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Gibney, Matthew (1835–1925)

by V. E. Callaghan

This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 8, (MUP), 1981

Matthew Gibney (1835-1925), bishop, was born in November 1835 at Killeshandra, Cavan, Ireland, son of Michael Gibney, farmer, and his wife Alice, née Prunty. He studied for the priesthood at the preparatory seminary at Stillorgan and from 1857 at the Catholic Missionary College of All Hallows, Drumcondra, Dublin. He was ordained priest in 1863 and arrived in Perth later that year.

Gibney had a kindly personality and plenty of drive and in 1873 he was appointed vicar-general to Bishop Martin Griver. He had a large physique and massive shoulders and his energy gave rise to many legends: his resilience when riding for days without water; his swimming flooded rivers to administer the sacraments; almost dying from arsenic poisoning when a farmer's wife mistook it for carbonate of soda. In 1868 Gibney had opened the Catholic Girls' Orphanage in Perth and in 1871 the Clontarf Orphanage for Catholic boys at Subiaco. As a result of damage to the boys' orphanage, he set off for the eastern colonies to collect funds for rebuilding. In Victoria on 28 June 1880, while travelling by train from Benalla to Albury, he learned that Ned Kelly's gang had been surrounded at Mrs Ann Jones's Glenrowan hotel and were shooting it out with police. Gibney left his train and tended the seemingly seriously wounded Kelly, heard his confession and gave him the last rites. Although advised against it by the bushranger, Gibney entered the now burning hotel to minister to the remainder of the gang, only to find their dead bodies; Martin Cherry received the last rites from Gibney before he too died. The priest returned to Perth in a blaze of glory and resumed work under Griver's appreciative gaze.

In 1886 he became coadjutor bishop of Perth, in November Griver died and next year Gibney was consecrated bishop. During his episcopate the diocese increased from 12 churches, 11 primary schools, 2 orphanages and 3 superior schools, to 31 churches, 43 primary schools, 2 orphanages, 21 superior schools, 1 college, a wayward women's asylum, 2 hospitals and a monastery. In 1898 he divided the diocese and created the diocese of Geraldton. Gibney stalwartly defended the Aboriginals in the North-West; he claimed to have been 'the first to take a practical interest' in them at a time when they were receiving scant sympathy. He had first gone there in 1878, admired their culture and was horrified at their treatment by white pearlers. He was concerned at the diminution of the black population since the arrival of Europeans and resolved to open a mission. By 1890 he secured from the government land at Beagle Bay and missionaries from the Trappist Order, whom he accompanied and helped to settle in. Ten years later the missionaries' departure caused a crisis. He had 10,000 acres (4050 ha) of freehold land, on condition that £5000 worth of improvements be made. These had not materialized. In 1900, with Canon Martelli and Daisy Bates, he went to the mission and, in his mid-sixties, dug, hoed and cleared paddocks to retain the mission for the Aboriginals. Next year the Pallottine Order took it over.

Gibney identified himself closely with the political and social aspirations of his fellow Irishmen: he had been partly responsible for the 1871 Elementary Education Act by which the subsidization of religious education was extended to Catholic schools. In the Perth by-election of 1888 Catholics voted en bloc for John Horgan, Gibney's solicitor. But Gibney deplored the property qualifications and restricted franchise of the Electoral Act operating at the first general election held under responsible government in 1890. He condemned it publicly: 'the advancement of the country … has been retarded for twenty years by the opposition of the Upper Class and now they have hampered the Constitution with conditions which will render the new Constitution nugatory for the vast majority of the people'. Later, when the subsidy system was threatened, he wrote to Bishop Salvado: 'if we can only succeed to draw our Catholic body together in every district we will make our enemies quail … ways are devised to baffle us in our good intentions'. In the 1894 elections the principle of government aid to Catholic schools was defeated, despite the bishop's efforts to mobilize votes for candidates supporting it. Next year the ecclesiastical grant was abolished; he requested £50,000 for the church in compensation and received £15,000.

Probably because of a need to replace these lost funds, Gibney then involved himself in some financial dealings which were ill advised. From the late 1890s the Church bought many shops, offices, houses and a hotel in the city of Perth. In 1905 he acquired control of the Morning Herald. He banned horse-racing information from it, circulation dropped and the paper went into liquidation in 1909. Another dubious venture was his partnership in the Greenbushes Development Co. The company operated ineffectively and returns were meagre. By 1908 the Church's debts were over £216,000 and his vicar-general was found to have been signing documents with Gibney's signature.

Word travelled to the Pope and to Cardinal Moran in Sydney who instigated an inquiry into Gibney's financial management by Archbishop O'Reily of Adelaide and Bishop P. V. Dwyer of Maitland. In 1910 O'Reily suggested that Gibney resign. Dissatisfied, Gibney prepared a statement to go directly to Pius X. This was considered, but he was requested to stand down. On 14 May he resigned and Father Patrick Clune succeeded him.

Matthew Gibney went into seclusion. A few days before his death at his North Perth home from cancer on 22 June 1925, he received a message granting him a papal benediction. He was buried in the Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception, Perth.

Select Bibliography

  • W. B. Kimberly, History of West Australia (Melb, 1897)
  • J. T. Reilly, Reminiscences of Fifty Years Residence in Western Australia (Perth, 1903)
  • P. Hasluck, Black Australians (Melb, 1942)
  • M. Durack, Kings in Grass Castles (Lond, 1959)
  • D. F. Bourke, The History of the Catholic Church in Western Australia (Perth, 1979)
  • C. T. Stannage, The People of Perth (Perth, 1979), and Journal of Religious History, 6 (June 1971)
  • Parliamentary Papers (Legislative Assembly, Western Australia), 1895, 2 (A10)
  • Freeman's Journal (Sydney), 4 Dec 1919, 11 Nov 1920, 28 Feb 1924
  • Australasian (Melbourne), 27 June 1925
  • Daisy Bates, MS 2300/11 (National Library of Australia).

Citation details

V. E. Callaghan, 'Gibney, Matthew (1835–1925)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/gibney-matthew-6305/text10873, published in hardcopy 1981, accessed online 23 October 2014.

This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 8, (MUP), 1981

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