Thomas Sidney Dixon

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Thomas Sidney Dixon (1916 — 1993) was a Catholic Missionary known for his work with Indigenous peoples. Father Dixon took up the cause of Rupert Max Stuart, an Arrernte Aboriginal convicted of murder in 1959.

Early life[edit]

Thomas Dixon was born in Sydney, the 15th of 18 children born to Irish/English parents who had immigrated from Liverpool in England two years earlier.

Dixon was schooled by nuns before entering Christian Brothers College. At the age of 12 he entered a seminary of the Missionaries of the Sacred Heart where he eventually took his vows. In November 1941, he was appointed to run a mission in Rabaul in East New Britain. However, while en route Pearl Harbour was attacked and he was instead asked to travel to Palm Island, 65 km (40 mi) north-west of Townsville, on the east coast of Queensland to relieve an ill priest for three months. Dixon remained on the Island for seven years teaching.

In 1949, Dixon transferred to Toowoomba, Queensland where he taught English, French and Algebra at a Catholic school. At the end of the year he was appointed to the Thursday Island mission that also served Hamilton Island. Here he taught the local population which was a mix of Australian Aboriginals, Papuans, Samoans, Filipinos, Malays and Sinhalese. On Hamilton Island Dixon designed and built a mortarless stone church with stained glass windows made from beer bottles.

Santa Teresa[edit]

In 1954 Dixon was reassigned to a mission that M.S.C. had founded near Alice Springs, Santa Teresa (now Ltyentye Apurte Community). Founded to service the Arrernte Aboriginals, nuns ran the mission school and clinic while lay brothers worked as handymen. Dixon was responsible for the church and learnt to speak Arrernte in order to preach to them in their own language. He introduced not only Mass to local Aboriginals but also the Cabbage to their diet. The indigenous women and children were largely permanent residents at the mission while most of the men moved around following seasonal work. Almost all the children and many of the women were baptised as Catholics however, the men tended to be baptised Lutherans as they were more accustomed to attending the Hermannsburg Lutheran mission, 160 km (99 mi) east of Santa Teresa.

As many of the Aboriginals lived in huts made from corrugated iron, Dixon organised the local men to build houses to replace them. Local stone was chipped by hand with the locals given rations while they worked on their own home with an additional cash allowance when they worked on some one else’s. Within two years every family lived in a stone house.

In 1956, Dixon moved to Adelaide where he was appointed as Curate for the Hindmarsh Parish that M.S.C. had begun after receiving permission from the Catholic Archdiocese of Adelaide.

Max Stuart[edit]

In 1959 Rupert Max Stuart was on death row awaiting execution for the murder of Mary Hattam. Stuart had already visited with a Salvation Army officer and a Lutheran pastor when Father John O’Loughlin, the Adelaide Goal’s junior Catholic Chaplain met him. Stuart was not very communicative due to his limited English and O’Loughlin mentioned this to his friend, Father Tom Dixon who lived in a presbytery in nearby Hindmarsh. As he could speak Stuart’s native language, Dixon decided to visit and help prepare Stuart for death.

Stuart insisted he had not killed the girl and Dixon initially suspected he was looking for sympathy. By 14 May the execution was eight days away and Dixon had become convinced that Stuart was telling the truth. He contacted J. D. O'Sullivan, Stuart’s solicitor who gave him a copy of Stuart’s confession. After reading it, he concluded that Stuart could not have dictated it. Dixon had read a book on Arrernte grammar written by T.G.H. Strehlow and asked him to check Stuart’s language for comparison with the confession.[1] Strehlow had been born at the Hermannsburg Lutheran mission where his father was the pastor and had spoken Arrente before being taught English. As it turned out, Strehlow had grown up with Stuart and knew his parents well. Strehlow visited Stuart on 18 May, and for the first time his alibi was heard in English after being translated. On the matter of the police confession, Strehlow wrote:

"In my ten years of varied experience of evidence given by Aboriginals, part Aboriginals, police officers and white residents of the Northern Territory, I had never seen a document even faintly resembling the one I was now looking at. Far from bearing any resemblance to any statement ever made by an Aboriginal or part Aboriginal person....(the document) could have been composed only by some person who was well versed in legal procedure and in the practice of giving court evidence."

On 20 May Stuart applied for leave to appeal to the High Court based on Strehlow’s findings and Justice Reed granted a stay of execution with a new date of 19 June set. On 18 June a further extension to 7 July was granted to allow time for a decision, which was handed down on 19 June. Leave to appeal was denied.

The Stuart Campaign[edit]

On 22 June Dixon contacted Dr. Charles Duguid, who ran the Aborigines’ Advancement League, to discuss Stuart’s situation. On 27 June a meeting of the League, university teachers, clergymen and representatives of the Howard League for Penal Reform was held in Duguid’s Magill home where Dixon and Strehlow gave a talk. It was decided to mount a campaign to keep Stuart alive and the distribution of petitions for commutation were arranged.



  1. ^ Father Dixon was later to comment: Thank goodness Stuart was not a Catholic. If he had been, Stuart denying the murder would have been regarded as a confession and Dixon would not have been able to mention his doubts over Stuart's guilt with anyone. The church holds that the seal of confession would be inviolable even with Stuart's life at stake.