Father Therry and the Balmain Catholic Cemetery

 As Australia’s pioneer priest, Father John Joseph Therry stepped ashore in Sydney in May 1820, little would he have imaged that thirty seven years later, as parish priest of the parish of St. Augustine at Balmain in Sydney’s inner west, he would ‘do a deal’ with one of Sydney’s leading Protestants to acquire four acres in a remote part of his parish to establish a Catholic cemetery. The cemetery was known as the Balmain Catholic cemetery and for the next half century many Balmain pioneers were laid to rest there. The cemetery closed around 1905 and over the following 100 years, all traces of this cemetery disappeared and today’s visitor to the site would have no inkling that a cemetery ever existed there. The location has become one of Catholic Sydney’s least known historic sites.  The cemetery land now houses St. Columba’s church, presbytery and primary school plus a convent for the Sisters of St. Joseph.  

When Therry obtained the land most of today’s Leichhardt was part of a large estate known as the Elswick Estate and was owned by Sydney solicitor and MLA James Norton, who with his family, lived on the estate in a large house known as Elswick House. In later years the Sisters of St. Joseph purchased Elswick House to establish a school and today, although much altered, it is part of the offices of the Catholic Education Office.

How Father Therry obtained the land is both fascinating and a little mysterious. It is thought that around 1857, Therry did a ‘deal’ with James Norton to obtain the land on a progressive payment basis, regrettably both Therry and Norton died before the transaction was completed. It is now thought that the cemetery land is one of the many blocks of land that Therry bequeathed to the Society of Jesus in Ireland to encourage them to come to Australia.

The cemetery land eventually passed to the Balmain parish in January 1869 when it  was legally transferred to a committee of trustees comprising Archbishop Polding, the Balmain parish priest Father Dillon and two well known Balmain identities, Michael Hyland and Martin Cherry.

Whilst there are legends that Father Therry began to carry out burials in 1857, the first ‘proven’ burial is that of Catherine Leahy on 16th September 1868 and the funeral notice of Matthew Byrnes dated 12 December 1868 states that his place of burial is the new Catholic cemetery at Balmain. This suggests that burials actually started around the end of 1868.

 Regrettably the burial register has been lost and knowing who is buried under the buildings now on the site is very difficult, however a local historian with fond memories of growing up in Leichhardt has written a history of the cemetery and is working to re-create the burial register and is anxious to hear from any readers who have memories or photos of this cemetery and especially anyone with information about burials which took place there.

 If you can help, please contact:

Patrick Callaghan by mail at

1 Katina St. Turramurra or by

 email at: thecallaghans@goconnect.net 


4 thoughts on “Father Therry and the Balmain Catholic Cemetery

  1. In my work of indexing a local newspaper, “The Standard”, I’ve come across reports in the 1894-1896 period of alleged health problems at the cemetery. There was a Leichhardt Council by-law which said that graves had to be 7ft deep and could not contain more than two adult corpses per grave. It seems that, to save money, people who owned grave sites kept using them beyond the allowable two corpses. The Council, having heard of these infractions, ordered its splendidly titled Inspector of Nuisances to investigate. He visited the cemetery one day in 1896 when a burial was in progress, and observed that the grave had so many coffins in it that there was only 2ft 9in of space available, so that when the present coffin was added it would only be about 1ft 6in below the surface of the ground. (The gravedigger was subsequently prosecuted for burying a body in a grave less than 7ft deep, and was fined 5 pounds, which he couldn’t pay, so he went to prison for two weeks.) The Inspector later returned to the cemetery with a metal rod which he used to probe various graves to see how deeply the bodies were buried. He probed three graves at random and found that the depths from the surface of the ground to the top of the coffins were, respectively, 11in, 16in and 23in. He reported to the Council that “from the first two graves there were most offensive smells arising which … must be dangerous to health”. He recommended that these bodies be re-interred at a much greater depth without delay. The Council seemed to agree but I have not so far come across reports of any action to re-inter bodies buried too shallowly. Perhaps nothing was done, and many bodies still lurk only inches below the surface.

  2. I have heard on the grape vine that the cemetery was closed for the reason mentioned above.

    I also found on the leichhardt council site some information a burial register they have started to put together. – this was page was posted April 2010 so maybe you have not found it yet.

    I went to primary school at St Columbas so I would be very interested to hear if the bodies are still there… I do remember my older brother coming home from school one day with part of a head stone he found in the playground.

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