Australian Dictionary of Biography

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John Kenny (1816–1886)

by John Barrett

This article was published:

John Kenny (1816-1886), Catholic priest and historian, was born in Fife, Scotland, and educated by Benedictines. He was preparing for the priesthood when he came to Australia with Bishop John Bede Polding in 1835. In August the bishop's party reached Hobart Town where Kenny was left as catechist to organize and teach in a Catholic school for which Lieutenant-Governor (Sir) George Arthur approved annual payment by the government of £35 rent and £50 salary, though the approval was more readily forthcoming than the salary. In March 1836 Kenny went to Sydney where he was prominent among the religious instructors of Catholic convicts, whom Polding gained permission to have taught between their arrival in Sydney and their dispersion throughout the colony.

Ordained priest in 1843 Kenny became assistant-priest at Queanbeyan. Except for two years in England (1861-63), he spent the rest of his life in Australia mostly in parish work: at Penrith (1844-45), McDonald River (1845-47), Geelong (1847-48), East Maitland (1848-67) and St Leonard's, North Sydney (1867-78). He was responsible for building the first stone Catholic Church at North Sydney, St Mary's, which was opened in June 1868. He also bequeathed to the church several allotments of land and three houses. Of these houses, the first, in Mount Street, went to the Sisters of St Joseph to be used as a home for aged women, the second was directed to be sold and the proceeds invested on behalf of either certain Irish colleges or St John's College, University of Sydney, and the third, his own, was left for the use of elderly priests.

Kenny won his parishioners' respect rather than their affection, for, although described as having led a 'blameless, exemplary and edifying life', he was dour and strict. As a priest he was faithful and reliable, and well regarded by his fellows. Polding always spoke highly of him, honouring him with the title of dean in 1872, and Archbishop Roger Bede Vaughan made him a member of the committee which reported on the Marist brothers in 1874. Next year Kenny had brief interim charge of the diocese of Armidale, and was said to have later declined an offer of the bishopric.

Dean Kenny is remembered mainly for his A History of the Commencement and Progress of Catholicity in Australia, Up to the Year 1840 (Sydney, 1886), which was the first extended treatment of the subject to be published. It was a creditable and useful achievement, although rather dull and partisan, and now superseded. Kenny intended to take his history further, but was prevented by severe rheumatism. After a brief illness he died on 16 September 1886 and was buried at Gore Hill cemetery.

Select Bibliography

  • J. H. Cullen, The Catholic Church in Tasmania (Launceston, 1949)
  • H. A. Johnston, A Seed that Grew: A Hundred Years of Catholic Life on the North Shore (Syd, 1956)
  • Freeman's Journal (Sydney), 4 July 1874, 18 Sept, 2 Oct 1886
  • Sydney Morning Herald, 18 Sept 1886
  • CSO 1/817/17458 (Archives Office of Tasmania).

Citation details

John Barrett, 'Kenny, John (1816–1886)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1967, accessed online 15 June 2024.

This article was published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 2, (Melbourne University Press), 1967

View the front pages for Volume 2

© Copyright Australian Dictionary of Biography, 2006-2024

Life Summary [details]


Fife, Scotland


16 September, 1886 (aged ~ 70)
New South Wales, Australia

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