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Stewart, Bernard Denis (1900–1988)

by Val Noone

This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 18, (MUP), 2012

Bernard Denis Stewart (1900-1988), Catholic bishop, was born on 2 August 1900 at Essendon, Melbourne, third of eight children of Ronald Stewart, a Warrnambool-born public servant and convert to Catholicism, and his wife Rose Ann, née McHugh, a Ballarat-born child of Irish Catholic immigrants.  Bernard attended primary school at St Columba’s College, Essendon, and St Joseph’s College, North Melbourne.  After his father, a prominent Catholic writer, died of heart disease aged 42 when Bernard was 12, Archbishop Thomas Carr and other Catholic leaders set up a testimonial fund for the welfare of Rose and the children.  In 1917 Stewart joined the note issue branch of the Federal Treasury, later transferring to the Attorney-General’s Department.  Although he trained with Essendon Football Club, he was not selected and instead played for Prahran in the Victorian Football Association.  Having attended night classes at the University of Melbourne (BA, 1920; LL.B, 1922), he joined the legal firm Hedderwick Fookes & Alston in 1922.

Four years later, under the patronage of Archbishop Daniel Mannix, Stewart went to the Pontifical Urban University of Propaganda Fide, Rome, to study for the priesthood (DD, 1930).  Ordained in 1929, he returned in 1930 to begin duties as assistant-priest in several Melbourne parishes, before becoming administrator of St Mary’s, West Melbourne, in 1942.  He was a popular preacher and religious radio broadcaster.  In World War II he served (1939-44) as a chaplain, acting first class (colonel equivalent), in the Citizen Military Forces.  His main work was in Melbourne with the Catholic Welfare Organisation, which ministered to servicemen and women.

On 11 February 1947 Stewart was consecrated by Archbishop Justin Simonds as coadjutor bishop to Bishop John McCarthy of Sandhurst diocese, succeeding to the see at McCarthy’s death on 18 August 1950.  Over the next twenty-nine years he responded to population growth in his diocese by forming new parishes and erecting schools.  For twenty-five of those years, he relied heavily on Monsignor Peter de Campo, the vicar-general.  He gained the nickname 'Bernie the Builder' which, with good humour, he occasionally quoted.  His major accomplishment was the completion of the Sacred Heart Cathedral in Bendigo.

While visiting parishes, Stewart combined his leadership role in prayer and ritual with strong statements on public issues such as communism, comic books and state aid for non-government schools.  In the 1954-55 split in the Australian Labor Party, he expressed clear support for B. A. Santamaria and the until-then secret Catholic Social Studies Movement (later National Civic Council) along with the associated Democratic Labor Party.  He continued openly to endorse this group despite a 1957 Vatican ruling against such episcopal support.  He opposed abortion and favoured Australia’s involvement in the Vietnam War.

In the 1960s Stewart faced the challenge of guiding the diocese through the epochal changes in Catholic theology and practice brought about by the Second Vatican Council (1962-65).  At the council he was one of a minority of Australian bishops who opposed the liberalisation of the Catholic Church’s laws on marriages between Catholics and non-Catholics.  He sought to exclude from the ongoing life of the diocese those priests, nuns and brothers who chose to return to the lay state.  In 1968, following the rejection by many Catholics of Pope Paul VI’s reiteration of a papal ban on contraception in the encyclical letter Humanae Vitae (On Human Life), he became vocal against what he saw as a repudiation of tradition among theologians, a loss of obedience and reverence among the faithful, and the resulting diminution of church authority.

Tall, witty and articulate, Stewart gained some national fame as an opponent of the changes in Catholicism associated with Vatican II.  He attempted to ban new methods of teaching Catholic catechism in his diocese and, with the assistance of a team including his close friends and collaborators, Frs Harry Jordan and Santamaria, published booklets such as The Catholic Religion: With Peter and Under Peter (1970) to explain his view of the true faith.  In those years he also opposed the ALP government of Gough Whitlam, especially when it proposed a needs-based funding scheme for schools, calling instead for per capita funding.

Stewart enjoyed playing tennis, shooting quail and reading books about cricket.  He maintained close links with his family, who sometimes stayed with him at Genazzano, his episcopal residence at Kangaroo Flat.  When he retired on 21 April 1979, the players of the Essendon Football Club inscribed a gift to 'the Dons’ bishop'.  He spent his retirement at the Bethlehem Home for the Aged in Bendigo until his death on 15 October 1988.  He is buried in the crypt of the cathedral whose completion he oversaw, and a portrait by Bernard Nunan hangs in the cathedral.

Select Bibliography

  • G. Henderson, Mr Santamaria and the Bishops (1982)
  • A. O’Brien, Blazing a Trail (1999)
  • B. Duncan, Crusade or Conspiracy? (2001)
  • Advocate (Melbourne), 27 October 1988, p 1
  • K. Lawlor, Bishop Bernard D. Stewart and Resistance to the Reform of Religious Education in the Diocese of Sandhurst, 1950-1979 (PhD thesis, La Trobe University, 1999).

Related Entries in NCB Sites

Citation details

Val Noone, 'Stewart, Bernard Denis (1900–1988)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/stewart-bernard-denis-15819/text27018, published first in hardcopy 2012, accessed online 21 June 2019.

This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 18, (MUP), 2012

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