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McKillop, Donald (1853–1925)

by G. J. O'Kelly

This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 5, (MUP), 1974

Donald McKillop (1853-1925), Jesuit priest, was born on 27 April 1853 in Portland, Victoria, brother of Mary who founded the Josephite Sisters, the largest Australian congregation of nuns. He was educated at St Aloysius College, Sevenhill, South Australia, where he entered the Society of Jesus in June 1872 and did his noviceship and studies in rhetoric and philosophy until 1877. He then taught at the college until 1882 when he was sent for theological studies to Innsbruck in 1883, to north Wales in 1884-85 where he was ordained priest and to Roehampton for his Jesuit studies. With two Jesuit companions he returned to Adelaide on 14 October 1886, all three destined for the mission to the Aborigines in the Northern Territory. This mission, conducted in 1882-90 by the Austrian Jesuits from Sevenhill, involved nineteen Jesuits and had the largest number of Aborigines of any in the Northern Territory. Anthropologists such as W. E. H. Stanner and Ronald Berndt single it out for its insights and appreciation of Aboriginal culture.

The policy adopted on the mission stations followed the model of the Jesuit Reductions in eighteenth-century Paraguay, and McKillop became its most forthright exponent. In 1887-89 he was attached to the Rapid Creek station, near Palmerston, to work and study the Mulluk Mulluk dialect, the lingua franca of the Daly region. Late in 1889 he was sent by Fr Anton Strele to found a new station at Serpentine Lagoon on the Daly. With four companions he laboured for a year among the Madngella and other tribes who had never seen whites, but with little effect.

In December 1890 McKillop was made Superior of the whole mission which then had three stations and a residence in Darwin. He was responsible for the whole venture but the financial upkeep bore heavily on him since the assistance promised by the bishops did not materialize. Deeming the stations had failed, he closed them and in August 1891 concentrated his eleven Jesuits in one new station on the Daly. Despite some successes the policy of small, self-supporting agricultural townships did not attract the Aboriginals and most converts were inconstant. The station was struck by severe poverty and his begging tours in the south and east in 1892-93 were unsuccessful because of the depression and apathy.

The continuing decimation of the tribes made the Jesuits seriously doubt the survival of the Aboriginals. McKillop clung to his policies of preserving the native culture but outside factors crowded in to produce a tragic desperation as he foresaw the end of 'the daydream of my life'. In vivid prose he often lashed out in the press at 'blood-stained Australia', at the white and Chinese population and at the government, whom he castigated for pusillanimity in granting land and finance to missions in tribal territories. Worn-out and seriously ill he was ordered south in October 1897. Leadership of the mission then became mediocre and after floods in 1898-99 the station was closed.

McKillop's direction had been realistic but his criticism of official policy probably lost him co-operation from the government. In intermittent good health he worked in Jesuit parishes in Norwood, South Australia (1898-1901), in Victoria at Hawthorn (1902-03) and Richmond (1904-10), Sevenhill (1911-13) and Norwood from 1914 until he died on 2 February 1925 in North Adelaide. His 'Anthropological Notes on the Aboriginal Tribes of the Daly River, North Australia' had been published in the Transactions of the Royal Society of South Australia, 1892-93. The evidence of J. L. Parsons and Charles J. Dashwood to the select committee on the proposed Aborigines' bill of 1899 suggests that the failure of the Jesuit enterprise in the territory helped to confirm the negative character of government legislation on Aboriginals for the next decades.

Select Bibliography

  • V. L. Solomon, N. T. Times Almanac and Directory (Palmerston, 1886-90)
  • Roman Catholic Mission Reports, Parliamentary Papers (South Australia), 1886-89, 1891-94, 1896-99
  • R. M. Berndt, ‘Surviving influence of mission contact on the Daly River…’, Neue Zeitschrift für Missionswissenschaft, 8 (1952)
  • G. J. O'Kelly, The Jesuit Mission Stations in the Northern Territory, 1882-1899 (B.A. Hons thesis, Monash University, 1967)
  • Australian Jesuit Provincial Archives (Hawthorn, Melbourne).

Citation details

G. J. O'Kelly, 'McKillop, Donald (1853–1925)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/mckillop-donald-4111/text6573, published first in hardcopy 1974, accessed online 24 June 2017.

This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 5, (MUP), 1974

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