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John Fennescey (1866–1948)

by P. A. Howell

This article was published:

This is a shared entry with Mary Jane Fennescey

John Fennescey (1866-1948) and Mary Jane Fennescey (1878-1946), church benefactors, were husband and wife. John was born on 13 April 1866 at Wallaroo, South Australia, fourth child of Irish migrants Patrick Fennescey (d.1913) and his wife Mary Ann, née Dunn(e). Settled in South Australia by 1856, Patrick was a labourer, first at Port Adelaide and then at the Yorke Peninsula copper-mines where, from an early age, his six sons were also employed. In 1887 Mary, 'ruling the family with a rod of iron', persuaded Patrick to lease, in partnership with an established farmer, 1918 acres (776.2 ha) at Tiparra, south-east of Wallaroo, at an annual rental of a penny an acre.

With his father and brothers, John cleared the stony scrub, earning sustenance by working for neighbours. When able to afford their own horses and machinery, the family purchased the partner's interest and later the freehold title to the property. Collectively and individually they acquired and cleared additional land, and built homesteads. Before the government grasped that the peninsula was the best place in the world for growing malting barley, it was selling freeholds at from ten to twenty shillings an acre. By the 1910s each of the surviving Fennesceys had farms averaging over 2000 acres; they found that, in the good seasons that ran from 1902 to 1913, profits from the first harvest of barley on each property were more than sufficient to recoup its purchase price. Devout but thrifty Catholics, they used draught horses to draw their buggies the eight miles (13 km) to Sunday Mass at Arthurton.

John was tall, with handsome features and a neat moustache but already going bald when on 12 April 1904 at St Agatha's Church, Arthurton, he married Mary Jane Hanrahan, a large-eyed beauty. She was born on 27 March 1878 at Maitland, South Australia, eldest of six children of Daniel Hanrahan, farmer, and his wife Mary, née Kenny. In 1902 young Mary began purchasing commercial properties at Arthurton, where she was already 'loved and respected' for her 'gentle charity'. She also assisted the Catholic orphanages at Goodwood and Largs Bay and, later, the Little Sisters of the Poor home for the aged at Myrtle Bank. Just as John's mother had pushed her sons from wage earners to gentlemen farmers, his wife taught him that wealth entailed responsibility. Mary encouraged him to join community organizations and to share her interests in helping the needy and beautifying the sanctuaries of country churches. She also introduced him to the delights of motoring—they became one of the earliest two-car couples in the State—and encouraged diversification into mortgages and urban property.

John long outlived all his brothers. As sole or surviving executor of their wills, he ran their farms, in some cases for more than twenty years, for the benefit of their widows and children. Ultimately, where it emerged that the heirs had no interest in farming, he purchased the land at fair prices and his income grew rapidly.

Despite William Leigh's endowments in the 1840s, the Catholic Church in South Australia had remained relatively impoverished. John and Mary Fennescey began remedying that situation on realizing they would have no children of their own. In the 1920s they sold nearly all their country properties at the top of the market and retired to Glenelg; they helped to build for that suburb the grandest parish church erected in South Australia in the twentieth century. They also enabled Archbishop Spence to complete (1926) most of St Francis Xavier's Cathedral, Adelaide, and gave Calvary Hospital £10,000 for a maternity wing and £8000 to buy adjoining land. In 1939 they gave £30,000 for the purchase of the half-acre (0.2 ha) containing all the properties between the cathedral and Victoria Square. Their long-term aim was to prevent the cathedral being overshadowed by a big commercial building. In the short run the donation provided church office space, and warehouses that were let at good rents. In 1976 the sites were sold to the Dunstan government, which turned them into parkland, much enhancing the cathedral.

In 1940-42 the Fennesceys largely met the cost of twelve acres [4.9 ha] at Rostrevor for a diocesan seminary and the construction of its first building. They also enabled the contemplative Carmelites to enclose their Glen Osmond convent with a high masonry wall, after the sisters had rejected Archbishop Killian's view that a barbed-wire fence would do. In 1943 Mary persuaded Archbishop Matthew Beovich to accept their gift of £8000 to buy the mansion, Ennis, at Medindie, for an episcopal residence. In 1945-46, they paid for half an acre of land east of the cathedral, and for a large building to house the Catholic Education Office, Newman Institute and Catholic Library. Beovich named it Fennescey House as a memorial to their generosity. Meanwhile they were handsomely but, as usual, anonymously, contributing to the funds for the Boys' Town orphanage at Brooklyn Park and Aquinas College within the University of Adelaide.

Mary died on 23 April 1946 in Calvary Hospital, North Adelaide, where John died on 2 June 1948. Both were buried in the Catholic cemetery, Kadina. In December 1946 he had been awarded the papal medal 'Pro Ecclesia et Pontifice'. As residual beneficiary under John's will, the archbishop received a further £50,000 for educational and charitable purposes. In Beovich's words, the Fennesceys 'did in their life-time what many charitable people of substance defer till their death. They gave with princely generosity to the cause of religion, and no charitable work appealed to them in vain. Nor did they forget their kin before they began their munificent benefactions'.

Select Bibliography

  • M. Press, Colour and Shadow (Adel, 1991)
  • Southern Cross (Adelaide), 11, 18 Apr 1941, 3 May 1946, 27 Dec 1946, 11 June 1948
  • Fennescey file and Beovich papers (Catholic Archives, Adelaide)
  • Lands Titles Office (South Australia) records
  • Crown lease books, GRG 59 (State Records of South Australia)
  • miscellaneous lease books, GRS 3567 (State Records of South Australia)
  • private information.

Citation details

P. A. Howell, 'Fennescey, John (1866–1948)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 2005, accessed online 16 June 2024.

This article was published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Supplementary Volume, (Melbourne University Press), 2005

View the front pages for the Supplementary Volume

© Copyright Australian Dictionary of Biography, 2006-2024

Life Summary [details]


13 April, 1866
Wallaroo, South Australia, Australia


2 June, 1948 (aged 82)
North Adelaide, Adelaide, South Australia, Australia

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