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Francis James McGarry (1897–1955)

by Frank O'Grady

This article was published:

Francis James McGarry (1897-1955), lay missionary and protector of Aborigines, was born on 11 July 1897 at Wagga Wagga, New South Wales, younger of twins and sixth child of native-born parents John McGarry (d.1903), butcher, and his wife Catherine Elizabeth, née Jones. When John died, the family moved to Manly, Sydney. Educated by the Good Samaritan nuns and at Marist Brothers' High School, Darlinghurst, Francis worked as a clerk and warehouseman. On 28 July 1917 he enlisted in the Australian Imperial Force; he joined the 45th Battalion in France in August 1918 and was discharged in Australia on 13 September 1919.

In 1922 McGarry became a member of the Society of St Vincent de Paul's Manly conference, of which he was later vice-president. From 1926 he made weekly visits to the lepers at the Coast Hospital, Little Bay, but concealed this activity from his relations and associates. Responding to a suggestion by Monsignor F. X. Gsell, McGarry went to Alice Springs, Northern Territory, in 1935 to assist Father P. J. Moloney in establishing a mission to the Aborigines. The Little Flower Mission, on the outskirts of the town, commenced on 3 October.

At first McGarry fed, clothed and taught Aboriginal children at the presbytery and in the local church. After a site for a permanent mission was selected about half a mile (0.8 km) to the north, a well was sunk, a windmill, tank and church-school were erected, and wurlies were built to accommodate families. McGarry travelled to Sydney and arranged for the Daughters of Our Lady of the Sacred Heart to teach at the school. He obtained most of the mission's food by begging or bargaining in the town. In the early years he acquired clothing from his relations, from the Society of St Vincent de Paul and from the proceeds of the sale of Aboriginal artefacts and weapons.

In 1942 the authorities directed that the mission and its residents be moved to Arltunga, 68 miles (109 km) east of Alice Springs. McGarry chose a site and construction began. Appointed a protector of Aborigines in September, he was the sole White living at Arltunga for the next eight months. By 1944 the mission was fully established. As a layman, McGarry thought that he had little more to contribute. He resigned in March and joined the Territory's Native Affairs Branch in September. Having served briefly at Alice Springs and Katherine, and on patrol around the Finke, he established an Aboriginal settlement at Tanami in 1945, of which he was superintendent. In the following year the community was moved, first to the Granites and then to Yuendumu, near Mount Doreen. McGarry was responsible for the welfare of approximately four hundred people at Yuendumu.

Resigning his post on 20 July 1948, McGarry returned to Sydney. After a period as a salesman-clerk with a firm of auctioneers at Manly, he became a night-watchman to keep his days free for charity work. He died of meningitis on 21 November 1955 at Wahroonga Sanatorium and was buried with Catholic rites in Frenchs Forest cemetery.

Select Bibliography

  • F. Flynn, Distant Horizons (Syd, 1947)
  • F. O'Grady, Francis of Central Australia (Syd, 1977)
  • McGarry papers (State Library of New South Wales)
  • private information.

Citation details

Frank O'Grady, 'McGarry, Francis James (1897–1955)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 2000, accessed online 18 July 2024.

This article was published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 15, (Melbourne University Press), 2000

View the front pages for Volume 15

© Copyright Australian Dictionary of Biography, 2006-2024

Life Summary [details]


11 July, 1897
Wagga Wagga, New South Wales, Australia


21 November, 1955 (aged 58)
Wahroonga, 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.