Fr Julian Tenison Woods: 'Father Founder'


Mary MacKillop and Fr Julian Tenison Woods
Artist Reg Campbell's painting of Mary MacKillop and Fr Julian Tenison Woods © Sisters of St Joseph, Perthville

By Sr Margaret Press RSJ
Sisters of St Joseph Perthville

There is a well-known painting of Blessed Mary MacKillop and Father Julian Tenison Woods standing together. Mother Mary is known far and wide as foundress of the Sisters of St Joseph of the Sacred Heart, yet she always referred to Julian Woods as Father Founder. She reinforced that description by writing his life story after he died.

What could be the reason for her steadfast acknowledgment of the joint role of this Australian-born daughter of Scottish parents and the English priest? In fact, it is impossible to reflect fully on her life and work without knowing about his.

The life story of Julian Edmund Tenison Woods can be divided into two parts, the experiences of both giving colour and inspiration to his life's work.

Until the age of 23, he lived in England and France; the rest of his life was spent in Australia, with an excursion to South East Asia in the latter years. His parents, James Woods and Henrietta Tenison were, in fact, both Irish, but when the Catholic lawyer wished to marry the daughter of a Church of Ireland rector, descendant of an Archbishop of Canterbury, the couple moved to London. With their family of one daughter and seven sons, they lived in and around Southwark or sometimes in the country at Sydenham.

For the last years of her short life, Henrietta Woods and the younger children, including Julian, lived on the island of Jersey. Julian and most of the Woods children were baptised at the nearby church of St George, Southwark, now a cathedral.

Although the Woods children attended a variety of schools in their area, their education by their father and some tutors ensured that they were well versed in literature, history, classical languages and natural science. Julian's father and three of the older boys became well-known journalists. Their religious formation was haphazard, but when Julian had already begun work at The Times printing house, he met and was influenced by some of the most remarkable priests of this day, Fathers Frederick Oakeley, Frederick Faber and the Passionist Father Ignatius Spencer. His deep prayer and sacramental life had led him to join the Passionist order in the hope of eventual ordination as a priest.

Formation in transition

Fr Julian Tenison Woods
Fr Julian Tenison Woods.

After profession, however, his health could not match the austerity of their life, and he was advised to leave and find a more congenial climate in the South of France.

Here he joined the newly-formed Marists, and again his recurring health problems prevented his perseverance in that order. He was given a teaching position in the college near Toulon, which was then under the guidance of the saintly Peter Julian Eymard. Julian Woods dates his love of the Eucharist and devotion to Mary from those years with St Peter Julian. As well, his lifelong study of geological formations began in his excursions around the Auvergne.

He returned to London in 1853 and, after some study of laboratory scientific procedure with his brother John, and attending art school, he was introduced to Bishop Robert Willson of Hobart. The Bishop invited him to accompany his party to Tasmania to continue his studies towards ordination and teach in a seminary,
which the Bishop hoped to begin there.

And so the first eventful part of Julian Woods' formation was now in transition, on a long sea voyage during which he studied his theology and spirituality books under the guidance of Bishop Willson. However, his hopes for this Tasmania experience were never fulfilled.

After riding through the island in order to act as chaplain to the many convict settlements, and learning that his role was then to be a teacher in a school for sons of settlers, Julian informed the bishop that he wished to return to England.

He never did seem to manage his relationship with bishops after this experience!

Two of his brothers, Edward and James, had married and, with their families, were living on the mainland by this time. Edward was working as a journalist in Melbourne, and James in Adelaide was employed by the Central Roads Board. Julian decided to visit both brothers before leaving Australia, and so arrived in Adelaide in late 1855.

To support himself he took work on The Adelaide Times newspaper and contemplated the possibility of following his brothers’ advice to marry and settle down.

At this point he came under the notice of Bishop Francis Murphy, who suggested that he place himself under the guidance of the Jesuit Fathers who had recently been established at Sevenhill and complete his studies in preparation for priestly ordination.

And so the patchwork of study, which began with the Passionists in England, continued with the Marist Fathers in France and on the long voyage to Australia finished with the Jesuits in South Australia. In January 1857 he was ordained
priest by Bishop Murphy at St Patrick's Church in Adelaide and began this new phase of his life.

‘Ten Years in the Bush’

After three months, Bishop Murphy informed Julian that he was to travel to the southeast of the state and become the first pastor of Penola parish, which covered a huge area, becoming lively as a passage-way to the Victorian goldfields. The bishop suggested that he take his young brother Terry, who had come to join his brothers in South Australia. So began the period which Julian always referred to as his ‘Ten Years in the Bush’, in a lecture which he delivered many times in later years. In that memoir he told of those years’ experiences, living with the warm-hearted people of the southeast, in a small cottage in Penola.

From there, he spent weeks at a time riding around the district, from Robe to Bordertown, around the Coonawarra district and into Victoria, from Portland in the south to Edenhope in the north, so as to celebrate Mass and the sacraments
for the Catholics there. It was in Portland that he first met two families which were to be important in his future life, the family of John Finn and their neighbours, the MacKillops. He instructed Mrs Finn and received her into the Catholic Church, her sponsor being the youthful Mary MacKillop from next door.

Read the second part of Sr Margaret's reflection: The Penola Years and beyond

Sister Margaret Press RSJ, a Sister of St Joseph from Perthville, has spent many years in education, at secondary and tertiary levels and is a prolific writer.

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