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Australian Dictionary of Biography

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O'Donovan, John (1836–1912)

by C. J. Duffy

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

John O'Donovan (1836-1912), Catholic priest, was born on 6 November 1836 at Ballyvaden, County Waterford, Ireland, son of John O'Donovan, farmer, and his wife Mary, née Walshe. Educated at the Mount Melleray Monastery, Waterford, for two years and All Hallows College, Dublin, he was ordained on 24 June 1861. In September he sailed for Sydney, was wrecked in Bass Strait and arrived in January 1862. He took up duties at St Benedict's in February where he attracted attention as a preacher. In 1864-68 he was parish priest at Orange.

In October O'Donovan became parish priest at Mudgee; he was then an 'athlete of no mean character' and a noted horseman. In 1871 his assistant was Fr John Dunne who became bishop of Bathurst. O'Donovan planned imposing buildings and spent £16,000 on a Gothic stone church, St Mary's, which was blessed in 1876. He designed a substantial convent for the Mercy nuns who were introduced in 1875 and built churches in Gulgong, Rylstone, Wollar and other places. In 1896-97 he visited Ireland and Europe and was made a domestic prelate (monsignor) by the Pope. In 1903 he had a new bell for St Mary's cast in Dublin and next year raised the money for a new pipe organ by an art union and a play. He served on the committee of the local hospital for many years. Well known as an orator in Sydney and a fellow of St John's College in the University of Sydney, he travelled widely to speak on such occasions as the consecration of Bishop Dunne at Brisbane in 1882.

In Mudgee O'Donovan maintained the state attributed to a parish priest in Ireland; his sister and later his niece, Annie Ita Halley, presided over his establishment, which included a Chinese cook and several maids; he also entertained local squatters in return for a day's shooting. Famous for his fine horses, he never opened a gate but rode straight over the fence. Henry Lawson wrote in 'A Fragment of an Autobiography', 'Father O'Donovan was a character and I liked him … [he] attended the Mudgee races, all three days, to look after the “big bhoys” of his flock whom [he] corrected on occasions with a buggy-whip. They say he always had a horse or two running, but this didn't prevent him from taking care of the boys'.

In 1911 O'Donovan celebrated his golden jubilee as a priest by erecting the spire on St Mary's and by a banquet, with the mayor as chairman, when he was given a fine 24 horse-power motor car, gold sleeve-links and ten Japanese pictures by the convent children. He died on 24 April 1912 and was buried in a vault in St Mary's. In his 44 years as parish priest he had performed 450 marriages and 2520 baptisms. He left £200 each to the Catholic school fund and the orphanage in Bathurst, his library to Fr O'Donnell in Gulgong, his guns to Dr Harvey Nickoll of Mudgee and the residue of his estate, sworn at £4144, to his niece.

Select Bibliography

  • A. W. Maher, Mudgee Catholic Centenary (Mudgee, 1952)
  • ‘A fragment of autobiography’, The Stories of Henry Lawson, C. Mann ed (Syd, 1964)
  • Catholic Press (Sydney), 25 Apr 1912
  • Freeman's Journal (Sydney), 25 Apr 1912
  • Mudgee Guardian, 25, 29 Apr 1912
  • Roman Catholic Archives (Bathurst and Sydney).

Citation details

C. J. Duffy, 'O'Donovan, John (1836–1912)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/odonovan-john-4321/text7011, published first in hardcopy 1974, accessed online 11 August 2020.

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

View the front pages for Volume 5

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