John Hutchinson was born at Clodiagh, County Kilkenny, Ireland on 25 February 1836. His parents, James and Catherine, farmed eight hectares of rented land twenty kilometres outside of the town of New Ross, where after schooling John worked in his brother’s shop. While in New Ross he attended evening classes conducted by Fr Patrick Crane OSA at the local Augustinian friary.
John so impressed the friars that his request to be admitted to the Order was welcomed. On 7 November 1861 he entered the Augustinian Novitiate at Callan, made his Simple Profession on 21 March 1862 and was ordained a priest on 23 September 1865 at the age of 29 years.
His first appointment as a priest was to the Augustinian Parish of Hoxton in the East End of London. Hutchinson was sent to America to raise funds for a church large enough to hold the Catholics in Hoxton. The fundraising tour was a great success and John brought home to Hoxton the sum of 2,318 pounds, which was sufficient to build a fine church.
In 1873 he was appointed as Master of the new Augustinian novitiate at Orlagh in the foothills of Dublin, and held that position until 1883. In 1875 he was appointed Prior of Orlagh and was re-appointed to that office in 1879. At the Provincial Chapter in 1883 he was elected to the important position of Provincial of the Irish Province. The President of the Chapter was the Prior General and he put to its members the Pope's desire for Augustinian missionaries to Far North Queensland in Australia, and the Chapter assented. Later in 1883 the Pope nominated John Hutchinson to lead the Australian mission as the Pro-Vicar Apostolic, and he resigned from the position of Irish Provincial.
John Hutchinson arrived at Cooktown in Far North Queensland on 29 May 1884, accompanied by Frs James Dominic Murray (later to succeed him as bishop there) and William O'Byrne. En route they stopped at Melbourne where they talked with Father Stephen Reville (later to become a bishop); three Augustinians who were later to be consecrated as bishops in Australia - Reville, Hutchinson and Murray – conversed with one another.
Father Hutchinson was 48 years of age when he arrived in Australia. He was much older than many of the later Augustinians who arrived in the North; a number of them died before they were that age. He was a quiet and reserved person, and stated that he had no personal ambitions about being a bishop. He undertook public speaking only with reluctance, and stood back from confrontation.
He never varied the fast pace of his work and it is difficult to comprehend the volume of work which he and his fellow Augustinians accomplished. In his lifetime churches (and sometimes presbyteries also) were erected or renovated at Cooktown, Port Douglas, Cairns, Normanton, Croydon, and Herberton, Geraldton (renamed Innisfail in 1910) and Mareeba; schools conducted by Sisters of Mercy began at Cooktown and Cairns.
At the Australasian Plenary Council (of bishops) held in Sydney during November 1885, the members voted for an upgrade in the status of the mission led by Hutchinson in in Far North Queensland. In May 1887 Rome's decision was that a Vicariate of Cooktown be established, and that Hutchinson be made a bishop. His consecration took place in Sydney on the Feast of St Augustine, 28 August 1887.
In 1888 he built a magnificent convent at Cooktown for Sisters of Mercy from Dungarvan, Ireland. The convent building is now the Captain James Cook Museum, preserving the heritage of its times for all Australians to wonder at.
On 13 October 1889 Hutchinson performed his first ordination ceremony in Australia, conferring priesthood upon Michael O'Brien OSA – the first Augustinian ordained in Australia. The ordination took place at Cooktown, eight days after O’Brien had reached there from Ireland; he served in Far North Queensland for twelve years before returning to Ireland.
In the 1890s the administration of the Vicariate became burdensome to Hutchinson because of a great economic depression in Australia that saw banks failing and mission stations in the Vicariate unable to pay their debts and at times even to support their priests. As well, the debt on the Cooktown Convent was Hutchinson’s responsibility; it was eventually cleared years later by James Dominic Murray OSA, Hutchinson’s successor.
As well as financial difficulties, Hutchinson became taxed with ill health that involved recurring bouts of tropical dengue fever. In an era when a bishop was the only celebrant of the Sacrament of Confirmation, he insisted in fulfilling a series of Confirmation ceremonies for 360 people throughout the whole vicariate (which is four times larger than Ireland). This required him to travel 4,100 kilometres) by coastal steamship, train and stage coach 360 people. He returned from this exertion seriously ill, and died back in his residence at Cooktown on 28 October 1897 from dengue fever, aged a mere 61 years. Only three priests were available for his funeral, and no fellow bishops could reach remote Cooktown in time – surely one of the smallest funerals of a bishop in Australia’s history.
Life was so basic at that time that there was no money to pay for his simple funeral expenses until some cattle were sold. The erection of an elaborate Celtic cross tombstone awaited the generosity of the Catholics of Cooktown, and the Catholics elsewhere in the Vicariate raised sufficient money for enclosing fence around the grave. The tombstone and fencing still stand, maintained annually by members of the Friends of St Augustine from Mareeba, 260 kilometres distant by road.
The pectoral cross worn by Bishop Hutchinson had been presented to him by Ambrose Madden, a Cooktown merchant. Made from Palmer River gold, the cross and chain weigh 250 grams, and has been used by all six of his episcopal successors in the Vicariate of Cooktown and later in the present Diocese of Cairns.