After watching the proceedings of the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse, I expect you, like me, are a bit suspicious of Catholic priests. So when I decided to find out more about Father Reginald Corbett, first Catholic priest in Kandos, I sniffed under, over and around every bit of information that came my way. On public evidence he came out squeaky clean, so I will tell you his story – as far as I know it.
A bit of background first. If you have ever wondered how we came to have our inequitable school system, it all began in 1880 when the NSW parliament passed the Public Instruction Act, legislating free, secular and compulsory education for all children; and withdrawing state aid to religious schools. The Catholic Church responded firstly by issuing a Pastoral Letter stating that Catholics must send their children to Catholic schools. And secondly by importing large numbers of nuns and priests from Ireland, in order to establish Catholic schools and parishes, paid for by the Catholic community.
It is estimated that in 1901 87% of priests in Sydney were born in Ireland. And that’s where Reginald Corbett comes in. Born in Donohill Tipperary in 1862, he studied and was ordained in Rome (1886). He arrived in Australia just after Federation and spent his first two years in Carcoar, learning Aussie ways from parish priest Father Kelly. After a brief period serving the Bishop in Bathurst and then the Wellington community, he got his own parish at Sofala.
It was Tuesday September 5 1922 that Father Corbett moved to Kandos permanently and I don’t think anyone’s arrival here could have been gloomier and more shocking than his. And yet it was the pinnacle of his priestly career. He had been the much loved and respected parish priest of the Sofala district for seventeen years. Now he was being relocated to the renamed parish of Kandos, essentially covering the same area, but now with a growing industrial nerve centre.
In the previous eighteen months he had worked with Bishop O’Farrell, to select sites for a church-school, convent and presbytery at Kandos; contracted W B Murphy to erect the church-school for £1945; purchased a home from C R Brooks in Rodgers Street for a temporary convent; purchased a brick house from J Ensor in Dangar Street for a temporary presbytery; and encouraged his parishioners to continue fund-raising to pay for all the work.
The community of Sofala, Catholic and non-Catholic, were devastated that he was leaving them. But no hard feelings. They whipped around and bought him an Overland car to help him get around a little faster to all parts of his extensive parish, including Sofala, Rylstone, Hill End, Wattle Flat, Hargraves, Capertee, Sally’s Flat, Pyramul, Tabrabucca and Crudine.
He had resisted the new car for two years because of “allegiance to a faithful horse (Dolly by name) and buggy, that have been inseparable friends to the priest for over 15 years”. I can understand his resistance to the new-fangled “speedier locomotion”. Like technology today anything could go wrong with it. Which is why his parishioners came up with a solution in the form of a young local, Ray Cole. He would be the priest’s chauffeur for nine months. That would have been enough time for a mechanically able twenty-one-year-old to teach Father Corbett all he needed to know about the car – air, water, petrol, battery, tyres, lights, gears, brake, wiring, hand crank etc. As well as how to drive it over all the difficult mountainous roads he had to cover.
So on that Tuesday Ray Cole drove Father Corbett into Kandos for the last time. A big weekend was coming up with the Bishop arriving on Friday for a concert in the Angus Memorial Hall in aid of the Catholic Church building fund. They were expecting a packed house. Then on Sunday afternoon there would be the laying and blessing of the foundation stone of the church-school. And the opening of a subscription list to raise more money.
Ray’s job was done and Father Corbett gave him his train fare to Bathurst. Imagine how Corbett felt when he learnt on Thursday that Ray was dead. It wasn’t long for the story to get around. Apparently Ray missed his train on Wednesday night, so next day he decided to walk to Sofala. A few miles out of town he met John Slattery transporting Father Corbett’s furniture on his horse team. An offer was made: come back to Kandos with me while I deliver this load and I’ll lend you the saddle horse to ride back to Sofala. It suited Ray, but on a whim he decided to stick with Slattery and the team until 4pm and then ride home.
At Reedy Creek on the Clandulla Road Slattery got off the wagon to water the team when a burst of lightning killed Ray (still on the wagon) and four horses. Slattery and the offside horses were unharmed.
I wonder just how Father Corbett reconciled that event. Surely there was guilt, grief and remorse. Was there anger at God? What did he say to Ray’s foster parents? Did he get to the funeral on Sunday afternoon? No, though I don’t doubt he would have wanted to. He was at the laying of the foundation stone at 3pm. How did he feel about his car now?
Less than two weeks later Father Corbett had a lucky escape. While ascending a steep hill near Sofala, about half way up, he attempted to put the car into second gear. He failed and the car began to run backwards. A passenger jumped out and directed the wheels towards a culvert and embankment, which the car struck with force, causing up to £50 damage. It seems to me Corbett never really got to love the Overland. Six months later he “purchased another car for parish work” – a Dodge. It was the same time he had the telephone installed at the presbytery (Number 7).
I’ve been struck, as I’ve trolled through newspapers, just how popular Father Corbett was, but I’m not quite sure why. Was it his charm? His hard work? His demeanour? I discovered he enjoyed playing tennis, he was an exceptional public speaker and there were always lots of people at events in his honour. There is other evidence to show his popularity. Over his 25 years in Australia he was presented with numerous purses of sovereigns, wallets of notes, illuminated addresses, special events, a gold hunting watch and chain, and of course the car. The enthusiastic praise can’t be ignored either: “one of the most popular priests…so great a favourite…made hosts of friends”. Then there was “the revered friend of all who knew him…greatly beloved…esteemed and honoured”. When he moved to Kandos he was “regarded in the highest esteem by all classes and creeds”.
That is the quality that began to stand out for me, his non-sectarianism, at a time when sectarianism was commonplace. Non-Catholics spoke of their friendship with him and he frequently thanked non-Catholics for their generosity and attendance. The media often mentioned the non-sectarian community at Kandos.
There is not much more I can tell you. His life here was cut short by illness and in February 1925, after an “unprecedented reception of 500 people” he sailed to Ireland for twelve months’ holiday. He returned, but only for eight months and was then given leave to return to Ireland indefinitely. Father Corbett died at St Vincent’s Private Hospital Dublin on 5 March 1933 and was buried in his native village.
But he wasn’t forgotten in Australia where a Solemn Requiem High Mass was celebrated at Bathurst two months later. His obituary read: “so devoted was he to his work…that…he never once slept a single night out of his large mountainous parish…equalled only by his complete charity of speech…a man who offends not in word”. He appears in the Official Directory of the Catholic Church in Australia – deceased clergy, so Australia still claimed him. Nor did he forget Kandos, leaving in his will £125 to St Dominic’s Church.
Did he have any dark secrets? Who knows.
The featured image of Kandos Catholic Church comes from bathurst.catholic.org.au