear Dalton say he is surprised and pained, because I know he is speaking the truth, and we ought to be ashamed of ourselves.” His students were strongly influenced by his genuine concern for them as people. Fr Patrick Keating wrote that “Fr Dalton is a man of most wonderful influence with outsiders. I don’t think there is a priest in Australia who is more known and respected than he is.” His wisdom, tact and common sense made him the friend and confidant of bishops, and won him respect from vice-royalty and members of parliament, as well as distinguished overseas visitors.
Dalton was no innovator in education, nor a scholar or intellectual, but a simple, practical and courageous man with extraordinary strength. He founded four colleges and gave them the traditional Jesuit character of the European model. He accepted existing standards of the educated Catholic gentleman, and communicated these to others.
His spirituality was pious and practical; religious beliefs demanded application to real life. He was concerned for the faith of his students, their academic progress, and character development, keen that they be influential in the development of Australia. His educational views were religious and academic, hoping to provide what was necessary for the sound development of students.
Dalton published nothing, and his inner life is not revealed in his diary (1866-88). Those who knew him well attested that he was first and foremost a holy priest, and he was widely revered. His energy and vision were striking, and his work established the Irish Jesuits in the eastern colonies.
Next Tuesday we will be celebrating the sesquicentenary of Dalton’s arrival in Australia. Sixteen of our Year 10 boys will join fellow students from St Aloysius’ College, Milsons Point, and Xavier College, Kew. Included in our band will be Angus (Year 11) and Timothy (Year 8) Dalton (great-great-grandsons of prominent merchant Thomas Dalton, former student of Fr Dalton, who arranged for his body to be reinterred in the Dalton Memorial Chapel and whose family vault is in the Gore Hill Cemetery) and Charlie Rorke (Year 11), whose great-great-grandfather, also Charles Rorke, was the first College doctor at Riverview and who is also buried at Gore Hill. From there we will begin a Pilgrimage to the College where Mass will be celebrated in the Dalton Memorial Chapel, followed by lunch in the Rose Garden.
Doubtless, the humble and self-effacing Joseph Dalton would be wondering what all the fuss is about. But Dalton gifted the Australian Church, the Society of Jesus, and our alma mater with a great vision. And we enjoy such a vision, as Newton once remarked, only “because we stand on the shoulders of giants”.