February 17, 2008

 17 February 2008 marks the 220th Anniversary of the death of Pere Receveur at La Perouse and as in previous years a special ceremony will be held to mark the occasion at the Laperouse Museum.  This will be organized by St. Andrew’s Catholic Church in Malabar.  Cardinel Pell’s opening:

Mass at La Perouse to celebrate the 220th Anniversary of the death of Father Louis Receveur

By + Cardinal George Pell
Archbishop of Sydney


We gather for this anniversary Mass in the season of Lent preparing for Easter.  Today in fact is the exact anniversary of the death of Father Louis Receveur, a Conventual Franciscan on the 17th February, 1788, who was one of the two priest chaplains on Jean-Francois de La Perouse’s expedition of discovery, map-making and scientific investigation, which sailed from Brest, France in 1785.

We pray today for all those brave explorers into unknown and uncharted territories and especially for the French sailors on La Bussole and L’Astrolabe who perished later on the Santa Cruz Islands.

The French entered Botany Bay soon after Captain Phillip’s fleet had arrived and was transferring to Port Jackson on January 26th, 1788.  I wonder how much different life might have been if they had arrived earlier.  Perhaps our history would have been like Canada’s!

Today we remember in particular Fr. Receveur who is buried nearby.  We shall pray at his grave after Mass, because he is the first Catholic priest buried on our continent and the first Catholic Mass was celebrated here or on the ships at anchor.

Receveur was a scientist, an experienced geologist with a special interest in volcanoes, but more importantly, the ships’ journals carried to Europe by the British showed that he performed his priestly duties well, had an amiable manner and “great good sense”.  You don’t need much imagination to envisage the terrible pressures that could build up on tiny ships as they journeyed across unknown seas, regularly in extreme temperatures, often short of food and water, beset by storms.  We know from Spanish and English accounts, not only of the petty squabbles, but of the burning animosities that developed in these small closed communities.  A kind and sensible chaplain would have been invaluable.

We now live in happier times, because King Louis XVI, who followed closely the fortunes of the expedition, was imprisoned and then executed by the French Revolution of 1789.  Napoleon rose to power and the Napoleonic Wars followed as Britain and France struggled for the mastery of the world.  None of this occurred on the Australian mainland.

Just as it is right that we acknowledge the original inhabitants of this continent, so it is also right and just to pay tribute to the bravery and skills of the French and British explorers who discovered the Eastern coast of Australia.

On the walls of the Apostolic Palace at the Vatican, and on other early maps on Europe, the Eastern coast of Australia is left a blank, the unknown Great South Land.  We salute the brave men who filled these gaps in human knowledge and then planted a wonderful civilisation on these shores.

In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.  Amen.

The Laperouse expedition included two Catholic priests, Abbé Jean-Andre Monges and Fr Claude-Francois Joseph Louis Receveur, a Franciscan monk.  Pere Receveur served as naturalist and astronomer as well as chaplain. He was also a skilled botanist, geologist, chemist, meteorologist, and philologist -as close as one could get to being an ecologist in the 18th century.  

Receveur sustained an injury in the Samoan Islands which in the log was described as a “violent contusion of the eye”.  On January 23, 1788 Laperouse arrived at Botany Bay and as the English were erecting their first camp at Farm Cove a few days later the French made theirs around Frenchman’s Beach.  Pere Receveur did not recover from the wound he received and died on February 17th.  Consequently he holds the distinction of being the first French man, first Catholic priest and first scientist to be buried in Australian soil.  His obsequies were the first Catholic religious ceremony held in Australia.  This is the first occasion, of which there is reasonable evidence, of a Mass being celebrated in Australian territory.  The Laperouse Museum collection includes the Altar Stone used by Receveur and the preserved Eucalypt Tree Trunk which marked his grave.

After breakfast we visited the grave of the French abbé who died whilst the Count de Peyrouse was here. It was truly humble indeed, being distinguished only by a common head-stone, stuck slightly into the loose earth which covered it. Against a tree, just above it, was nailed a board, with the following inscription on it:


As the painting on the board could not be permanent, Governor Phillip had the inscription engraved on a plate of copper and nailed to the same tree; and at some future day he intends to have a handsome head-stone placed at the grave. We cut down some trees which stood between that on which the inscription is fixed and the shore, as they prevented persons passing in boats from seeing it. (from Journal of a Voyage to New South Wales, November 1788, by John White, Chief Surgeon for the first fleet and first settlement )

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