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O'Shea, Bernard Anthony (Barney) (1906–1993)

by Maurice Ryan

This article was published online in 2017

Bernard Anthony O’Shea (1906–1993), Catholic priest and education administrator, was born on 15 August 1906 at Redcliffe, Queensland, eighth of nine children of Irish-born parents Michael O’Shea, storekeeper, and his wife Mary Ann, née Coman. The family operated a general store at Caboolture, and Bernard went to the local state primary school. Aged thirteen, he enrolled at the Christian Brothers’ St Joseph’s College, Gregory Terrace, Brisbane, travelling 31 miles (50 km) in one and a half hours to and from the city each day by train. Between 1923 and 1926 he worked in the State Government Insurance Office. Deciding to study for the Catholic priesthood, he attended St Columba’s College, Springwood, New South Wales (1927–29), and St Patrick’s College, Manly, Sydney (1930–33). While he never considered himself a scholar, in 1932 he received first prize for each of scripture, dogmatic theology, and canon law.

On 8 December 1933 O’Shea was ordained at St Stephen’s Cathedral in Brisbane. His first appointment was as an assistant to Father James Kelly at Mary Immaculate parish, Annerley. He moved to St Mary’s, South Brisbane, in 1943. That year Archbishop (Sir) James Duhig appointed him as diocesan inspector of Christian doctrine and youth movements in schools. In effect the archbishop’s eyes and ears in the archdiocesan schools, he monitored religious education. He also disseminated the Church’s social teaching to promote social justice and to respond from the standpoint of Catholic theology to secularising influences. In 1952 he became parish priest at St Ita’s, Dutton Park, a post he was to occupy for the next three decades, while also serving the wider Catholic community.

Having been appointed director of Catholic education in Brisbane in 1948, O’Shea became the inaugural director of the Brisbane Catholic Education Office in 1966 and he retained that position when elected the first director of the Queensland Catholic Education Commission in 1973. He was a Queensland representative on the National Catholic Education Commission on its formation in 1969. In the 1960s and 1970s his duties involved him in the conflict over state aid to non-government schools; leaders were needed who were skilled negotiators and agile policy-makers. After a meeting with Catholic education administrators in Queensland during the 1972 Federal election campaign, Gough Whitlam was reported to have said that `he had never faced such incisive questioning as he had from Fr Barney O’Shea’ (Quirke 1992, 10).

Zealous in his commitment to expanding Catholic education, O’Shea rejoiced in the increased Federal funding that the Australian Schools Commission provided from 1974. A new Catholic school opened in the archdiocese nearly every year in the 1970s and early 1980s. The commission’s policy of dealing with central authorities contributed to the growth of centralised administrative structures within Catholic education, a transformation that O’Shea fostered. Some Catholic school communities resented the loss of parochial autonomy as he assumed greater executive powers and responsibilities. He strove to reconcile these differences, but, despite his reputation as a bridge-builder, he could be dogged in pursuit of his aims. Having started with a few voluntary helpers in 1948, he ultimately headed a large organisation comprising planning, construction, staffing, salaries, and accounting divisions, and consultants in all the specialisations in secular and religious education. The provision of facilities for children with special needs was one of his particular interests.

O’Shea was universally known as `Father Barney,’ indicating a relaxed and approachable person, not given to formality and pretension. Small talk and chit-chat did not come easily to him. A non-drinker, he found challenging the conviviality of social functions associated with educational and pastoral groups. He was an enthusiastic reader who liked to keep up to date with the latest ideas circulating in the Church and the wider world. He cherished his life and career as a priest, and proved a loyal and trusted servant of the bishops for whom he worked. Although doing his best to avoid honours and public accolades, he was awarded Queen Elizabeth II’s silver jubilee medal in 1977, nominated by Clyde Gilmour, the director-general of education. The Queensland Institute for Educational Administration awarded him its fellowship in 1981, recognising his part in achieving a high level of cooperation between the Queensland Department of Education and Catholic schools. Retiring on 8 December 1983, he assumed the overseeing role of archdiocesan vicar for education, and devoted more time to his favourite recreation, fishing. In 1993 he published Known and Respected, a memoir of priests with whom he had served.

Fr Barney O’Shea died on 8 July 1993 in Brisbane and was buried in Nudgee cemetery. At his funeral Mass at St Stephen’s Cathedral, Archbishop Francis Rush emphasised his significant contribution to Catholic education over forty years and to education nationally in the 1970s. The Fr Bernard O’Shea In-Service Centre, Wilston, was named in his honour.

Research edited by Darryl Bennet

Select Bibliography

  • Catholic Leader (Brisbane). `Fellowship for Education Office Director.’ 1 November 1981, 14
  • O’Shea, Bernard. Known and Respected. Dutton Park, Qld: privately published, 1993. Booklet held in Brisbane Catholic Archdiocesan Archives
  • Owen, Ray. `Fr Barney: The Last Goodbye to “a Great and Good Man”.’ Catholic Leader (Brisbane), 21 July 1993, 13
  • Quirke, Noel. The Wind beneath their Wings: A History of John Paul College 19821992. Milton, Qld: Jacaranda Press, 1992
  • Ryan, Maurice. From a Suitcase on the Verandah: Father Bernard O’Shea and the Development of Catholic Education in Brisbane 19431983. Brisbane: Brisbane Catholic Education, 2005

Additional Resources

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Citation details

Maurice Ryan, 'O'Shea, Bernard Anthony (Barney) (1906–1993)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/oshea-bernard-anthony-barney-17818/text29402, published online 2017, accessed online 26 August 2019.

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