Michael Francis

Michael Francis, ‘”The Bishop with 150 Wives“: Interrogating the Missionary and Ecclesiastical Career of Monsignor Francis Xavier Gsell MSC (1872–1960)’ (PhD in History, 2020).

This thesis provides the first comprehensive scholarly investigation into the missionary and ecclesiastical career of Monsignor Francis Xavier Gsell MSC (1872-1960). Remembered as the apocryphal ‘Bishop with 150 Wives’, Gsell is famous for his work among the Tiwi people, from whom he purchased the marriage rights of young women as part of a broader evangelisation strategy. A mythic figure in popular histories of the Northern Territory, Gsell’s complex legacy, however, has rarely received thorough academic scrutiny.

Going beyond the many myths and legends, this thesis uses Gsell as a lens through which to examine race relations in northern Australia during the first half of the twentieth century. It locates Gsell within the context of evolving Indigenous policy in the Northern Territory, over which he exerted significant influence through strategic collusion with Commonwealth authorities, while simultaneously demonstrating the ways in which Gsell stood at the forefront of shifting Catholic attitudes towards First Nations peoples.

It reveals a man of strong conviction, incredible political reach, and conflicting legacy. Gsell worked as an advocate for Indigenous welfare and challenged the racist attitudes of his contemporaries. Notwithstanding his ethnocentric paternalism, the missionary’s gradualist approach to Christian conversion helped ensure the preservation of a great many aspects of traditional culture on the Tiwi Islands. Yet Gsell also wholeheartedly endorsed assimilation policies which saw the forced removal of mixed-descent children from their families from as early as 1910. This resulted in the destruction of many Indigenous languages and cultures as, torn from kin and Country, these children became members of the Stolen Generations.

By interrogating the legends, this thesis ultimately provides a new and holistic appraisal of Gsell’s life and legacy in the Northern Territory.

Supervisors: Dr Catherine Kovesi, Professor Patricia Grimshaw

You can hear more about Michael’s research in his recent completion seminar.