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Sir Norman Thomas Gilroy (1896–1977)

by T. P. Boland

This article was published:

Norman Thomas Gilroy (1896-1977), by John Aloysius Mulligan, 1969

Norman Thomas Gilroy (1896-1977), by John Aloysius Mulligan, 1969

National Library of Australia, nla.pic-vn3070836 [detail]

Sir Norman Thomas Gilroy (1896-1977), Catholic cardinal, was born on 22 January 1896 at Glebe, Sydney, second of six children of William James Gilroy and his wife Catherine, née Slattery, both native-born and of Irish descent. William was a tailor's cutter who for some time ran unsuccessfully a business of his own. Norman attended the convent schools of the Sisters of the Good Samaritan and the Sisters of Charity, and Marist Brothers' Boys' School, Kogarah. He interrupted his brief schooling to work for an estate agent at the age of 12 and left finally at 13½.

The family was solidly Roman Catholic, but not active in Church affairs. Norman was always exact in observance, but was never an altar server and had no early thoughts of priesthood. An interest in the Marist Brothers was frustrated by his family circumstances. On 16 December 1909 he joined the Postmaster-General's Department as a telegraph messenger. With coaching, he passed the telegraphist's examination next year and in 1912 was appointed to Bourke in the State's far west. He was relieving at Narrabri in 1914 at the outbreak of World War I. Refused his parents' permission to enlist in the Australian Imperial Force, he was allowed to volunteer for transport service as a telegraphist. On 2 February 1915 Gilroy sailed for Egypt as junior wireless officer in the transport, Hessen (Bulla), which carried zinc concentrates, 100 troops and 400 horses. His diary of the voyage showed a shrewd understanding of men, remarkable in a youth of 19. While maintaining his own strict standards of total abstinence, he mixed well with all types and developed an affectionate respect for Australian servicemen.

On 25 April 1915 Hessen was off Gallipoli, and at 4.30 a.m. Gilroy heard the first shots of the campaign. Having landed the 26th Indian Mountain Battery, Hessen was ordered to Imbros and was used as a hospital ship for horses and mules. More than once she came under fire. Ordered back to Alexandria and thence to England, Hessen reached Greenhithe, Kent, on 4 July after several submarine scares. Gilroy's six weeks in England were a time of critical decision. He met Father Davidson, with whom he formed a close friendship, and took part in parish affairs, especially at a youth club. Gilroy divided his remaining time between visits to theatres and to Church services. Sailing for Australia on 15 August, he reached Melbourne on 8 October. He returned a new man, and to old circumstances.

The postmaster-general decided that too many telegraphists had joined up, and Gilroy was ordered to resume his duties—as a clerk at Lismore, New South Wales. There he came under the influence of the cathedral administrator Monsignor Terence McGuire, founding president of the Manly Union, an association of priests from St Patrick's College who wanted the 'Australianisation' of the Australian Church. McGuire asked Gilroy if he had thought of the priesthood. He replied that he had, but had rejected it on the grounds of his own unsuitability and his family's financial straits. McGuire reassured him on the first point and promised to find a way around the second.

In 1917 Gilroy went to St Columba's Seminary and Foreign Missionary College, Springwood, to begin studies, but in 1919 was transferred to the Pontifical Urban College of Propaganda Fide, Rome, where Australian bishops could claim some free places. He lived in close association with students from Asia, Africa and the Middle East. A strong element of Propaganda training was romanità, a Roman sense and loyalty, centred on the person, as well as the position, of the Pope. Gilroy embraced the tradition with total simplicity, an uncomplicated acceptance which did not penetrate the complexities of the mechanisms. His theology was not profound, merely an academic fleshing out of his existing faith and devotion. Ordained priest 24 December 1923, he was granted his doctorate in theology the following year.

On his return in 1924, Gilroy was appointed to the staff of the Apostolic delegation in Sydney led by Bartolomeo Cattaneo, who had come in 1917 to implement a Roman policy recently laid down in Maximum Illud, an encyclical on missions by Pope Benedict XV, which called for indigenous hierarchy and clergy in missionary countries. Cattaneo applied the policy rigidly, despite the arguments of local Irish bishops that the cultural problems of missionary countries did not exist in Australia. Before he had left Rome, Cattaneo had known at Propaganda what an Irish prelate called a 'group of bouncing Australian students', who told him of Irish-Australian tensions. With Gilroy, some of these young men became the advance guard of the Australian hierarchy.

