Forgotten priest in print

HE’S the Spanish missionary, surgeon and bishop who built St Mary’s cathedral and fought for Aboriginal and convict welfare, but for more than a century Bishop Martin Griver’s name had been all-but forgotten.

Yokine scholar Odhran O’Brien’s written a book on the Spanish missionary and surgeon who landed in Fremantle in 1849, after coming across the intriguing figure a few years back when his long-forgotten grave was being exhumed.

The exact location underneath St Mary’s cathedral in Victoria Square had been lost during church refurbishments, and Mr O’Brien and a couple of other Notre Dame archeology students were involved in helping excavate the tomb in 2006.

Four small crosses were found carved into the church’s floorboards, a subtle marker of Griver’s resting place, and his unearthing triggered intense interest for Mr O’Brien.

“Griver was buried in such a prominent space,” Mr O’Brien said, “I thought this is really bizarre, this is quite a significant figure in WA history, and I thought: I know nothing about this person.”

He delved into the archives, finding hundreds of Griver’s letters to public figures of the day that had never been thoroughly studied. A vivid picture of the stern but generous bishop started to emerge. One of his few indulgences was a cup of chocolate every morning, but when he died it was discovered he’d worn two small crosses on his body, with nails deeply embedded in his flesh.

His austere attitude also put him at odds with a visiting Californian priest whose prized possessions had been a golden shotgun, a noisy violin and a monkey used to entertain the local children.

Mr O’Brien says Griver also had a deep empathy for marginalised people such as Aboriginals and convicts. He travelled the countryside on horseback until old age, even once getting lost in bushland near Geraldton when he was 70.

Ministering to native populations was common across the colonies but Griver also cared for the worldly treatment of Aboriginal people. A trained surgeon, he obtained special permission from Rome to practice medicine on the sick, usually prohibited for priests expected to care for spiritual welfare rather than the corporeal.

“He was really concerned about the treatment of Aboriginal people in the north of the state, places like Derby and Roebourne,” Mr O’Brien said.

“He wanted there to be land where the Aboriginal people could settle… where they were free to live as they wanted because he felt they were being mistreated.” It wouldn’t happen in his lifetime, but eventually Beagle Bay would be established north of Broome.

When Griver came to Perth the church was barely bigger than a tool shed, the previous bishop Rosendo Salvado struggling to come up with the funds. Griver took over, setting out to build the cathedral proper.

“He opened up the subscription list and began fundraising, he commissioned builders, he managed the whole of the contruction from beginning to the end,” Mr O’Brien said.

“It was a big building at the time, it was huge. There were delays along the way, they ran out of money a couple of times because the Catholic population wasn’t particularly well-off.”

As for why he was largely forgotten: “[Bishop Matthew] Gibney who followed after him significantly expanded the Catholic education system, he became heavily involved in colonial politics, so I think he outshone Martin Griver.”

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But just like Alexander the Great could only carve an empire because his more obscure father Philip II had set him up with the best army in the world, it was Griver who’d paved the way for Gibney’s triumphs.

“The thing that’s forgotten about Martin Griver is he initiated a number of the plans that Gibney went on to fulfill… he had left the diocese financially sound, he had acquired land all over the place, he had created a fantastic foundation which Gibney was able to build on.”

Martin Griver Unearthed launches alongside Christopher Dowd’s history of Patrick Joseph Clune April 28 at the Redemptorist Monastery in North Perth, and is available via or 9201 1014.


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