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Byrne, Frederick (1834–1915)

by Susan Pruul

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

Frederick Byrne (1834-1915), by unknown photographer

Frederick Byrne (1834-1915), by unknown photographer

State Library of South Australia, SLSA: B 33698

Frederick Byrne (1834-1915), Catholic priest, was born on 22 February 1834 in Dublin. At 14 he began studies for the Benedictine novitiate at Subiaco near Rome, but returned to Dublin because of ill health. In 1855 he migrated with Dom Joseph Serra to Western Australia, where he taught at a church boys' school. He went to the Adelaide mission in 1857 and then to Sevenhill, the Jesuit college near Clare, to complete his studies for the priesthood. He was ordained in 1860 and for the next five years was in Adelaide and travelling on southern Yorke Peninsula and along the far west coast. Later he described the life of such a priest: 'suffering the most miserable accommodation, he has to eat badly-prepared food, and to sleep on some sort of a shakedown … No matter how fatigued he may be, he is expected to be fresh and cheerful, and to talk for hours on subjects in which he has not the smallest interest'.

In March 1865 Byrne was appointed to Kapunda but resigned after conflict with an assistant, Fr Horan. He was posted to Salisbury in 1869, before becoming joint administrator of the Adelaide diocese on Bishop Sheil's death in 1872. Byrne was appointed vicar-general by the new bishop, his friend Christopher Reynolds, and later twice administered the diocese. In 1881 Byrne was made doctor of divinity by the Holy See and next year was received by the Pope. In 1883-97 he served again at Kapunda and from 1897 was at Goodwood. In 1902 he became a domestic prelate and in 1912 he retired.

Byrne's career coincided with the increasingly uncompromising attitude of Bishop Geoghegan and his successors towards secular education and the 1851 Education Act. Byrne fostered Catholic schools wherever he served and personally funded the building of the school of St Thomas at Goodwood. His concern for the spiritual well-being of the laity sometimes induced him to criticize his superiors and engage in public controversy. His outspoken History of the Catholic Church in South Australia (1896) was equivocal about Bishops Sheil and Murphy's stand on secular education, and he disagreed with Sheil over the treatment of the Sisters of St Joseph in 1871. But despite Byrne's critical attitudes, contemporary accounts emphasize his kindliness, imperturbability and retiring disposition.

He and other priests had been prominent at the meeting called by Geoghegan on 27 September 1860 to petition parliament against the existing education system. Two years later Byrne was directing Catholics' votes in the Yatala electorate. In reviving the Catholic Club in 1881 he had similar political goals and recognized the role of newspapers in furthering the Church's views. He had hoped for much from the Record and South Australian Catholic Standard and its successor, the Catholic Record, and became a shareholder and chairman of directors of the successful Southern Cross.

After his death at Calvary Hospital on 22 July 1915 Monsignor Byrne's body was placed in St Francis Xavier's Cathedral and requiem Mass was presided over by Archbishop Spence. His funeral was largely attended and he was buried at Cabra convent. A friend and benefactor of the Dominican nuns since their arrival in the colony, Byrne had endowed the community at Cabra with grounds in 1884.

Select Bibliography

  • Advertiser (Adelaide), 29 Sept 1860, 18, 19 Nov 1862, 23 July 1915
  • Catholic Record, 18, 25 Feb 1881
  • Southern Cross (Adelaide), 22 Apr 1910, 30 July 1915, 16 Oct, 6, 30 Nov 1936
  • Francis Murphy, journal, 5 Mar 1857, and F. Byrne, letters, 24 Jan, 21 Feb 1880, 24 May 1897, and R. A. Morrison, index file 1866-99, vol 1, manuscript notes (Roman Catholic Archdiocesan Archives, Adelaide)
  • private information.

Citation details

Susan Pruul, 'Byrne, Frederick (1834–1915)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/byrne-frederick-5457/text9269, published first in hardcopy 1979, accessed online 21 November 2017.

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

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