Six years experience in the delegation gave Gilroy a thorough understanding of the workings of the Australian Church. In 1930 he returned to Lismore as secretary to Bishop John Carroll. Although he did some pastoral work, he had never been a curate or a parish priest when, on 10 December 1934, he was nominated bishop of Port Augusta in South Australia. The pastoral problems of such a diocese widened his experience of his country. He toured the remote areas, West Coast, Riverland and the desert north (travelling by camel); he introduced the Holy Name Society for Catholic men, and, despite the Depression, started a diocesan monthly newspaper; he learned techniques of pastoral integration that were to serve him well.

On 1 July 1937 Gilroy was nominated coadjutor to Michael Kelly, archbishop of Sydney, with the right of succession. His appointment was a culmination of the Roman-Australian-Irish conflict and a source of tension with the more senior Irish bishops, especially Archbishop Daniel Mannix of Melbourne. Gilroy succeeded to the see on 18 March 1940 and found a vast diocese which had slipped from the faltering hands of his elderly predecessor. He believed simply that the Code of Canon Law, promulgated as he began his priestly studies, contained the simple answer to all pastoral problems. He visited each parish regularly, scrutinized its spiritual, administrative and financial condition, demanded reform, and retired or moved pastors who neglected the required changes. In those early years he acquired a reputation as an 'iron man' and trained his voice to project his piety and firmness with orotund diction. In later years his standards remained as exacting, but his compassion for those who failed was widely recognized.

His term as archbishop of Sydney began in wartime. Gilroy did not often make the public statements expected of public figures. When he did, they were not always well judged. In 1943 he joined with other church leaders in Sydney in putting forward 'A Christian Outlook in National Life', a statement on postwar reconstruction in a just and charitable society which the signatories saw only in the Fatherhood of God and Brotherhood in Jesus Christ. Less felicitous was his intervention in the controversy surrounding the bombing of Rome in July 1943. Gilroy, the simple patriot, was outraged by the threat to the Vatican and the shrines of Roman Catholicism. He spoke of his ideal of the Allied leaders being shattered, and organized a protest to Churchill and Roosevelt as well as to the Australian government. Not all his fellow bishops concurred, and his outspoken criticism jarred the harmony of the Australian war effort.

On 18 February 1946 Pope Pius XII named him cardinal with the title of the ancient church of the Four Crowned Martyrs. Gilroy was the first Australian-born so elevated. His invariable sense of dignity adorned the ceremony of the cardinalate, while his simplicity of manner removed any suggestion of pomp. He represented the Vatican as papal legate at important Church functions in India, Japan and the Philippines. The first postwar decade was the high point of his career. In between the splendid occasions of his new role, Gilroy presided over the rapid expansion of his diocese to meet the demands of population growth. In addition to providing churches, schools and institutions, he developed the devotional life with sodalities, guilds and clubs to an extent that may have fostered a ghetto mentality. While he disapproved of the independence of the Catholic Women's Association (later St Joan's Social and Political Alliance), he encouraged a devotional and social approach in the Catholic youth organizations, and maintained an uneasy relationship with the Melbourne-based Jocist style of Catholic Action.

Much of his energy was devoted to Catholic education. By 1971 he had 366 schools with 115,704 pupils. Beyond a conviction of the necessity for schools, he had no theories of education. His contribution to the expansion crisis of the 1950s and 1960s was a rigid regionalization and direction of resources. Despite the increase in personnel to 751 Brothers and 2992 nuns, and the new influx of lay teachers made possible by restored sharing in public funds, he had to preside over the failure of his Church to offer Catholic schools to all urban Catholic children. Always suspicious of secular universities, he dreamed of establishing a Catholic university. Two hundred acres (81 ha) were set aside at Beacon Hill for an Australian Notre Dame, but he had not faced the practical difficulties of the project. In 1971 he entrusted Warrane College at the University of New South Wales to the conservative Opus Dei association. More successful had been his effort to establish a pontifical faculty of theology at Manly. Roman approval was given in 1954, but again failure to face practical difficulties limited its growth in his time.

The confrontation with communism in Australia focussed increasingly on the industrial groups within the Australian Labor Party and the episcopally sponsored Catholic Social Studies Movement ('the Movement') presided over by B. A. Santamaria in Melbourne. The uneasy alliance between the A.L.P. and the Church was much easier in New South Wales than in Victoria. Cardinal Gilroy was from a Labor background and sympathized with Labor objectives, though he viewed all politics and politicians from the point of view of Church interests and was to maintain good relations with the Liberal premier (Sir) Robert Askin from 1965. Personally friendly with J. J. Cahill, he looked upon him and other Roman Catholic cabinet members as Catholics who could do good for the Church. When H. V. Evatt precipitated the Labor split of 1955, a division followed within the Catholic Church over the proper way of maintaining the opposition to communism. Gilroy was prepared to go as far as possible to keep lines of communication with Labor intact. The poet James McAuley, a recent convert to Catholicism, but disdainful of Labor, was 'in open and rancorous dispute' with him over politics, and depicted him in Captain Quiros (1964) as one whose 'right hand blessed the victims of his left'.

