March 2019 Print

The First Masses in Australia at Botany Bay

by Frank Carleton

On Saturday January 26, 1788, the two ships of the Lapérouse Expedition entered Botany Bay. They exchanged courtesies with the departing vessels of the British First Fleet then en route to Sydney Cove whence the first British settlement was being transferred. The French vessels anchored near the north headland of Botany Bay. Each ship carried a priest doing the duties of both chaplain and scientific savant. Aboard Lapérouse’s ship, the Boussole was the Abbé Jean-André Mongez (1751-1788?), canon of St. Genevieve in Paris who enjoyed a published scientific reputation in ornithology, entomology and chemistry. Aboard the second ship, the Astrolabe, was a conventual Franciscan friar, Père Claude-François-Joseph Receveur (1757-1788) whose name in religion was Laurent. He was a naturalist who had read a number of papers to the Académie des Sciences at whose behest he was appointed to the expedition. His specialty was geology, especially volcanic phenomena and during the voyage he collected geological and mineralogical specimens. His order’s members were known as cordeliers from the cord girdle with three knots they wore about their grey habits. Since 1788, Père Receveur’s grave on the north headland of Botany Bay has recalled the lengthy local stay of the Lapérouse Expedition before it sailed into oblivion.

Two Priests for the Task

The appointment of two priests to the Lapérouse Expedition was consequent upon a letter of the 21st of April, 1785 from Lapérouse to the Director of Naval Ports and Arsenals while the expedition was fitting out at Brest. He sought a priest “able to say Mass for us and to have talent” meaning scientific talent. Two ships required a priest for each vessel. The religious duties of chaplains in the royal navy of the Ancien Régime were specified in a copious royal Ordonnance concerning the Marine of 1765 which laid down the duties of all types of naval personnel. The chaplain (aumônier) of a naval vessel was obliged to lead daily morning and evening prayer in an audible voice with the crew kneeling. Public prayers like the Angelus were announced before each meal by the ship’s bell. Mass was to be said on Sundays and feast days without exception unless bad weather prevented it and on other days as often as possible. This obligation was of obvious crucial importance for the inception of the Mass in New Holland during the Lapérouse Expedition’s Botany Bay sojourn from January 26 - March 10, 1788.

Amongst a miscellany of Lapérouse and associated papers in the Mitchell Library in Sydney is a billet de demande [requisition] dated July 8, 1785 which requests the provision of a ship’s chapel and its contents for a four-year voyage aboard the Boussole. When a naval chaplain took the Blessed Sacrament from such a location to the sick, the crew knelt with their heads bare. At least once a week the chaplain was required to explain familiarly in French the Epistle and the Gospel of the Sunday or the feast.

Sunday January 27th, the day after the expedition’s arrival in Botany Bay was Sexagesima, the first of seven Sundays during the expedition’s stay. Up to February 17th, the day of Père Receveur’s death, there were 13 feast days, three of which fell on Sundays.

The two priests of the Lapérouse Expedition introduced the traditional Latin Mass of the Roman rite to Australia in early 1788 by reason of the obligation binding on French naval chaplains to say Mass on Sundays and feast days. And the Masses said by the Abbe Mongez after Père Receveur’s death from the February 18th to March 10th add to the total number said at Botany Bay. Masses on four Sundays and seven following feasts including St. Peter’s Chair at Antioch (February 22nd), St. Mathias Apostle (February 24th), St. Thomas Aquinas (March 7th) can be presumed. It is reasonable to conclude that well over 30 Masses were said at Botany Bay by both priests during the Lapérouse Expedition’s lengthy Botany Bay sojourn. They first brought the Mass to Australia.

The Liturgical Arrangements

The liturgical practice of the Navy of the Ancien Régime was for an altar to be erected on the poop deck (sur la dunette) and for the crew to be assembled below it by a drum beat, “battre la Messe” repeated three times. The ship’s colours would be lowered three times at each of the elevations of the Host and the chalice when drums beat a general salute. In 1964, an altar stone in four composite fragments with its five consecration crosses, still clearly defined, was recovered from the wreck of the Boussole at Vanikoro in the Solomon Islands where the two ships foundered in a hurricane within weeks of departing Botany Bay. This sacred artifact was placed on display in the Lapérouse Museum at La Perouse on Botany Bay at its opening in February, 1988 but returned to the Musee de la Marine in Paris in 2008 for a permanent Lapérouse voyage display from 2016.

