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Bergin, Michael (1879–1917)

by J. Eddy

This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 7, (MUP), 1979

Michael Bergin (1879-1917), by unknown photographer

Michael Bergin (1879-1917), by unknown photographer

Australian War Memorial, P04475.001

Michael Bergin (1879-1917), Jesuit priest and military chaplain, was born in August 1879 at Fancroft, Tipperary, Ireland, son of Michael Bergin, mill-owner, and his wife Mary, née Hill. Educated at the local convent school and the Jesuit College at Mungret, Limerick, he entered the Jesuit noviceship at Tullabeg in September 1897. Two years later he was sent to the Syrian mission where English-speakers were needed; he felt the break from home and country very keenly but became absorbed in his missionary work and the exotic customs of the local peoples. After learning Arabic and French he studied philosophy at Ghazir, and in October 1904 began teaching at the Jesuit College in Beirut.

In 1907 Bergin was sent to Hastings, England, to complete his theology studies and was ordained priest on 24 August 1910. After a short time at home he returned to Hastings for further study and then gave missions and retreats in the south of England. He returned to the Middle East in January 1914 and was in charge of Catholic schools near Damascus until the outbreak of World War I; along with other foreigners in Syria, he was then imprisoned and later expelled by the Turkish government. By the time he reached the French Jesuit College in Cairo in January 1915 the first Australian troops had arrived in Egypt, and Bergin offered to assist the Catholic military chaplains. Though still a civilian, he was dressed by the men in the uniform of a private in the Australian Imperial Force and when the 5th Light Horse Brigade left for Gallipoli he went with it. Sharing the hardships of the troops, he acted as priest and stretcher-bearer until his official appointment as chaplain came through on 13 May 1915. He remained at Anzac until September when he was evacuated to the United Kingdom with enteric fever.

Bergin's arrival home in khaki, complete with emu feather in his slouch-hat, caused a sensation among his family and friends. Though tired and weak after his illness, he was anxious to get back to his troops for Christmas. He returned to Lemnos but was pronounced unfit and confined to serving in hospitals and hospital-ships. Evacuated to Alexandria in January 1916, he worked in camps and hospitals in Egypt and in April joined the 51st Battalion, A.I.F., at Tel-el-Kebir. He accompanied it to France and served as a chaplain in all its actions in 1916-17; these included the battles of Pozières and Mouquet Farm, the advance on the Hindenburg Line and the battle of Messines. He was killed at Passchendaele on 11 October 1917 when a heavy shell burst near the aid-post where he was working. He was buried in the village churchyard at Renninghelst, Belgium.

Bergin was awarded the Military Cross posthumously. The citation praised his unostentatious but magnificent zeal and courage. Though he had never seen Australia he was deeply admired by thousands of Australian soldiers, one of whom referred to him as 'a man made great through the complete subordination of self'.

Select Bibliography

  • L. C. Wilson and H. Wetherell, History of the Fifth Light Horse Regiment (Syd, 1926)
  • Sister S., A Son of St. Patrick (Dublin, 1932)
  • 51st Battalion Newsletter, July 1962
  • F. Gorman, ‘Father Michael Bergin, S. J.’, Jesuit Life, July 1976.

Citation details

J. Eddy, 'Bergin, Michael (1879–1917)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/bergin-michael-5217/text8783, published first in hardcopy 1979, accessed online 29 April 2017.

This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 7, (MUP), 1979

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