History of West Australia/Reverend Father Duff


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Greenham & Evans.

IT is science that has given us the key wherewith to unlock the mysteries of religious consciousness. For years no attempt was made to penetrate into or account scientifically for the data and specific principles of the highest existence of man, but now in a highly developed age everyone asks for its causes and laws. Men of the church, theologians, and philosophers, availing themselves of the discoveries of the age, have applied them carefully to the domain of religion, and have found that it too is a living growth. By indefatigable energy they have through this one principle of development raised religion to a higher level and established it more firmly than ever. No matter whether there are different creeds, sects, and secessions, they all presuppose the organic unity of mankind, and strive to explain our position as regards the Creator and the universe as a whole.

But a little knowledge is a dangerous thing, and some untutored minds laying hold of one argument cling fallaciously to it, and try to pose thereby as sceptics and agnostics. The task then that the spiritual teacher has before him in trying to remove the scales from their eyes and revealing to them the truth is not easy. Half praise and moderate thanks are bestowed on men who labour, often amid perils and hardships, to wean men from error and wickedness. Sufficient recognition of their services to the world at large is lacking, inasmuch as it is to them alone that the ultimate and final end is maintained in thought, thus acting as a check to human error. But those that go forth and leave their homes cheerfully and voluntarily to convey their pious message, travelling wearily over desert sands and through leagues of bush, are the noblest of their kin and most zealous in their desire for universal good. Theirs is not the greed of gold, the love of self, but nobler far the love of human souls.

Within this narrow circle lies the name of the Reverend Father Duff. He was born in Tully, in the county of Louth—dear to every patriotic heart—Ireland, in the year 1860. He was educated at All Hallow's Missionary College, Dublin, where he went through a five years' course, graduating at the end of that term. In 1883, at the early age of twenty-three, he was ordained, and immediately afterwards sailed for Western Australia. On his arrival he acted as coadjutor to Father O'Riley—now Archbishop of Adelaide—for twelve months at Fremantle. Fremantle was then a small township, consequently his labours among the congregation were not extensive, but such an energetic nature as his could not be at rest. He interested himself in various societies, literary and artistic, and in every cause, to promote the welfare of his church. Young and energetic, with an ability commensurate with his activity, he raised these to an unexpected height. By these external and timely kindnesses he endeared himself to all. What then could have been more suitable and more expressive of their respect and admiration than the presentation to him of a handsome and costly illuminated address! With feelings of unfeigned regret he intimated the transference of his sphere of labours to Perth. Here, with Bishop Gibney, he threw heart and soul into his work for five years. Some men are pleased to perform a certain allotted task and never go beyond its bounds. But it is generally agreed that it is these extraordinary offices and services that test the merits of a man. These criteria then must give due prominence to the Reverend Father, for anything that tended to the improvement of his members he not only cherished, but personally upheld. In the Catholic Young Men's Society he was the chief, president, and enthusiastic supporter. He was the mainstay and spiritual director of many other societies.

