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Commonwealth Government Records about the Northern Territory

Francis Xavier Gsell (1872–1960)

Francis Gsell was born in Alsace, France on 30 October 1872. He trained for the Catholic priesthood with the congregation of the Missionaries of the Sacred Heart (MSC), and was ordained in 1896.

He arrived in Australia soon afterwards and began working in Sydney and later in Papua. In 1906 he was appointed as Administrator for the Catholic Church in Darwin. Almost from the outset he was determined to establish a mission for Aboriginal people, and he felt that Bathurst Island would be the ideal place.

He gained approval for the establishment of this mission in 1911 and then lived on Bathurst Island until 1938. His attempts to introduce Christianity to the Aboriginal people was only moderately successful, but he did influence a change to the local culture by ending the practice of young teenage girls being sold into marriage with older men of the community. He would buys the girls himself and then free them to receive schooling at the mission. Gsell was also influential in establishing missions at Port Keats (now known as Wadeye) and Arltunga (east of Alice Springs).

In recognition of his services to Aboriginal people and the Northern Territory, Gsell was made an Officer of the Order of the British Empire in 1935.

Gsell left Bathurst Island in 1938 on his appointment as Bishop of Darwin, an office he held until 1949. He retired in 1949 and returned to Sydney where he wrote his memoirs, The Bishop with 150 Wives, published in 1955.

Gsell died at Kensington, Sydney on 12 July 1960. In 1982 his remains were reburied in the crypt of St Mary's Cathedral in Darwin.

Selected records relating to Francis Xavier Gsell
National Archives, Canberra
Bathurst Island to be reserved for Aboriginal purposes, 1894–1910 A1640, 1910/570
Bathurst Island – reserve for Aboriginal people, 1904–39 A1, 1938/33126
Francis Xavier Gsell – naturalisation, 1909–20 A1, 1920/21513
Bathurst Island – mission reports, 1910–52 A431, 1951/1294
F X Gsell – town lands lease number 346, 1930 A1, 1930/7309
Port Keats Catholic mission, 1934–55 A452, 1955/98
Birthday honours – publication of, 1935 A2924, 1935/1
Little Flower mission – Arltunga, 1942–52 A431, 1951/418
Photographs of Northern Territory – Reverend Frank Flynn and Bishop F X Gsell, 1944 M119, 119
Monsignor Francis Xavier Gsell – honours, 1951 A463, 1960/3088


Chapter 16
Territory Personalities