Bishop Francis Xavier Gsell MSC – Fact sheet 151

Mission priest to the Northern Territory

A Catholic priest of the religious congregation of the Missionaries of the Sacred Heart (MSC), Francis Xavier Gsell spent over 40 years in the Northern Territory. He served for many years as head of the Aboriginal mission on Bathurst Island, and later as Bishop of Darwin.

Born in the French province of Alsace in 1872, Gsell trained for the priesthood in France and Italy and was ordained in 1896. He arrived in Australia soon afterwards and following periods in Sydney and MSC missions in Papua he was appointed as apostolic administrator for the Catholic Church in Darwin in 1906.

He gained government approval for the establishment of a mission on Bathurst Island in 1911, and lived on the island as head of the mission from that time until 1938. Attempts to introduce Christianity to the Aboriginal residents of the island were only moderately successful, but Gsell did influence a modification to the local culture by intervening in the practice of young teenage girls being sold into marriages with the old men of the community. He did this by buying the girls himself and freeing them to receive schooling at the mission school, and, in time, become partners to men of their own ages. Gsell was also influential in the establishment of missions at Port Keats (1935) and Arltunga (1943).

In 1938 Gsell returned to the mainland to take up an appointment as Bishop of Darwin, a post he held until 1949. During the years 1942–45, when Darwin was under military administration, Gsell ran the diocese from Alice Springs. On retirement in 1949 he moved to the MSC monastery at Kensington, Sydney where he prepared his memoirs, published in 1956 under the title The Bishop with One Hundred and Fifty Wives (Angus and Robertson, London).

Francis Xavier Gsell became a naturalised Australian in 1909. He received the OBE in 1935 and the French Legion of Honour in 1951. He died in 1960. The Gsell Aboriginal Hostel in the Darwin suburb of Nightcliff is named after Bishop Gsell.

Records about Bishop Gsell in the National Archives

As both an individual and in the roles he fulfilled, Gsell had a number of dealings with the Australian government or the Northern Territory administration, and many records resulting from these dealings are now held by the National Archives. These include the file relating to his naturalisation and files relating to the honours he received later in life, as well as records on the establishment and management of the Catholic missions at Bathurst Island, Port Keats and the Little Flower Mission at Arltunga. Many of these are listed below.

Records relating to Bishop Gsell

All records listed below are held in the Canberra office of the National Archives.

Naturalisation and honours

Photographs

Missions in the Northern Territory

Missions in New Guinea

Copyright National Archives of Australia 2017