Australian Dictionary of Biography

  • Tip: searches only the name field
  • Tip: Use double quotes to search for a phrase

Cultural Advice

Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people should be aware that this website contains names, images, and voices of deceased persons.

In addition, some articles contain terms or views that were acceptable within mainstream Australian culture in the period in which they were written, but may no longer be considered appropriate.

These articles do not necessarily reflect the views of The Australian National University.

Older articles are being reviewed with a view to bringing them into line with contemporary values but the original text will remain available for historical context.

Sir James Darcy (Jimmy) Freeman (1907–1991)

by Michael P. Cullen

This article was published:

View Previous Version

Sir James Darcy Freeman (1907-1991), Catholic cardinal and archbishop, was born on 19 November 1907 at Annandale, Sydney, eldest of four surviving children of New South Wales-born parents Robert Patrick Freeman, train conductor, and his wife Margaret Jane, née Smith. Jimmy was educated by the Sisters of Charity at St Canice’s primary school, and by the Christian Brothers at St Mary’s Cathedral High School, where he enjoyed reading and various sports. He remembered learning the beauty of religion from his parents. After high school, he entered the seminary at St Columba’s College, Springwood, completing his studies at St Patrick’s College, Manly, in 1929.

Ordained by the apostolic delegate Archbishop Bartholomew Cattaneo on 13 July 1930, Freeman said Mass at his home parish, St Canice’s. Between August 1930 and March 1932 he was attached to Grafton and Murwillumbah in the diocese of Lismore. At first he read his sermons  ‘head ... up and down like the proverbial cocky on the clothes line,’ but later decided to write out his homilies and memorise them (His Eminence Cardinal James Freeman 2002, 79). Returning to Sydney, he was assistant priest at Strathfield, and then curate to Father Edward O’Brien at Mosman (1935-38). There he began the Literary, Social and Debating Club and the Mosman Catholic Tennis Club. Parish ministry epitomised his aspirations.

Later in life Freeman remembered ‘the awful impact of the Depression,’ recalling men who had not eaten enough who ‘collapsed while digging drains on public works projects,’ and the ‘real heroines,’ the wives and mothers trying to overcome their men’s difficulties (Cameron 1983, 18). Appointed to St Mary’s Cathedral, Sydney, in 1938, he became private secretary to Archbishop (Sir) Norman (Cardinal) Gilroy in March 1941. During World War II he embraced the Church’s emphasis on charity and social justice for the post-war order.

In 1946 Freeman became the first director of the Catholic Information Bureau, working for many years in catechetics. From 1949 he was also pastor of St Francis’ Church, Haymarket. That year he was created a domestic prelate with the title monsignor. He was parish priest at St Michael’s, Stanmore (1954-63), and later at St Mary’s, Concord (1963-68). At Stanmore, Father Michael O’Sullivan, his curate from 1955 to 1959, remembered ‘a wonderful parish priest,’ ‘great storyteller,’ and ‘humble man,’ who would bring a ‘rough diamond’ taxi driver in for a cup of tea and light-heartedly shadow-box with a ‘punchy’ ex-boxer parishioner from County Cork (O’Sullivan, pers. comm.). Appointed titular bishop of Hermopolis Parva and auxiliary bishop to Gilroy in December 1956, Freeman was shaken by this and later appointments, perturbed that he was no longer simply a priest. His ‘sense of sacred responsibility before God in his role as bishop weighed upon him heavily,’ according to Bishop Bede Heather (Heather, pers. comm.).

Freeman established the Sydney Confraternity of Christian Doctrine in 1958. Anticipating one aspect of the Second Vatican Council (1962-65), he worked at nights with Father Ron Hine training lay parishioners to work as catechists in their communities. During the 1950s he also became secretary of the Sydney Catholic Radio and Television Committee and a member of the board of directors of the Catholic Weekly (chairman, 1957-68), as well as writing for the Sun-Herald and giving radio talks for the Australian Broadcasting Commission and 2SM; he continued his public outreach efforts into the 1980s. Talented with words, he was described by Cardinal Edward Clancy as having a Damon Runyonesque style with ‘short, choppy sentences’ (Clancy, pers. comm.). His private secretary and friend Father John Sullivan later recalled that he was determined that ‘there be no fat on what you had to say’ (John Sullivan, pers. comm.). Appointed a knight commander with star of the papal Order of the Holy Sepulchre, he became bishop of Armidale in October 1968.

