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Archbishop of Brisbane 1965-1973

Born Fethard, 2nd February 1897
Ordained Priest 15th April 1922
Coadjutor Archbishop 17th March 1949
Archbishop of Brisbane 10th April 1965 - 5th March 1973
Died 2nd November 1980

Article by Michael O'Donnell, Owning, Carrick-on-Suir.

Archbishop O'Donnell greeted by a guard of honour on his visit to Fethard in 1954
Archbishop O'Donnell greeted by a guard of honour on his visit to Fethard in 1954

    A year before he died the then retired Archbishop Patrick Mary O'Donnell wrote in a special Irish number of the Australian Catholic newspaper The Leader (11 April 1979):

      "In the heart of man there exists a strong desire that may even be an instinct to cherish the memory of famous men. History relates their deeds, monuments commemorate their heroism and their names endure for centuries. But inevitably the lapse of time dims the lustre, even as it withers the pages and wears the stone. The name, perhaps like a fading echo, may linger but the power of it is gone."

    We can but hope that this will not be for some years to come at least the fate of Dr. O'Donnell himself. Perhaps already some priest in the Archdiocese of Brisbane is researching his biography and will give us a volume worthy to stand beside those written on his three predecessors.

    Patrick Mary O'Donnell (as he himself wrote his name, but in the 1901 Census his father wrote it as Patrick only) was born at Main Street, Fethard, the youngest child of Thomas and Johanna O'Donnell (both of these were born in 1856), on 2 February 1897. The family had a drapery business in the shop that is today O'Sullivan's Pharmacy. According to Patrick himself he was the youngest of sixteen children, though the 1901 Census lists only five children: Mary Ellen aged 20 years (she was then assisting her father in the drapery business), James then aged 17 and at school (older residents in Fethard will still remember him), Edmond aged 13 and at school, Sarah aged 9 and at school, and Patrick who was then aged four years. But the others could have been away from home when this Census was undertaken in March 1901. It will be necessary to research the local Catholic parish records on the family to discover when the parents married, how many children they had and when born, and when the parents died. As I write this I have not been able to discover when and why the family abandoned the drapery business. It was not listed in a Trade Directory of 1915.

    Archbishop O'Donnell has written that his family came to Fethard from Knockinglass which is that hilly area directly to the north of Moyglass village. According to him a James O'Donnell was born here in 1757 and died in 1810. This James married a Catherine Crehan and had family. In 1850 John O'Donnell of Knockinglass farmed 48 acres which in those times would have been a comfortable farm. And in a Trade Directory of 1889 John (either the same, or a son) was living in Knockinglass, but in the same directory a Thomas O'Donnell is shown as having a drapery business in Fethard. An 1870 Directory does not list Thomas but that of 1881 has him recorded as a linen and woollen draper. We may presume, then, that sometime in the 1870s he set himself up in business in Fethard; by 1880 he would have been 24 years old.

    By 1901 the drapery business in Fethard was well established with Thomas employing an assistant in the shop, John Skehan then aged 31 years (who will also be recalled by older Fethard residents), and his daughter Mary Ellen. Thomas's wife may also have assisted in the shop since they employed a servant, Ellen Nolan aged 23 years. It would seem that the family were a prosperous one and especially so as they could support a son who pursued his education in various part of Ireland and in Rome.

    Patrick O'Donnell began his education with the Presentation Sisters in Fethard and then moved across Old Chapel Lane to the National School where the Patrician Brothers taught. The Archbishop had affectionate memories of his time at school in Fethard and on every visit to the town made a point of visiting both teaching orders. In time he moved to The Academy conducted by the Brothers on the Main Street. From here he went to the Jesuits at Mungret College in Limerick and later still he spent a short time in All Hallows College in Dublin.

    To finish his education he took up residence in the Propaganda Fide College in Rome where many of his fellow students were to be in later years leaders in the Catholic Church. One such was Cardinal Gilroy, Archbishop of Sydney. Patrick O'Donnell was ordained a priest in Rome in April 1922.

    In June of 1922 he returned to Ireland for a short holiday before going to the diocese of Sale, near to Melbourne in Australia. He had been ordained for that diocese. About mid September 1922 he sailed for Australia on the liner Kyber which he probably joined at Liverpool. His ship would have sailed through the Mediterranean and stopped at Port Said at the mouth of the Suez Canal to take on coal. No doubt Patrick wandered around Port Said while the ship was coaling to wonder at the exotic scenes and sights. The liner would then have sailed through the Suez Canal and the Red Sea and then across the Indian Ocean to the port of Colombo in modern-day Sri Lanka. Here, again, the liner would have taken on coal. Like all the passengers he would have explored this city. From here the young priest, probably a little sea-sick, a little home-sick and most likely wondering if he would ever again see Ireland, sailed through the south Indian Ocean and across under south Australia to the port of Melbourne which he reached at the end of October 1922. There was no fast and cheap travel by plane in those days; the voyage by liner was expensive and took about seven weeks.