Upon arrival, local security was uppermost in Lapérouse’s mind in the light of recent tragic experiences, he had received orders in the course of the voyage to reconnaître [figure out] what the British were doing at Botany Bay as a matter of naval and political intelligence. It was also necessary to assemble two longboats from pre-fabricated parts to replace those lost at Maouna (now Tutuila) in the Navigators Islands (present day Samoa) in the murderous affray of December 6, 1787. On that occasion, the Vicomte Fleuriot de Langle, commander of the Astrolabe, and 11 other men were brutally massacred while another 10, including Père Receveur, were wounded and two French longboats destroyed. Therefore, at Botany Bay, the French established a fortified encampment and planted a garden which survived in a wild state for many years afterwards. Tents, including one equipped as an observatory for astronomical observations, were set up within a stockade defended by two small cannons and a ditch.

During this period, there was a succession of 11 cordial visits by British parties to the French at Botany Bay and by French parties to Sydney Cove over land and by sea. As Surgeon Worgan wrote in terms similar to other British First Fleet writers: “… there was a constant succession of mutual good offices passing between us. We visited each other frequently, sometimes the parties going by water, sometimes by land (for it is only 8 to 10 miles over) and the little difficulties and fatigues which the voyagers or the travellers underwent were thought amply compensated if they could obtain social exchange with one another.”

The First Two Masses

The first two Masses would have occurred either on the day of arrival, the feast of St. Polycarp or the next day, Sexagesima. It may be inferred that Mass was only said aboard the two ships by their respective chaplains during the course of the voyage. Nor does Lapérouse’s journal record the expedition’s officers, scientific savants and men ever attending Mass ashore when they landed in Catholic countries. Not at Concepcion in Chile (February 24 – March 15, 1786), nor at Monterey in California (September 15 - 22, 1786) nor at Manila in the Philippines (February 29 – April 9, 1787), all Spanish possessions, nor in Portuguese Macao (January 3 - February 5, 1787). Considerations of security, logistics and personnel deployment would have been paramount at Botany Bay. The notion of landing either or both ships’ crews for Mass in an insecure location at Botany Bay was absurd. The two ships there carried over 170 men comprising officers, crew and scientific savants. And the vessels’ safety and security would have required some personnel to remain on board in any circumstance.

The occasion and circumstances of Père Receveur’s death on February 17, 1788 remain a mystery. It has sometimes been supposed that he died as the result of wounds sustained in the murderous December 1787 affray on Maouna which he escaped by swimming offshore. But this is highly improbable for, 12 days before the priest’s death, Lapérouse wrote to the Minister of Marine: “We reached Botany Bay without a single case of sickness in either vessel.” The possibility of sudden violent death must be considered. Earlier in the voyage Lapérouse had described Père Receveur as “an intrepid naturalist who went ashore at every opportunity to collect geological specimens.” Did he stray alone too far along the shore of Botany Bay away from the French encampment and encounter a hostile aboriginal ambush? On February 21st, four days after Père Receveur’s death, Lieutenant William Bradley wrote: “Some of the officers of the Boussole came from Botany Bay to visit the governor. They inform us that the natives are exceedingly troublesome there and that whenever they meet an unarmed man they attack him.”

Père Receveur’s grave received its Latin epigraph which translates: “Here lies L. Receveur from the Friars Minor, Priest of France, scientist in the circumnavigation of the world under the leadership of Lapérouse, Died February 17th in the year 1788.” This grave on the north side headland of Botany Bay has recalled the earliest contact between France and Australia and the inception of the Mass during the first weeks of the British settlement. Every year on the Sunday closest to the February 17th anniversary of Père Receveur’s death occurs the annual Père Receveur Commemoration: Mass in the same rite used by the two priests of the Lapérouse Expedition celebrated on the verandah of the La Perouse Museum near Père Receveur’s grave by a priest of the Society of Saint Pius X.