Gilroy set in motion the reforms of the Second Vatican Council (1962-65) dutifully but reluctantly. Freeman, although temperamentally dissimilar, shared Gilroy’s pragmatic conservatism. When he succeeded Gilroy as archbishop of Sydney in August 1971, he brought ‘little change in the Gilroy style’ apart from ‘removing something of its harsher edge’ (O’Farrell 1985, 419). Yet because he related to people well, he was able to work for understanding and unity. He followed through in education and liturgy, continuing Gilroy’s implementation of liturgical and ecumenical commissions and priests’ retirement homes. Taking Vatican II as authoritative, he was partly responsible for publishing Australian editions of liturgical texts. Interviewed in the Bulletin in 1980, he observed that while some people ‘feel a certain nostalgia for the old Latin days and find the changes awkward,’ those reforms had ‘helped people participate more intimately and directly in the Church’s ceremonies’ (Bell 1980, 31).

With Archbishop James Knox of Melbourne, Freeman was named as a cardinal in March 1973. The following year he set up five archdiocesan regions, each to be overseen by a local auxiliary bishop. In September 1976 he hosted an international Sydney Marian congress, his episcopal motto being Per ipsum ipsa duce (‘With Him, under her leadership’). He was appointed KBE in 1977, and participated in the two papal conclaves of 1978, the ‘year of three Popes.’ Reaching the mandatory retiring age of seventy-five, he stepped down in 1983.

Ministering within a climate of widespread ambivalence to religion, Freeman advocated ‘counter-cultural’ Christianity throughout his life. He exemplified authentic Australian episcopal servant-leadership, exercised within a traditional Roman ecclesiology. Having great fidelity to the Church and respect for the canon law, he humanised this formality with Australian values of benevolent egalitarianism: ‘We’re all the same in the surf!’, he was fond of saying. His theology was conventional, reflecting an enduring faith-based acceptance of its essentials rather than a lack of sophistication, and his strength lay in his ability to relate to people. As archbishop, he supported a pastoral priesthood and what was best for the people. He was approachable, consultative and conscientious, perhaps trying to reconcile both the spirit and letter of the law. Scrupulous, he repeated himself at ordinations and the consecration of a Mass to ensure he omitted nothing, sometimes being accompanied quietly by a secretary beside him.

Not having been trained overseas, Freeman was attached to the tradition of Australian Catholicism and ‘very strongly Australian in his attitudes’ (Heather, pers. comm.). He enjoyed Australiana, and had extensive knowledge of Australian art. Reserved, he was friendly in the right company, with a laconic wit. He died on 16 March 1991 at St Vincent’s Hospital, Darlinghurst, and was buried in the crypt of St Mary’s Cathedral. The former St Canice’s primary school playground was named the Cardinal Freeman Peace Park by parishioners, and he is also remembered by the Freeman Catholic College, Bonnyrigg Heights, Sydney.

Research edited by Karen Fox

Select Bibliography

  • Baxter, Cliff. ‘Not of the “Me” Generation, He was the Very Soul of Sydney.’ Catholic Weekly, 20 March 1991, 2
  • Bell, Glennys. ‘Freeman’s Golden Year.’ Bulletin, 22 July 1980, 31-32
  • Cameron, Bob. ‘The Cardinal.’ New Idea, 26 February 1983, 18-19
  • Clancy, Cardinal Edward B., interview by the author, tape recording, 8 September 2004
  • Heather, Bishop Bede, personal communication, 16 May 2005
  • His Eminence Cardinal James Freeman, 1907-1991. Bonnyrigg: Freeman Catholic College, 2002
  • McConville, Terry. ‘Priestly Ministry of Caring, Humility.’ Catholic Weekly, 23 February 1983, I-IV
  • O’Farrell, Patrick. The Catholic Church and Community: An Australian History. Kensington: New South Wales University Press, 1985
  • O’Sullivan, Rev. Michael, interview by the author, tape recording, 15 February 2005
  • Sullivan, Rev. John, interview by the author, tape recording, 5 November 2004
  • Sydney Morning Herald. ‘A Leading Churchman and Great Australian.’ 18 March 1991, 6.

Additional Resources

Related Entries in NCB Sites

Citation details

Michael P. Cullen, 'Freeman, Sir James Darcy (Jimmy) (1907–1991)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published online 2014, accessed online 15 April 2024.

This article was published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 19, (ANU Press), 2021

View the front pages for Volume 19

© Copyright Australian Dictionary of Biography, 2006-2024