Australian Dictionary of Biography

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James Henry Hannan (1906–1975)

by Hugh Laracy

This article was published:

James Henry Hannan (1906-1975), Catholic priest and mission publicist, was born on 22 March 1906 at Gembrook, Victoria, third child of Thomas Evans Hannan, a miner from South Australia, and his Victorian-born wife Edith, née Dyson. Schooled by the Sisters of St Joseph, Yarraville, and by the Marist Brothers at Assumption College, Kilmore, James began seminary training at Corpus Christi College, Werribee. He completed his studies with doctorates in philosophy (1926) and theology (1930) at the Pontifical Urban College of Propaganda Fide, Rome, where he was ordained priest on 8 December 1929. Returning to Australia in 1930, Hannan was assistant-priest at South Melbourne until 1935 when he was appointed director of missions for the Melbourne diocese. Besides raising funds for missions, he operated a correspondence course of religious instruction for Catholics in the outback.

The apostolic delegate Giovanni Panico had noted Hannan as an energetic organizer during the National Eucharistic Congress in Melbourne (1934). Through Panico's initiative, in 1937 Hannan was appointed national director of the Pontifical Mission Aid Societies for Australia and Oceania. In this position he acted as executive-officer for a committee of bishops representing the Australian hierarchy. Although based in Melbourne, he travelled widely throughout Australia, overseeing the introduction of a comprehensive and co-ordinated system of mission promotion. In each diocese he worked through a director whose task it was to mobilize support in schools and parishes. From 1938 to 1946 he also edited Catholic Missions. He was granted the title of monsignor in 1940.

Under Hannan's direction, membership of the Society for the Propagation of the Faith rose steadily. So did the amount of money collected (£45,000 in 1944). Most of the funds were given to the Aboriginal missions centred on Darwin and the Kimberley, but a growing amount was allocated to the Pacific Islands, and especially to the Territory of Papua-New Guinea which was to become increasingly important as a mission field after World War II. Foreseeing this development, and aware of the missions' pressing needs for personnel in the era of postwar reconstruction, in 1946 Hannan appealed to the diocesan priests of Australia to volunteer for a term of missionary duty. To set an example, he then resigned as director and went to Bougainville.

Although he had intended to stay for five years, ill health forced Hannan to leave the island in 1948. Following his recuperation, he made a three-month preaching tour of the United States of America that year and was appointed priest of the Melbourne parish of South Yarra. In 1969-74 he served on the editorial board of the Advocate. He died of emphysema and chronic bronchitis on 22 August 1975 and was buried in Melbourne general cemetery. His younger brother George had been ordained priest on 18 March 1939 in Rome.

Through his sermons, radio broadcasts and films promoting the cause of Catholic missions, James Hannan became one of the best-known priests in Australia. In helping to generate among Catholics and the wider community a sense of responsibility for advancing the well-being of Papuans and New Guineans, he was also one of the most influential. He contributed significantly to the body of opinion which supported the aid and development commitment to Papua New Guinea that became a distinctive feature of Australian government and church policies in the 1950s, 1960s and 1970s.

Select Bibliography

  • C. Halley, Australia's Missionary Effort (Melb, 1973)
  • H. Laracy, Marists and Melanesians (Canb, 1976)
  • J. Waldersee, The Four Founders (Syd, 1983)
  • J. Waldersee, A Grain of Mustard Seed (Syd, 1983)
  • Herald (Melbourne), 2 Jan 1935, 8 Oct 1937, 1, 2 Apr 1947, 19 Mar 1948
  • Sun News-Pictorial (Melbourne), 10 Mar 1939, 9 Apr 1946, 2 Apr 1947, 11 Apr 1948
  • Argus (Melbourne), 30 Mar 1939
  • Age (Melbourne), 24 Dec 1940
  • Advocate (Melbourne), 28 Aug 1975
  • Catholic Weekly, 4 Sept 1975.

Citation details

Hugh Laracy, 'Hannan, James Henry (1906–1975)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1996, accessed online 18 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

Life Summary [details]


22 March, 1906
Gembrook, Victoria, Australia


22 August, 1975 (aged 69)

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.