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Balmain Catholic Cemetery

Balmain Catholic Cemetery, Leichhardt

Balmain Catholic Cemetery When 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 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.


Known as the Balmain Catholic Cemetery – not to be confused with Balmain Cemetery that existed on Norton Street Leichhardt - for half a century many locals were laid to rest there. The cemetery closed around 1905 and over the following 100 years, all traces of its existence disappeared; 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. The circumstances by which 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 yet 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. 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 was 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 - Patrick Callaghan - with fond memories of growing up in Leichhardt has written a history of the cemetery and has re-created the burial register – and has identified over 1,000 burials that took place there.

A History of Balmain Catholic Cemetery, St Columba’s Church Parish North Leichhardt, 1857-1988 by Patrick Callaghan is available at Leichhardt Library in the Local History Collection. Patrick can be contacted via email at balcolyn@activ8.net.au