Priest, Scientist, Citizen, Founder and Educator

Julian Tenison Woods: Priest, Scientist, Citizen, Founder and Educator.


That Julian Tenison Woods was a polymath is evident from the diversity of his interests, accomplishments and achievements. His first biographer, Mary MacKillop, who knew and understood him well, commented on the ‘many-sided mind the man must have had’[1] and made the ironic observation that he was ‘possessed of the ‘great capacity for hard work’ once given as ‘a synonym for genius’.[2] She also quoted reminiscences of Woods, written by English Quaker James Bonwick, inspector of denominational schools in Victoria during the 1850s:

It was after inspecting the Portland [R.C.] School [in 1857] that I met at the table of the local Catholic clergyman one of the most accomplished men I ever saw…He had [taken] charge of a mission in a wild part of the [South Australian] bush among a number of Highland Catholic Scotch squatters.
Father Julian E. Tenison Woods…was from his handsome appearance and graceful accomplishments, the idol of the ladies, but he also won the respect of men, from the field toiler to the governor. His conversation was simply fascinating. His knowledge seemed universal. He played the piano with skill and sang expressively. But his genuine goodness, his love for his fellows, his devotion to duty were equally apparent. I was never so charmed by any man.[3]
Mary MacKillop

The ten years Woods spent in the South East, as the Penola-based parish priest of a 75,000 square kilometre mission district, proved to be ‘amongst the happiest’[4] of a richly diverse but sometimes difficult life.


Born on 15 November 1832 in secluded West Square, Southwark, South London, to an Irish Catholic father and an Anglican mother, he was one of eleven children. His mother, Henrietta, daughter of the rector of Donaghmore Glebe, County Wicklow, was descended from a ‘long line of Anglican dignitaries’[5] that included an Archbishop of Canterbury. His father, James, son of a Cork wine merchant and shipowner, qualified as a London barrister, then worked as a parliamentary reporter and special correspondent for The Times. Woods grew up in a home where he had access to an extensive library, and to lively conversations with family members and a fascinating procession of visitors.

When not being educated at home with a tutor, he attended various Catholic, Anglican and Wesleyan day and boarding schools, which made his early religious experience decidedly ecumenical. However, at the age of sixteen, when he was a printer’s apprentice at The Times, he decided that he was ‘a Roman Catholic at heart’[6] as well as by baptism and made his First Holy Communion.

Margaret Muller

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[1] Woods, Memoirs, Book I, p2
[2] Woods, Memoirs, Book I, p46
[3] Mother Mary of the Cross MacKillop, Julian Tenison Woods A Life, [Manuscript 1902; first edition 1997]. Canonisation edition, 2010, p50. Hereafter cited as Mary MacKillop, Julian Tenison Woods A Life.
[4] Mary MacKillop, Julian Tenison Woods A Life, p94
[5] Mary MacKillop, Julian Tenison Woods A Life, p32
[6] Woods, Memoirs, Book II, p19