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Joseph Wilfrid Dwyer (1869–1939)

by W. G. McMinn

This article was published:

This is a shared entry with Patrick Vincent Dwyer

Patrick Vincent Dwyer (1858-1931) and Joseph Wilfrid Dwyer (1869-1939), Roman Catholic bishops, were born on 21 August 1858 at Albury, New South Wales, and on 12 October 1869 at East Maitland, sons of William Dwyer, schoolteacher, and his wife Anastasia, née Dermody, both from Kilkenny, Ireland. In 1862 William became inspector of schools in the Bathurst district and in 1867 was transferred to Maitland.

Educated at St Stanislaus College, Bathurst, Vincent attracted the attention of Bishop James Murray, while working as a catechist at Maitland. Later the bishop persuaded Dwyer's father to send him to Holy Cross College, Clonliffe, Dublin, and then to Rome where he lived in the Pontifical Irish College and studied at the Pontifical Urban University of Propaganda Fide. He was ordained in Rome on 4 March 1882 and immediately returned to Maitland.

Dwyer was Murray's protégé, even favourite: he became his secretary and diocesan inspector of schools, and was also given charge of the school adjacent to the cathedral. From 1888 he was president of the Sacred Heart College, West Maitland. When Murray asked for a coadjutor, Dwyer was appointed, despite the preference of the priests for Patrick Hand, the vicar-general. On 6 June 1897 he was consecrated titular bishop of Zoara and coadjutor-bishop of Maitland, becoming the first Australian-born member of the hierarchy. He succeeded to the see in 1909.

In many ways his episcopate was a continuation of Murray's. If less abrasive with the priests and religious of the diocese, Dwyer was just as inclined to impose his own will, even in minor matters. However, he broke with Murray's policy of having his priests educated in Ireland or Rome—instead he sent candidates to St Patrick's College, Manly—and he was a far better accountant. Possibly too concerned with financial problems, he did consolidate where Murray had been forced to rush. He was responsible for several major charitable institutions, and the buildings which he authorized were superior to anything Murray had been able to construct.

At Clonliffe Dwyer had formed a close friendship with Joseph (Columba) Marmion, one of the most influential Catholic spiritual writers of the twentieth century. Their correspondence formed the basis of his personal spirituality, which was described as 'other-worldly rather than this-worldly, monastic rather than apostolic'. Nevertheless his pastoral work was wide ranging. He was interested in the lives of his flock, a schoolmaster as well as a spiritual leader; and he believed in the need for Catholics to be political where 'the interests of the Faith' were involved, although Marmion often warned him against politics and finance.

Proud of his Australian birth, Dwyer nevertheless saw himself as an Irish-Australian. Though the coolness and imperturbability for which he was noted restrained him in the sectarian battles which raged for a decade after the World War I conscription referenda, he was clearly a supporter rather than a critic of Archbishop Daniel Mannix. When his health began to deteriorate in the late 1920s he obtained as his coadjutor an Irish-born Redemptorist who had also been a Murray protégé, Edmund Gleeson. Dwyer died of coronary vascular disease on 28 March 1931 and was buried in the Sacred Heart Church, Campbells Hill, which was attached to the orphanage he had founded as a memorial to Murray.

Joseph, after attending St Aloysius College, Sydney, and St Patrick's College, Goulburn, went to Clonliffe in 1888 and the Pontifical Urban College of Propaganda Fide in 1891. After ordination in Rome on 24 May 1894 he worked briefly in Ireland before returning to New South Wales. He went to Goulburn, teaching at St Patrick's College for two years; he then served at Gundagai and Wagga Wagga and became for a time diocesan inspector of schools. After working at Albury and Yass, he was appointed parish priest at Temora in 1912. When the Goulburn diocese was divided in 1917 Dwyer became first bishop of Wagga Wagga and was consecrated on 13 October 1918.

In July 1920, in the atmosphere of sectarian bitterness engendered by the recent State elections, a young Irish nun, Sister M. Liguori, left the Presentation Convent in Wagga Wagga in a distraught condition and took refuge with members of the local Orange lodge. Dwyer, as her religious superior and influenced by her wild allegations, sought a warrant for her apprehension on the grounds of lunacy; when this was refused by a nervous chamber magistrate at Wagga, he obtained one in Sydney by means which could be represented as wire-pulling. Miss Partridge was arrested, spent some days in the reception house, and was then certified sane. She later claimed £5000 damages for malicious detention. In July 1921 the jury found that, although Dwyer had not taken all reasonable care to ascertain the facts, he had not been actuated by malice: the action was dismissed. The affair roused great public excitement, and undoubtedly exacerbated sectarian disputes. Although Mr Justice (Sir) David Ferguson criticized the role of the Orange lodge, Dwyer was at least imprudent in his actions, but had been motivated by a sense of responsibility to the girl's parents in Ireland. For a time he became the great hero of Australian Catholics and the bête noire of militant Protestantism, supplanting even Mannix and Archbishop Michael Kelly.

Dwyer lacked his brother's sang-froid; he also 'held pronounced views on social, ecclesiastical and international questions, and did not hesitate to express himself plainly and forcibly on occasion', particularly with regard to Irish affairs, but the rest of his episcopate was uneventful. Including money given to support him in the Liguori affair, he had raised enough to complete St Michael's Cathedral in 1925. That year he visited Rome, Lourdes (France), and Ireland with Mannix, a close friend, and in 1932 attended the International Eucharistic Congress in Dublin. Joseph also died of coronary vascular disease on 11 October 1939 at Wagga Wagga, and was buried in the cathedral.

Both brothers were men of wide culture; both were interested in music, sacred and profane, Vincent being an accomplished pianist. His other interests included history and archaeology. Joseph spoke fluent Italian and was a keen student of Australian botany and a member of the Linnean Society of New South Wales from 1920.

Select Bibliography

  • H. Campbell, The Diocese of Maitland 1866-1966 (Maitland, 1966)
  • J. O'Brien, The Men of '38 and Other Pioneer Priests (Kilmore, Vic, 1975)
  • K. T. Livingston, The Emergence of an Australian Catholic Priesthood, 1835-1915 (Syd, 1977)
  • P. J. O'Farrell, The Catholic Church and the Community in Australia
  • a History (Melb, 1977)
  • S. Walsh, Dr. Joseph Wilfred Dwyer D. D. (Wagga Wagga, 1978)
  • Linnean Society of New South Wales, Proceedings, 65 (1940)
  • Sydney Morning Herald, 1-14 July 1921, 19, 20 June 1934, 12 Oct 1939
  • Dwyer papers (Diocesan Archives, Maitland, New South Wales).

Citation details

W. G. McMinn, 'Dwyer, Joseph Wilfrid (1869–1939)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1981, accessed online 21 June 2024.

This article was published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 8, (Melbourne University Press), 1981

View the front pages for Volume 8

© Copyright Australian Dictionary of Biography, 2006-2024

Life Summary [details]


12 October, 1869
Maitland, New South Wales, Australia


11 October, 1939 (aged 69)
Wagga Wagga, New South Wales, Australia

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