Australian Dictionary of Biography

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Joseph Higgins (1838–1915)

by Frances O'Kane Hale

This article was published:

Joseph Higgins (1838?-1915), Roman Catholic bishop, was born at Moyvore, Westmeath, Ireland. His home environment with its 'more than ordinary comfort and refinement' nurtured an appreciation of the fine arts. From St Finian's Seminary, Navan, he proceeded to St Patrick's College, Maynooth, where a fellow-student was Thomas Carr who became a lifelong friend. Higgins distinguished himself particularly in theology and ecclesiastical history. Ordained priest at Maynooth in 1863, he returned to the diocese of Meath, serving as a curate at Tullamore for four years. From 1867 he was president of St Finian's Diocesan Seminary, Navan, until in 1884 he became parish priest of Castletown Delvin, where the parochial church he erected and embellished with stained glass established his reputation for high standards in ecclesiastical architecture.

On Cardinal Moran's recommendation, the Holy See appointed Higgins auxiliary bishop of Sydney. On 31 March 1889 he was consecrated titular bishop of Antifelle and a few months later arrived in Sydney, taking charge of St Benedict's Church which he tastefully renovated. For ten years he carried out his episcopal visitation of parishes with characteristic thoroughness and efficiency.

In 1899 he was appointed bishop of Rockhampton to succeed Bishop Cani. His new diocese was extensive, and Higgins often endured long journeys on horseback. Scarcity of priests was his great difficulty, but by 1905 he had increased the number of clergy from sixteen to twenty-four, six new parishes had been formed and nineteen churches erected. He built ten primary and secondary schools, introducing eight religious communities of women and two of men to assist in the work of Catholic education. On his arrival at Rockhampton he found St Joseph's Cathedral unfinished but collected sufficient funds to erect a temporary back wall, calling the cathedral 'as completed as the present generation can hope to see it'. However, he managed to ornament it with beautiful stained glass in all the aisle windows, and with stations of the Cross which he considered the best he had seen in Australia.

For the sake of his health, Higgins was translated to the see of Ballarat in 1905 and was enthroned as bishop on 7 June. In spite of impaired health he extended the facilities already provided by his predecessor, Bishop James Moore. By 1914 the 25 parishes of 1905 had increased to 35, the 62 clergy to 77. There were 9 new presbyteries, 30 more schools and 10 new convents. He introduced the Presentation Sisters to Inglewood, the Josephites to Dunolly and the Good Samaritan Sisters to Koroit and Port Fairy. He carried out extensive improvements to St Patrick's Cathedral, Nazareth House was enlarged, St Joseph's Home at Ballarat established, and St John of God Hospital was opened. He gave generously to such diocesan undertakings as well as to other philanthropic causes.

Distinguished in appearance, courteous in manner, Higgins was praised by those outside his Church for his broadmindedness and helpful participation in civic movements. As a preacher and public speaker he was earnest and eloquent, with a purity of diction and an impressive style. His life as a priest was marked by a simple piety and strict observance of religious duties, his episcopal life by a fervent zeal. As ruler of a diocese he was mild and lenient, avoiding public controversy wherever possible.

Bishop Higgins died of heart failure on 16 September 1915 and was buried in the vault of St Patrick's Cathedral, Ballarat.

Select Bibliography

  • P. F. Moran, History of the Catholic Church in Australasia (Syd, 1895)
  • M. M. McCallum, Ballarat and District Citizens and Sports at Home and Abroad (Ballarat, 1916)
  • Light, June 1971, p 25
  • Footprints, 2, no 7, July 1975, p 4
  • Town and Country Journal, 11 Aug 1894, 22 Sept 1915
  • Advocate (Melbourne), 27 May, 10 June 1905, 18, 25 Sept, 11 Dec 1915
  • Argus (Melbourne), 17, 22 Sept 1915
  • Australasian (Melbourne), 25 Sept 1915
  • J. Higgins — Bishop of Christchurch, 25 April 1905 (Melbourne Diocesan Historical Commission Archives).

Citation details

Frances O'Kane Hale, 'Higgins, Joseph (1838–1915)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1983, accessed online 20 July 2024.

This article was published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 9, (Melbourne University Press), 1983

View the front pages for Volume 9

© Copyright Australian Dictionary of Biography, 2006-2024

Life Summary [details]


Moyvore, Westmeath, Ireland


16 September, 1915 (aged ~ 77)
Victoria, Australia

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