    From Melbourne he was taken to the town of Sale which lies about 130 miles north-east of Melbourne and was the principal city in the province of Gippsland in the State of Victoria. When Patrick arrived there the town was not much bigger than Fethard and like Fethard was in the centre of a rich agricultural area with a temperate climate. But the town was increasing in size, by 1949 the population was 6,000 and today the population is about 15,000. His first position was that of curate in Sale Cathedral and he was to serve in this capacity until he was appointed Administrator of the Cathedral in 1930. He continued in the latter until 1937.

    In 1937 he was appointed parish priest of Leongatha in the beautiful lake district of south Gippsland and close to the southern coast of Australia. This was in the diocese of Sale. While here, in 1944, he was created a Domestic Prelate by Pope Pius XII and was appointed a Vicar General in the diocese. He seems to have served in Leongatha until about 1946. In this year he was promoted a Monsignor and transferred to the parish of Warragul where he served until 18 December 1948. Warragul is also in the diocese of Sale and somewhat to the east of Melbourne.

    In 1947, while still parish priest in Warragul, he celebrated the silver jubilee of his ordination. To mark the occasion he made his first trip back to Ireland in a quarter of a century. This time he was able to fly by plane and was accompanied by the Apostolic Delegate to Australia, Dr. Pancio. They came via India and the Middle East to Rome where Patrick spent some time before flying to Paris where he met Archbishop Roncalli, the Nuncio to France and later Pope John XXIII. Patrick O'Donnell celebrated his silver jubilee by offering High Mass in the Urban College of Propaganda Fide in Rome.

    He was resettled about a year in his parish in Sale when, on 18 December 1948, he received a telegram from Rome notifying him that he had been appointed Titular Archbishop of Pelusium and Coadjutor to Dr. James Duhig, then Archbishop of Brisbane. Brisbane lay about one thousand miles to the north, away in the sub-tropical state of Queensland. On the same day as he received the telegram Patrick wrote to Dr. Duhig: 'I am naturally filled with apprehension. I have been Vicar General long enough to realise the burdens and worries of a bishop'. But his neighbour and fellow Irishman, Dr. Daniel Mannix, Archbishop of Melbourne, wrote to him in a shaky hand (Mannix was then 85 years): 'You can't keep a good man down'.

    On Thursday 17 March 1949, St. Patrick's Day, Patrick Mary O'Donnell was ordained as Archbishop in St. Mary's Cathedral at Sale. The principal ordinand was his classmate from Rome days, Cardinal Gilroy of Sydney who was assisted by two Tipperary men, Bishop Ryan of Sale, Victoria and Bishop Gleeson of Maitland, New South Wales.

    On this special occasion he gave utterance for the first time to the heartbreak and the sorrow he experienced on leaving Fethard, his father and mother, his brothers and sisters all those 27 years ago. And with the modesty that was so much a feature of the man he went on:

      "I do not know why I should be chosen for the dignity of Archbishop, but I say that it is the loyalty and training of Bishop Ryan (Bishop of Sale) which has fitted me for it. To leave the priests, the brothers and the laity who have done so much for me is one of the heart-breaking duties of a priest whose work is elsewhere, but so it must be. I will never forget you."

    On 28 April 1949 he formally presented himself to Archbishop Duhig and received a liturgical reception in St. Stephen's Cathedral in downtown Brisbane. That night a civic reception was held for him in the City Hall at which the Chief Justice of Queensland read an address of welcome.

    Dr. O'Donnell was the last Irish-born bishop to be appointed to the Australian Hierarchy which must be seen as a significant tribute to his talents, his popularity and his acceptability both in Rome and in Australia. Since the 1930s it had been Vatican policy, which it had been vigorously pushing, that only native Australians should be promoted to local dioceses.

    When Dr. O'Donnell moved north to Brisbane he lived for a short time with Archbishop Duhig, but he then moved to his own residence. This was Glengarriff, Derby Street, Hendra, Brisbane which lay to the northeast of the city and in the suburbs. It is immediately to the south of the modern-day airport. This house was a large two-storied brick house with extensive grounds. It had been the property of a Mr. T. C. Beirne until his death on 21 April 1949. The house had five bedrooms and quarters for domestic staff. On the death of Mr. Beirne his daughters presented it to the Archdiocese and Dr. Duhig passed it on to his Coadjutor. With his house Dr. O'Donnell received an annual salary of £1,500 from his Archbishop. Whatever other faults he may have had Dr. Duhig was always generous with money and made certain that Archbishop O'Donnell had sufficient whenever he travelled to Europe and to his beloved Fethard.

    In the Archdiocese of Brisbane Dr. O'Donnell was to serve in the shadow of Archbishop Duhig for sixteen years until the latter, who did not retire, died on 10 April 1965 aged 93 years. Though there was no public confrontation or ill will between the two Archbishops, it has to be said that in private Dr. Duhig was less than supportive of his Coadjutor and often expressed the opinion that Dr. O'Donnell lacked the essentials of leadership. Nevertheless, at all times Archbishop O'Donnell was magnanimous and loyal to his superior and his good humour overcame any private frustration he may have experienced. A touch of this humour may be seen in the comment made by Archbishop O'Donnell when asked for his opinion on the great age of Dr. Duhig: 'Ah, God bless us, poor James [Dr. Duhig] will probably die of pneumonia caught at my funeral'.