But over and above all he found time to write that book which so favourably impressed the critic's pen and the reading public. "Landmarks," for such is its title, contains mature advice, moral and spiritual, for all. Every line breathes the sincerity of the writer and his utter abhorrence of every phase of sham. As a guide to safely steer among the rocks and shoals of life its value is great. In 1889 Bishop Gibney despatched Father Duff on a mission to the north-west provinces. He visited Kimberley, and travelled over the length and breadth of the gold fields. No great number of miners was as yet concentrated in one place, so he had to travel over scattered areas. There he gained his first experience and insight into mining life. He was present at the great Ashburton rush, and was the first cleric on the field. Miners thronged in from every quarter to the alluvial deposits. Being a scholar and a thorough student of human character, he soon fathomed and read the miner's mind with success. He preached to them around Kimberley for some considerable time, and always found a sympathetic audience. Even amid the desire for gold there was room to receive the lesson of a deeper and more ultimate kind thundered from he pulpit of Father Duff. What is more impressive than such a scene away on distant plains far from home and hearth! It was here he met Messrs. Moher and Wilson, two of the pioneer prospectors of the Ashburton, bearing in their possession the envied first fruits from the Ashburton River diggings. The extensive area of his mission precluded him from remaining any great time in one place. To the pearlers, from Sharks Bay to Port Darwin, he was commissioned to preach the gospel. His gift of adapting himself to every class was marvellous. Boats, huts, and tents were his domiciles in turn. In daily and hourly intercourse with the pearlers, he succeeded by his affability and generosity in making himself a welcome guest. With that gift of persuasion and power of convincing which is the possession of the few he opened their minds to the great beyond. Not only did he afford them spiritual comfort, but bodily remedies as well. More than once he had to combine the art of healing the body with that of the spirit. The majority of the pearlers hailed from the Philippine Islands; the remainder were composed of Japanese and Malays. The Philippine natives attended mass regularly, and it must be mentioned, to dispose of an unfair rumour, that the masters not only acquiesced in it, but took great pains to induce them to go to church. It was on this tour that he joined Bishop Gibney at Derby, whither the latter had come to establish a native mission. Warden Troy's brother, who unhappily met with an accidental death a few days afterwards, was his fellow traveller on the occasion. In the pamphlets which he wrote on this mission interesting and lively accounts are given of all his experiences, and many humorous anecdotes. In 1890 he fell in with Conelly, who showed him the first piece of gold on the Murchison. Conelly was lucky enough to pick it up on Cruickshank Station. He returned to Perth, but only to prepare himself anew for the same mission. On this second tour he visited Beagle's Bay and Murchison, and wrote an essay on the condition of the blacks. Early in 1893 he found himself among the Murchison goldfields, where he learned with sorrow that people were dying fast with that dreaded pest—typhoid fever. Rendering all the power he could to the afflicted and distressed, he went everywhere praying, comforting, and healing. On a raw Sunday morning, for the first time in the district, he held church services. The rain poured down in torrents, and the bush shed proved no match against the rain, which came lashing through every crack and crevice of the wall. There on that very spot is now the village of Cue, rearing her noble head in splendour. The tales of his wanderings here, amid some desolate waste, some unwelcome thicket, is sad and pathetic. Often reduced to want, thirsty, hungry, sore in body and mind, he wearily pursued his course. Sufferings and privations reduced his system, and miracles saved him from fever and death. Again he reached Perth, and after a short respite he went to the Katanning district, which kept him within its confines twelve months. In that time great progress was made, for in a marvellously short time two churches sprang up. Everything and everybody was in a fever of excitement; gold was being found in great quantities at Coolgardie, and miners rushed there in hundreds. Here, then, he must repair, for with this influx of population missions must be established. He set out for Coolgardie and found it, even as short a time ago as 1894, a small and unimportant place. It only boasted of two bush hotels and a few small stores. What a change the Father witnesses now as he arrives in the puffing train at the city of Coolgardie! He brought two horses with him; but now, perhaps, he came to the conclusion that such luxuries should have been left behind. There were meat and drink certainly, but the cost—a shilling for a few breath-blows of chaff and water—as expensive as medicine. One night, as he was going to the Government bore for water he stumbled, fortunately, against some of his countrymen. After exchanging the usual patriotic remarks, he asked their opinion of the fields. One of the questioned replied with some "hauteur" that they were a huge swindle, and within three months every white man would be gone. If that sage still lives no doubt he will wish that he had swallowed his prophecy. The cost of keeping the horses he found out was £l each per day, so thanks to a lean purse, he had to barter one to keep the other. On one Sunday in April, 1894, he preached to forty of a congregation in Leever's Hotel, and on the Sabbath following in a store. An amusing episode occurred in connection with the latter service. An old Hebrew, who was about to become its owner, rushed in with mad haste and asked the meaning of the convention. Satisfactory explanations were quietly advanced, which served to allay the old Hebrew's excited feelings, and he retired, apologising profusely.

