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Did you know that Bendigo, one of the oldest and largest cities in Victoria, used to be called Sandhurst? The settlement’s original name was in fact Bendigo, after that of a nearby creek, but in 1854 this was changed to Sandhurst, reflecting the Australian habit of the time of borrowing place names from England (Sandhurst being a renowned military college back in the home country). In 1891, following a controversial plebiscite, the city’s name reverted to Bendigo.

This will help clear up some of the confusion about the following story, which tells of the wonderful contribution made by a German priest to what was then a modest central-Victorian municipality. His legacy, the Backhaus Estate, is a perpetual charitable trust that continues to own numerous commercial properties in Bendigo and whose sole income beneficiary is the Catholic Archdiocese of Sandhurst (which has retained Bendigo’s 19th-century name).

Born in 1811 in the western German province of North Rhine-Westphalia, George Henry Backhaus studied for the priesthood in Rome and after his graduation and ordination, decided to engage in missionary work in faraway India. He embarked on an ocean voyage that would take him from the icy squalls of Ireland to the sweltering heat of Berhampur on India’s east coast.

In 1846 health issues dictated that George leave the Subcontinent for a less challenging climate, and so it was that this “pioneer priest” would land in Sydney later that year. He recommenced his ministering work with Adelaide’s large German community, then proceeded to Melbourne where he was, according to a diary entry, “appointed the first priest to take charge of the Catholic population on the Victorian goldfields”. In 1855 he became responsible for founding the Church of St Kilian’s, which – in a nod to both his German heritage and predominantly Irish congregation – he named after the seventh-century Irish monk Kilian who had evangelized areas of Germany.

1867 is when George first set foot in Bendigo, the fledgling town that he would ultimately call home in his adopted country. The tall and ascetic-looking foreigner would prove to be a blessing to the local parish, comprised mainly of fossickers seeking gold and pastoralists seeking out the newly-opened lands at the northern end of the Victorian colony. In 1875, with the establishment of the Archdiocese of Sandhurst and in recognition of his civic service, the local Irish bishop Martin Crane promoted George to vicar-general.

Indeed, George was more than just a priest. For 11 years he was an active participant in Bendigo’s public life and as an accomplished musician, maintained a first-rate church choir and even penned some notable compositions. On the side, George was also a prudent investor, acquiring a portfolio of valuable properties in these early days of European settlement. In 1863 he pledged to make the Church of St Kilian’s his heir and to this end, allowed real estate worth some £75,000 to appreciate over two decades.

In 1881, after a big public farewell, he retired to a house he had bought in Melbourne’s seaside suburb of Brighton. However, upon falling gravely ill the following year, George insisted on returning to Bendigo where he spent his final days.

His funeral – “which seems to have been without parallel in the town’s history” – was a testament to the impact he’d had on the communities he’d worked with during his lifetime. Perhaps the most striking monument to his years of work and subsequent bequests is Bendigo’s towering Sacred Heart Cathedral, an architectural icon in the heart of the city. The last Gothic-style cathedral ever built, it is one of Australia’s largest churches and the second-tallest after Melbourne’s St Patrick’s.

The Australian Dictionary of Biography concludes that Backhaus was “the complete example of the educated man who chose to share the hardships of the early gold diggers so that he could best minister to their wants. Frugal in his own requirements, he constantly carried out surreptitious acts of charity. He had the rare distinction of being esteemed by the poor as well as the rich, by his own parishioners and by members of other denominations... Perhaps his epitaph could best be written in his words at the farewell function in 1881: ‘We have succeeded in living such useful lives, that of our existence on Bendigo, imperishable memorials will remain’.”

Equity Trustees acquired the Backhaus Estate through our acquisition of Sandhurst Trustees in 2017, and we are very proud to be co-trustees of this fantastic legacy alongside the Bishop of Sandhurst Leslie Tomlinson and local Bendigo businessman John Moore.