By Odhran O’Brien
Following the arrival of the founding party of Catholic missionaries in the colony of Western Australia in 1843, the early years of the Catholic Church were marked by instability.
Several reasons explain these turbulent beginnings. The diocese had been established primarily as a mission with an over-ambitious and under-resourced plan to evangelise the Aboriginal people using missionaries, many of whom were unable to cope with the hostile environment; the population of Catholic European settlers was small, poor and spread over a vast colony which economically was in a parlous state and was unable to support the missionary staff.
Compounding these difficult circumstances were the complex personalities of the Church’s early leaders.
The first bishop, John Brady, governed the diocese from 1845.
He was a zealous and pious missionary but was unable to raise sufficient financial support to back his missionary efforts and was forced to retire from Perth in 1852, under orders from Rome, although he retained the title of bishop of Perth until his death in 1871.
Bishop Jose Maria Serra, the Spanish Benedictine monk, was made administrator of the diocese in 1852 until he resigned in 1862.
Serra excelled at raising money and recruiting missionaries but lacked the ability to create unity within the Catholic community.
Serra was followed by Martin Griver, another Spaniard from the region of Catalonia.
Griver’s leadership marked a period of much greater unity and progress.
Griver was temporarily placed in charge of the diocese in 1862 and, unlike his predecessors, he had no great missionary plan for Perth.
His administration lasted some 24 years and, along with the completion of many churches, boasts the construction on Victoria Square of the Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception of the Blessed Virgin Mary which was opened in 1865.
It was later extended and became known as St Mary’s Cathedral.
Under Griver’s leadership, the Catholic Church expanded its role, establishing a greater number of charitable works and obtaining government financial support for Catholic schools.
The following is a brief account of the man and the missionary.
Early Life in Spain
Martin Griver y Cuni was born in the city of Granollers on 11 November 1814.
His parents Jaume and Teresa, who worked in the local wine industry, had five children of whom Martin was the second youngest.
At the age of 14, he entered a minor seminary in the city of Vic. He then graduated to the major seminary in Barcelona during which time he also worked as an accountancy clerk and tutor.
In 1835, while young Martin was in the seminary, the anti-clerical Liberal Spanish government placed a ban on ordinations.
Unable to obtain holy orders at the end of his theological training, Griver enrolled to study medicine and surgery during 1841, graduating in July 1845.
Finally, in late 1847, he was able to be ordained and his first appointment was to his native Granollers as a curate.
During his curacy, Griver decided to volunteer for missionary work in Western Australia, having been introduced to Bishop Serra.
Both Rosendo Salvado and Serra, who together had co-founded New Norcia monastery in 1846, were travelling Europe at that time in search of missionaries and donations.
Bereft of substantial support from the colonial government at a time of severe economic difficulties, Bishop Brady had sent Serra and Salvado, one after the other, to Europe to recruit missionaries and raise funds for the necessitous Perth diocese.
After a series of complex events at the Vatican regarding the affairs of Perth and the appointments of Serra and Salvado as bishops, it was decided that Serra would be made coadjutor bishop of Perth and placed in charge of its finances while Salvado was given the diocese of Port Victoria, near modern-day Darwin.
In December 1849, Serra returned to Perth with over 30 missionaries, including Fr Griver, whom he and Salvado had recruited from Europe.
Early Missionary Career
A few months after Serra’s return and several heated meetings, Brady left for Rome to have Serra’s appointment as coadjutor overturned, causing a schism between the two.
Griver remained loyal to Serra and followed the bishop along with his recruits to Guildford where they established a temporary Benedictine monastery and attempted to avoid Dominic Urquhart, Brady’s vicar general, who had been hostile towards the group.
As a condition of volunteering for Western Australia, the newly-arrived recruits had promised to consider monastic profession and to live according to the Rule of St Benedict. Griver, however, decided to remain a secular priest.