    Following his first visit home in 1947 Archbishop O'Donnell came regularly to Ireland. he was here in 1950 when he blessed the Holy Year Cross on Slievenamon with Canon Ryan of Fethard and preached in Thurles Cathedral. This was on 15 August. Again in 1954 he was the leader of the Brisbane Archdiocesan pilgrimage to Lourdes, Rome and, of course, Ireland. He was in Ireland again in 1961 for the celebrations commemorating the 1,500th anniversary of the death of St. Patrick. On this occasion he left Brisbane on Thursday 23 February 1961 and flew via Singapore, Calcutta, Cairo and on to Rome where he spent a week. When he landed in Dublin he was met by Dr. McQuaid, the Archbishop of Dublin and Fr. Walter Skehan of Clonbrogan, Moyglass who was then parish priest of Loughmore. Dr. O'Donnell attended the Vatican 11 sessions in Rome with his friend the late Archbishop Thomas Morris of Cashel & Emly.

St. Stephen's Cathedral Brisbane
St. Stephen's Cathedral Brisbane

    On 10 April 1965 he succeeded as third Archbishop of Brisbane. This sub-tropical city with its beautiful parks and towering buildings was to be his home for the remainder of his life; and in its cathedral, dwarfed by high-rise buildings, he was laid to his final rest.

    As Archbishop of Brisbane Dr. O'Donnell returned to Fethard on 30 May 1969 for the consecration of the parish church. Together with native priests from the parish he concelebrated Mass in the church on Sunday 1 June which was Trinity Sunday and the 150th anniversary of the first Mass being celebrated. On that Sunday he was escorted into the town by the St. Joseph's Band from Ferryhouse, Clonmel and boys from the Patrician Brothers Schools formed at guard of honour in the churchyard. An ageing and honoured son was coming home.

    At a special Mass in St. Stephen's Cathedral in Brisbane on 18 April 1972 the Archbishop celebrated the 50th anniversary of his ordination as a priest. He accepted the ruling of Vatican 11 which decreed that bishops and archbishops should retire at 75 years and so on 5 March 1973 he passed on the staff of office. He continued to live at his home at Glengarriff, in Derby Street, but Fethard and Clonmel still called him. In July of that year the priests of the diocese of Brisbane laid on a formal dinner which served as a formal farewell to their leader. About one hundred priests attended. Two days later Dr. O'Donnell left for Ireland and an extended holiday which he spent with his sister, Mrs. C. Carri, O'Connell Street, Clonmel. He was expected back in Brisbane within a few months, but even by March 1974 he had not returned. However, in mid 1974 he did do so and to the best of my knowledge he never again left Brisbane.

    Archbishop Patrick Mary O'Donnell died on 2 November 1980. He was buried in the vault at the side aisle of his Cathedral in Brisbane on the very hot afternoon of 6 November. A simple placque commemorates his memory beside that of his predecessor Dr. James Duhig. The Irish Government cabled condolences to the Archdiocese. And what he always saw as his church (the parish church in Fethard) held a concelebrated Mass on 6 November at which Fr. William Hayes, who knew the Archbishop well, preached. He described Dr. O'Donnell as a fine priest, a holy man, but a reluctant bishop.

Archbishop O'Donnell's tomb tablet St. Stephen's Cathedral, Brisbane
Archbishop O'Donnell's tomb tablet St. Stephen's Cathedral, Brisbane

    It has been written of Dr. O'Donnell that he was a wonderful preacher with a fine command of the English language. However, his sermons tended to be on the long side. His devout and pious nature together with his command of Christian doctrine, the New Testament and Canon Law shone through all his homilies. For the ordinary man and woman seeking spiritual help as they struggled through life he was a caring pastor, and by his loving and out-going nature brought the mercy of a compassionate God to a people in difficulty. He was most virtuous and holy in his personal life, but in the performance of his Episcopal duties he tended to be overly conscientious and to bind himself about with Canon Law.

    Others have written he was vacillating and hesitant when he came to making decisions. We should remember, though, that any Archbishop who followed Dr. Duhig -- the Lion of Queensland -- would have had a high benchmark to aim for. Duhig could ooze confidence even when he was in the wrong, but this Dr. O'Donnell could never do. For all of that he did modernise the diocese of Brisbane and passed it on in a healthy state to his successor.

    Though he lived in a beautiful city with a warm, tropical climate and close to sandy beaches and delightful scenery his inner eye only saw the white clouds flying over Slievenamon and his ear heard only the murmuring of the Clashawley. So, while men on a distant continent will judge him as a leader of the Catholic Church, people in Fethard should see him as a native son who never forgot the place that bred and educated him to manhood, the place that for all of his 83 years was his true home. He was a man of humour who had a streak of irreverence in him, a raconteur of style and wit.


    Letter and some genealogical notes sent by Archbishop O’Donnell to his nephew Jack O’Donnell of New York USA in 1978. (kindly supplied by George Byrnes, Texas, USA.)

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