With his faithful horse the kindly Father set out for Perth, but whether from excess of chaff or toilsome march the beast could proceed only slowly, and six days elapsed before Southern Cross was reached. Often on the way was he forced to borrow food and water for himself and his steed to keep the last spark of life alive. At Southern Cross he deemed it advisable after cruel experiences to sell his horse and buy a safety bicycle. The advantages of the latter over the former were undoubtedly great, he thought as he pondered on the excessive charge of feeding stuff. He bought a cycle on Tuesday, practised it on Wednesday, mastered it on Thursday, and set out for Coolgardie on Friday. No doubt he was an object of interest on the fields as he proudly tore along from one place to the other. All over the fields he went on the wheel, and in one circuit he embraced Kurnalpi on to Menzies. He was the first clergyman who rode a bicycle on the fields, and men thought him possessed of great individuality. Like all cyclists he is subject to the wrath of the machine. Falls, bruises, limps, and sores formed a complete list of his accidents. He has rendered great services to all indiscriminately. His loving manner his made him a great friend with everyone on the fields. They showed tangible signs of their esteem by presenting him with an exquisite illuminated address and a purse of sovereigns. In this address there was nothing more appropriate than a little scene picturing the Father himself on the bicycle. In presenting the address, Mr. E. S. Harney spoke in eulogistic terms of the Reverend Father's kindness and sympathetic spirit. It showed in a marked degree high appreciation of and fond admiration for all his many noble traits of character. The address is worded at length, but a few appropriate quotations will serve to illustrate that stern, fearless, and upright life, surmounting the many dangers and perils that strewed his path. "You came to the field," it says, "to discharge the duties of your sacred office when no human incentive could have impelled you to undertake the perilous functions incidental to it. Your prowess as a cyclist, carrying with you on a pair of wheels, to meet the extraordinary exigencies of your calling, the robes and sacred utensils which your forefathers in times of persecution were forced to carry on their backs, has made your individuality historic. Ever ready with an encouraging word for the stranger, and always prompt in materially aiding the hopeless and helpless, you have placed hundreds under obligations that they never can redeem." These words will help to convey some idea of the many excellent phases of his character, but even words are but a poor substitute for acts. The reader can allow his mind to frame a mental image of a faithful and devoted servant, hurrying in death-like silence from the chambers of the dying perhaps to the dead. Typhoid fever—the bare mention of which chills the warmest blood—swept over the fields in pestilential robes, and breathed forth dire death from its nostrils. Everywhere was agony, wailing, and death. What could be done to relieve such awful suffering and distress. Far removed from medical skill in some parts, un-nursed, unnourished, the kindly Father, amid extreme peril, visited these and rendered all human aid. From camp to camp, from hut to hovel, he hastened, hardly waiting to partake of the bare necessaries of life, for all seemed to claim his attention. Not all; over hundreds of miles of dreary, blank, and desolate waste, he directed his weary steps to render further help to poor fever-stricken patients. The horrors of that awful plague, his undying attention to the sick, universal suffering—heart-rending and appalling—meeting him everywhere, would alone have brought to the level of the dust herculean might, but superhuman aid kept in action these vital sparks. Dramatic, and cruelly dramatic, as was his lot, such utilitarian conduct must be the more esteemed and admired. His own life was to him as valueless as straw; he was contended and happy to die in the service of others. Such an exemplary life, the ideal of nineteenth century philosophers, is here manifested beyond all conception. As such it is the noblest, yea, a thing of beauty and a joy for ever, The many recipients of his timely aid will never, and can never, repay adequately services rendered them amid such circumstances. These external manifestations of exalted character are welcomed and worshipped by the world. He went forth truly to save souls; cruel fate made him save bodies as well. He relates himself how he discharged the combined offices of priest, undertaker, and grave-digger on the same night. Such adaptability requires a stout heart and fearless mind, which he possessed in a rare degree; the majority would have reached the verge of lunacy had such a ghastly and dire necessity been forced on them.

The Reverend Father has visited every particle of land in the country ever trodden on by man. He visited Kimberley in 1885, and again was the importer of a new article. He brought the first umbrella to Derby on that journey, and people looked on it with as much curiosity as if it had been a balloon or steam engine. He travelled all along the coast before the goldfields were discovered there. The two essays he wrote on this journey were favourably received by the press. They contain valuable and accurate information of the places visited. With a lively and homely touch, couched in sweet English, they are truly enjoyable and vivacious.

In summarising such a life, the outstanding features are difficult to portray. In a life where every element is pure, rich, and exalted—where every atom is blended into a beauteous molecular whole—the description of attributes are inseparable from the mass. Still, of character resulting in conduct towards his fellow men, sympathy wedded to universal kindness is everywhere seen. The complex web of his affections is sincere and purely extra-regarding. A deep and fervent religious spirit has been his daily guide and hourly help, sustaining him in periods of physical exhaustion. His life is one huge bundle of good works towards an unrequiting mankind.