From July 1954 to October 1956 a series of meetings of the Australian hierarchy and its committees failed to resolve issues of dispute on national or diocesan control of 'the Movement' and the extent of lay autonomy in political decision-making by Catholic Action groups. Gilroy opted firmly for full episcopal control and local independence. In New South Wales he believed the Church was in a solid position with the State Labor government. Both he and Mannix appealed twice to Rome for a resolution of the crisis. The final decision was made on 3 November 1957. Although ambiguously disclosed, the ruling resulted in the displacement of the episcopal Catholic Social Studies Movement with the lay National Civic Council.

At the second Vatican Council (1962-65) Gilroy was appointed to the council of presidency, a position of great historical significance. He exercised his functions as director of debates with efficiency and firmness. The council changed direction, however, and a group of more theologically open moderators superseded the presidents in the critical role of directing the council. Gilroy was thorough and dutiful in studying and discussing issues, but he was theologically by-passed by the council. He welcomed the initiative, yet felt it should be left to the Pope and the Roman Curia. He implemented the decisions loyally, if generally without conviction or enthusiasm. He sanctioned the vernacular liturgy while confessing his own regret. He accepted the new impulse to Church unity, but remained eirenic rather than ecumenical. He saw many priests and religious leaving their roles, and wept. He became suspicious of theologians who debated what he took for granted. He could not cope with the reaction to Pope Paul VI's encyclical, Humanae Vitae (1968), on marriage and means of birth control.

Cardinal Gilroy was appointed K.B.E. in 1969. In December 1970 he welcomed his friend Pope Paul VI on the first papal visit to Australia. It cast a glow of an older splendour over the last months of his episcopate. With relief, he tendered his resignation on his 75th birthday, 22 January 1971. Sir Norman moved to the priests' section of St John Vianney Villa, Randwick, run by the Little Sisters of the Poor. There he devoted himself to prayer and charity, regularly visiting the frail with the Coogee Brown Sisters. Having battled the onset of age and ill health with dignity, he died on 21 October 1977 in Lewisham Hospital and was buried in the crypt of St Mary's Cathedral. Churchmen and politicians testified to his contribution to Australian life. Archbishop (Cardinal) Freeman described Gilroy's episcopate: 'He combined prayer and action . . . moving from one to the other with no pause between'.

Select Bibliography

  • A. W. Jose, The Royal Australian Navy 1914-1918 (Syd, 1928)
  • Acta et Documenta, Concilio Oecumenico Vaticano II Apparando, series 1 (Antepraeparatoria), 2: Consilia et Vota Episcoporum ac Praelatorum, pt 7 America Meridionalis—Oceania (Vatican City, 1961)
  • G. Williams, Cardinal Sir Norman Gilroy (Syd, 1971)
  • B. A. Santamaria, Against the Tide (Melb, 1981)
  • G. Henderson, Mr Santamaria and the Bishops (Syd, 1983)
  • E. Campion, Australian Catholics (Melb, 1987)
  • E. Campion, A Place in the City (Melb, 1994)
  • Social Survey, May 1955, p 5
  • Catholic Documentation, Dec 1955, p 58, Sept 1957, p 45, Mar 1962, p 51, June 1964, p 31
  • Labour History, 36, 1979, p 39
  • Gilroy papers: official (St Mary's Cathedral Archives, Sydney, and Brisbane Archdiocesan Archives), Gilroy papers: personal (privately held)
  • Gilroy diaries at Gallipoli (State Library of New South Wales) Gilroy diaries in Rome (St Mary's Cathedral Archives, Sydney)
  • private information.

Related Entries in NCB Sites

Citation details

T. P. Boland, 'Gilroy, Sir Norman Thomas (1896–1977)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1996, accessed online 22 June 2024.

This article was published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 14, (Melbourne University Press), 1996

View the front pages for Volume 14

© Copyright Australian Dictionary of Biography, 2006-2024

Norman Thomas Gilroy (1896-1977), by John Aloysius Mulligan, 1969

Norman Thomas Gilroy (1896-1977), by John Aloysius Mulligan, 1969

National Library of Australia, nla.pic-vn3070836 [detail]

Life Summary [details]


22 January, 1896
Glebe, Sydney, New South Wales, Australia


21 October, 1977 (aged 81)
Lewisham, Sydney, New South Wales, Australia

Religious Influence

Includes the religion in which subjects were raised, have chosen themselves, attendance at religious schools and/or religious funeral rites; Atheism and Agnosticism have been included.