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James William (Jim) Gleeson (1920–2000)

by Robert J. Rice

This article was published online in 2022

James Gleeson, 1971

James Gleeson, 1971

by permission of the author

James William Gleeson (1920–2000), Catholic archbishop, was born on 24 December 1920 at Balaklava, South Australia, eldest son and third born of six children of John Joseph Gleeson, farmer, and his wife Margaret Mary, née O’Connell, both South Australian born. His father ran a mixed farm at nearby Bowillia, the family’s finances supplemented by his mother’s work as the local postmistress. Jim was educated at Bowillia primary school; St Joseph’s Convent School, Balaklava; and Sacred Heart College, Adelaide. In 1938 he commenced studies for the priesthood at Corpus Christi College, Werribee, Victoria.

Returning to Adelaide, Gleeson was ordained by Archbishop Matthew Beovich on 25 July 1945 in St Francis Xavier’s Cathedral. Appointed as an assistant priest in the cathedral parish, he recalled visiting ‘about 1,000 homes in the south-eastern section of the city’ (Gleeson 1998, 293) on a succession of bicycles and second-hand motorbikes. For the 1947 academic year he was sent to the Sisters of Mercy Training College in Melbourne to study primary teaching. He qualified in 1948, having gained practical experience as an inspector of South Australia’s Catholic primary schools. From 1952 to 1958 he was director of Catholic education in the archdiocese of Adelaide. For this work he was appointed CMG (1958).

On 15 February 1957 Gleeson had been appointed auxiliary bishop to Archbishop Beovich. In July 1964 he was made coadjutor archbishop with the right of succession. He attended the first, third, and fourth sessions of the Second Vatican Council (1962–65) and enthusiastically promoted its decrees and reforms. He became an ardent ecumenist and contributor to inter-church projects. From 1976 he served on the Australian Catholic bishops’ committee for ecumenism and he established warm friendships with the heads of other churches in South Australia. He also attempted to implement the recommendation that bishops consult widely before acting, but admitted it was ‘very demanding on patience and time’ (Kerr 20 May 1982, 8). While he was moderately successful in practising his commitment to consultation, he could be inflexible when convinced of the wisdom of his own decisions.

Gleeson’s passion for social justice was wide-ranging. Before and after the South Australian parliament passed legislation in 1969 to legalise abortion in certain circumstances, he opposed the legislation, maintaining the pro-life position that the unborn were ‘distinct individuals of our species, whether you like to call them persons or not’ (Herald 1971/72, 9). His concern for the rights of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples, migrants, and refugees was steadfast. Early in his career he had been responsible for the spiritual care of the children of migrants housed at the Woodside Immigration Centre and from 1965 he chaired the Catholic Overseas Relief episcopal committee. In 1972, as president of the South Australian Catholic Commission for Justice and Peace, he lobbied for the return of Everard Park station to the Anangu Pitjantjatjara Yankunytjatjara peoples, observing their ‘strong moral right’ (Southern Cross 1972, 1) to those lands as place of tribal and religious significance.

After Beovich’s retirement in May 1971, Gleeson became the first South Australian-born archbishop of Adelaide and metropolitan of the ecclesiastical province of Adelaide. Increasingly his work towards social justice took on an international focus. From 1970 he was co-president of a joint secretariat created by the Australian Council of Churches and the Australian Catholic Bishops Conference to promote Action for World Development. In 1971, the year designated by the United Nations for action to combat racism, he spoke publicly against the various forms of racism in Australia and internationally. During that same year he was appointed a member (1971–81) of the Pontifical Council, Cor Unum, established by Pope Paul VI to coordinate the Catholic Church’s worldwide welfare and charitable works.

Hardworking and dedicated, Gleeson blended ‘compassion and gentleness with the zeal of reform’ to provide ‘deceptively firm leadership’ (Abraham 2000, 68). Yet his busy lifestyle allowed little time for relaxation, and probably contributed to his serious heart attack in September 1984, necessitating open-heart surgery the following month. In June 1985 he retired but maintained his ministry to the sick and to those seeking spiritual advice. Among many honours, he had been made a fellow of the Australian College of Education (1967), was awarded a Queen’s silver jubilee medal (1977), and was appointed AO (1979). In 1989 Gleeson College, a secondary school at Golden Grove, was named in his honour.

Gleeson died on 21 March 2000 at Ennis, his residence at Medindie, and was buried in West Terrace cemetery. At his funeral a Christmas tea-towel was placed on the coffin to signify his involvement in family gatherings where he invariably took charge of the washing-up. The tea-towel was also illustrative of the hands-on approach that he took in his ministry, using time spent assisting in the kitchen as a fruitful means of relating to members of his flock. His portrait, by Robert Hannaford, is held at Archbishop’s House, Adelaide.

Research edited by Nicole McLennan

Select Bibliography

  • Abraham, Matthew. ‘James Gleeson, AO, CMG, DD, FACE.’ Advertiser (Adelaide), 25 March 2000, 68
  • Adelaide Catholic Archdiocesan Archives. Series 128, Archbishop James Gleeson—Pastoral Letters, Homilies and Talks
  • Adelaide Catholic Archdiocesan Archives. Series 129, Archbishop James Gleeson—Personal Papers
  • Egar, Rob. ‘A Life Lived for the Greater Glory of God.’ Southern Cross Monthly (Adelaide), April 2000, n.p
  • Gleeson, James William. ‘The Church in Adelaide during my Years as a Priest and Bishop.’ Australasian Catholic Record 65, no. 3 (July 1988): 292–302
  • Herald (Adelaide). ‘Abortion on Demand?’ December-January 1971/72, 8–9
  • Kerr, Nicholas. Interview with Archbishop Gleeson to mark his Silver Jubilee, Parts 1–5. Southern Cross, 13 May 1982, 8–9
  • Kerr, Nicholas. Interview with Archbishop Gleeson to mark his Silver Jubilee, Parts 1–5. Southern Cross, 20 May 1982, 8–9
  • Kerr, Nicholas. Interview with Archbishop Gleeson to mark his Silver Jubilee, Parts 1–5. Southern Cross, 27 May 1982, 6
  • Kerr, Nicholas. Interview with Archbishop Gleeson to mark his Silver Jubilee, Parts 1–5. Southern Cross, 3 June 1982, 6, 15
  • Kerr, Nicholas. Interview with Archbishop Gleeson to mark his Silver Jubilee, Parts 1–5. Southern Cross, 17 June 1982, 8–9
  • Lloyd, Paul. ‘Archbishop’s Last Prayer “for World Family.”’ Advertiser (Adelaide), 8 May 1985, 2
  • Rice, Robert. ‘James William Gleeson Archbishop of Adelaide.’ PhD thesis, Flinders University, Adelaide, 2019
  • Rice, Robert. ‘James William Gleeson, The Ninth Bishop of Adelaide (Sixth Archbishop): Some Aspects of His Theology and Practice.’ Australasian Catholic Record 89, no. 1 (January 2012): 69–87
  • Southern Cross (Adelaide). ‘Telegram to PM.’ 11 August 1972, 1

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Citation details

Robert J. Rice, 'Gleeson, James William (Jim) (1920–2000)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published online 2022, accessed online 24 June 2024.

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