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Fr. James Dixon celebrated first Mass in Australia Famous Castlebridge priest to be honoured

ONE of Castlebridge's most famous sons, who was once sentenced to death for being a United Irishman, is to be honoured again - two centuries after becoming the first priest to celebrate mass in Australia.

Bishop David Cremin - representing Archbishop George Pell and the Archdiocese of Sydney - will visit Castlebridge on May 15 to celebrate the bi-centenary of Fr. James Dixon's first public mass in Australia, which took place three years after he was transported.

Fr Dixon was born in June 1758, and first studied under Fr. John Sutton, PP Oylegate. He then continued to Salamanca in 1778 and lastly to Louvain, where he completed his studies in 1784. He returned to the Diocese of Ferns in 1785 and having assisted in various Parishes was appointed CC to Crossabeg in 1794 to assist Fr. Redmond Roche, PP.

In mid-May 1798 Francis Murphy - a steward to Mr. Edwards of Cribstown (Parish of Rathaspeck) denounced Fr. Dixon 'as a United Irishman' to the Authorities. Fr. Dixon was arrested on Saturday morning May 26th, 1798, was summarily tried and sentenced to transportation and sent to Duncannon Fort to await same.

Next day the Rebellion began. When the rebellion was suppressed Colonel LeHunte of Artramond petitioned for Fr. Dixon's release pending a new trial and this was granted.

He accompanied the LeHunte family to England where he intended to visit with his step-brother Denis Butler - a merchant in Bristol - but, on his arrival, was recognised and denounced as a 'rebel priest' arrested and transferred back to Waterford gaol where he remained until his trial.

This time the charges levelled against him were that he sang a rebel song; was present at the Battle of Tubberneering; wore a medal inscribed 'Erin go brath'; and had administered the 'United Irishmen's Oath' to his parishioners.

He was found guilty of all charges and sentenced to death, commuted to transportation for life to Botany Bay in September 1799. He was transported aboard the 'Friendship', arriving in Port Jackson on January 16th, 1800.

Fr. Dixon was allowed remain in Port Jackson and in 1802 was accorded leave to 'afford spiritual consolation to the Catholic convicts' by the Governor Philip Gidley King (who had replaced the First Governor Collins in September 1800)

On April 21st, 1803, Fr. Dixon was formally recognised as a Catholic Pastor and was allowed 'exercise his clerical functions once every three weeks in rotation at the settlements'.

This Mass was publicly celebrated for the first time in Sydney on May 15th, 1803 by Fr. Dixon, on May 22nd at Parramatta and on May 29th at Hawkesbury. Thomas Flood, of Clonmore, Bree - who had been a fellow convict on board the Friendship - acted as Fr. Dixon's server at these Masses.

In 1804 the Holy See appointed Fr. Dixon as 'Prefect Apostolic of New Holland' (the old name for Australia).

Fr. Dixon thus became the first Prefect Apostolic of Australia and founding father of Australian Catholicism, and was also the first formal Ecclesiastical appointment by the Holy See to Australia.

He retained the title of Prefect Apostolic until 1816 when Fr. Flynn - an Irish Cistercian monk - was appointed to replace him as Fr. Dixon had returned to Ireland in 1809.

In 1810 he was appointed CC to New Ross to assist Dean Chapman, and in 1811 as CC Crossabeg where he remained until 1819, lodging at the home of his brother Nicholas in Castlebridge.

In April 1819 he was appointed PP Crossabeg to succeed Fr. Redmond Roche and he remained as PP until his death on January 4th, 1840.

Upon his appointment as PP in Crossabeg in April 1819, the parishioners built for Fr. Dixon a small house adjacent to the chapel and this remained the Priest's house until the present Parochial house was built in 1845.

His remains were buried 'under the floor of the chapel in Crosabeg on the Epistle side of the altar'.

When the present church was built, Fr. Dixon`s remains and those of five other priests were exhumed and re-interred in the Priests lot in the church grounds on December 13th 1913. The Celtic Cross donated by Fr. Dixons grandson George Barry was officially blessed on August 5th, 1917.

Fr. Dixon's grave has become a 'must visit site' for all Australian Catholics visiting Ireland.