My daughter and I attend Mass at St Patrick's Cathedral.
A little while ago, it occurred to me that we are (respectively) the 6th and 5th generation of Gabbetts to sit in those pews. My parents were married there, my grandparents and godfather buried from there, all but two of my father's 9 siblings were married there. For generations of my family it was their school and parish church, their spiritual refuge and their social hub.
It is no small thing and a bit overwhelming. I still have echoing in my head very funny tales my father told me about he and his four brothers being altar boys there. His father served at the altar too, and his father (my great-grandfather), John Gabbett, was very heavily involved in the Cathedral community and in the many extra-curricular societies aimed at maintaining a distinct Irish and Catholic presence within Toowoomba. It was his father, William, who had left the tiny village of Abington in Limerick in 1877 to try his luck in Queensland.
When that cathedral was first built (as a church only) in the 1860s, over a quarter of the population of the Darling Downs were Catholic. It is very likely that 80% or more of those Catholics were Irish. The Irish presence in Toowoomba is still evident in that strong Catholic presence. Even the two oldest Catholic schools in Toowoomba were founded and staffed in their beginning years by the Christian Brothers and the Sisters of Mercy, both Irish religious orders. This connection stayed until very recently, and I am sure I am not the only member of our community who was taught by at least one Irish nun in a Mercy school.
It is easy to forget that the Catholic Irish who stepped off boats into Australia in the 19th century were entering a country that was at times aggressive towards them, sought at times to alienate them from wealth and power and was antagonistic towards their religion. The fact that we have had Prime Ministers, leaders of business and commerce and men and women of authority with a similar background to mine is evidence of the resilience and fortitude of these immigrants, and the calibre of the schools they established! It's fair to say that the emigration from Ireland to the rest of the world in the nineteenth century is an amazing study of the transmission of faith and culture in challenging environments.
On this St Patrick's Day, perhaps it is most appropriate to reflect not just on his evangelism, but on the quiet and steady evangelism of the emigrants of Ireland, many of whom left their country to escape poverty, hunger and dispossession and spread a rich and beautiful culture of faith, community and belonging.
Mr Chris Gabbett