On Brady’s return to Perth late in 1851, arguments continued, with the clergy and the laity taking sides, over who was the legitimate ecclesiastical authority in Perth.
In 1852, Roman authorities decided to resolve the dispute by requesting that John Bede Polding, archbishop of Sydney, travel to Western Australia to obtain Brady’s resignation and departure from the colony.
On Brady’s departure, Serra gained full control of the diocese. Griver was based predominantly in Perth serving the cathedral, hospital and prison while also regularly attending the mission district of Fremantle.
One of the difficulties in serving the prisons was preparing those condemned to death for their final hour.
In 1855, he gave the last rites to Bridget Hurford, the first woman executed in the colony.
She was sentenced to death for murdering her older affluent second husband with the help of her lover.
After the execution, Griver removed Bridget’s body and organised a burial as her family had deserted her.
He regularly continued to visit condemned prisoners, demonstrating compassion and ensuring that they were not alone in such a time of need.
In later years, on separate trips to Spain, he was asked to give the last rites to two of the bishops of Barcelona.
Whether by fate or through a personal ministry, he was often called to prepare souls for the afterlife.
Outside of his work in Perth and Fremantle, Griver visited the outer districts, riding great distances up to 1,000 miles and more.
His duties included performing baptisms and marriages and giving religious instruction; he often found himself sleeping in mining huts or under the stars and celebrating Mass in makeshift chapels.
When Salvado returned from Europe in 1853, having been relieved of the responsibility for Port Victoria diocese, Griver also visited New Norcia to help care for sick monks and Aboriginal people.
Due to isolation, he often had to create medicines from natural and easily accessible sources such as mustard seeds.
The reports that Griver wrote during time spent travelling the outer districts show a concern for the spiritual well-being of the Catholics he encountered and he often alerted his superiors of the need for more missionaries.
In 1859, at Salvado’s request, Rome separated New Norcia monastery from the jurisdiction of the diocese and placed it under the abbot’s sole control.
All of the Benedictine monks were given the choice of remaining in the bishopric or entering New Norcia.
Serra was fearful that the decree would significantly reduce the number of monks at his disposal to work as missionaries throughout the diocese.
Further, it threatened his plans for a chain of monasteries throughout the colony under the control of the diocesan bishop, which would supply priests for the growing number of churches and act as beacons of Catholic faith and teaching and so he set sail for Europe with the intent of reversing the decree.
In haste, Serra placed his diligent assistant Fr Griver in charge during his absence.
However, on reaching Rome, Serra was unable to convince Propaganda Fide, the Vatican office for missionary affairs, to alter the decree.
Ultimately, he resigned in January 1862 in favour of Griver who was appointed apostolic administrator until another bishop was elected.
Although despondent that his superior had given up, Griver was immediately consumed by the task of building a cathedral on the land which Serra had requested from the government.
The original cathedral built by Brady was no longer adequate for the growing Catholic population.
The difficulty for Griver came with funding the construction, which cost just under £4,000 – an enormous sum for the time.
Thrifty by nature, Griver showed great financial acumen, no doubt fostered by his experience of working as an accountancy clerk in his youth.
He raised £1,586 alone from implementing measures of economy within the diocese and selling assets purchased by Serra such as jewellery and a carriage.
Since the beginning of convict transportation to Western Australia in 1850, followed by the assisted passage of women from the poor parishes in England and Ireland, the number of Catholics in the colony increased significantly.
The growing Catholic population provided Griver with the challenges of building new churches and schools as well as providing priests and teachers.
The diocese’s income consisted predominantly of Sunday collections, a moderate amount of donations from Europe and allocations from the colonial government.
The Sisters of Mercy, and for a brief period the De La Salle Brothers, played a central role in providing personnel for the schools.
At the same time, the system also relied heavily on lay teachers.
As with religious orders, English-speaking priests were not easy to attract to the poor and isolated diocese when they could obtain better conditions on the east coast or in America.
Griver depended on the cooperation of Salvado who allowed some of the Benedictine priests to work in the diocese.
However, Griver was still required to employ the occasional itinerant priest who came to the colony.
One of the most eccentric was Fr Francis Kum, a Belgian priest who would often go hunting with his gold-tipped gun, filled his room with Chinese idols and entertained the children attending the Catholic Boys’ School, adjacent to the bishop’s palace, with his pet monkey.
While Griver was apostolic administrator from 1862 to 1869, Propaganda Fide failed to secure a new bishop for the diocese.
During this time Griver had overseen the separation of New Norcia from the bishopric, the construction of St Mary’s Cathedral, along with other new churches and schools and the inception of Catholic charitable organisations.
Eventually, Propaganda Fide decided to consider his candidature which was endorsed by Salvado and other senior clergy.
While travelling on the road to Fremantle in January 1870, Fr Griver spotted his assistant, Fr Matthew Gibney, riding towards him and, on approach, Gibney addressed Griver as ‘Your Lordship’.
This signified that Rome had at last promoted him to the episcopate. Griver remained the administrating bishop of the diocese until 1873 when, following Brady’s death, he was officially appointed the second bishop of Perth.
By 1870 when Griver was ordained bishop, the Catholics of Western Australia accounted for close to 30 per cent of the population.
He utilised this in a successful campaign against the government to reinstate funding for Catholic schools, withdrawn during Serra’s administration.
He instituted important social welfare provisions in the colony such as the opening of orphanages and attempted to establish a mission for the Aboriginal people in the Kimberley.
All this he did at a time when there were few agencies, public or private, promoting the welfare of the disadvantaged.
By the end of his life, Martin Griver was accepted as a religious leader and respected elder of colonial society – and not just among his own flock.
He inspired faith and devotion in people.
On one occasion, Lady Filumena Weld, wife of the governor, on hearing that the bishop was sick, rushed her son to the cathedral, vowing before God that if the bishop was spared from death her son would dedicate himself to the religious life; two of her sons entered religious life, one into the Carthusian Order and the other the Benedictine; however, there is no certainty that their decision had any connection to this event.
In his later years, Griver regularly suffered from bouts of ill health.
He drew the strength to continue his religious duties from his longstanding devotion to the Blessed Virgin, the celebration of the saints and the major feast days.
One of the most inspiring examples of this was the celebration of the feast of Corpus Christi in July 1886 when, still recovering from a stroke, he led 600 people on a procession through the grounds of Subiaco Orphanage.
The sight of the feeble bishop leading the congregation brought tears to the eyes of many in the crowd.
Later in the year, on 1 November, All Saints Day, after a period of prolonged sickness, Fr Gibney was relieved to see that the bishop felt able to celebrate Mass after a period of prolonged illness.
Afterwards, Griver remained on the sanctuary in prayer as he often did. Eventually, on Gibney’s request, he retired to the palace.
That evening, the bishop had a massive stroke and, shortly after he was given the last rites, passed away.
The colony went into mourning and the flag at Town Hall was flown at half mast – an unusual mark of respect for a religious leader.
His funeral was attended by senior public officials and members of the legislature of all faiths.
In preparing his body for burial, the Sisters of Mercy discovered two wooden crosses with protruding spikes attached to the late bishop’s chest and back.
Fr Gibney was called and removed the crosses from the body.
It appeared as though he had worn them for many years as his skin had partially covered them.
It was an act of self-sacrifice and discipline – a tradition carried out by holy men and women and saints throughout the centuries.
Martin Griver made a unique contribution to the colony of Western Australia, both as a man of God and also a true leader within colonial society.
He united the Catholic community and guided its members as their teacher and guardian.
He campaigned for the rights of his people to practise their faith as well as the rights of those on the margins of society such as the Aboriginal people, orphans and convicts.
He also built St Mary’s Cathedral and many churches and schools.
His legacy was both spiritual and temporal.
In both title and actions, he was truly the second Catholic bishop of Perth.