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Francis Murphy (1795–1858)

by Osmund Thorpe

This article was published:

Francis Murphy (1795-1858), by unknown photographer

Francis Murphy (1795-1858), by unknown photographer

State Library of South Australia, SLSA: B 2763

Francis Murphy (1795-1858), Catholic bishop, was born on 20 May 1795 at Navan, County Meath, Ireland, the eldest son of Arthur Murphy, brewer and distiller, and his wife Bridget, née Flood. After education at St Finian's College in Navan he matriculated in June 1818 at the ecclesiastical seminary founded and maintained by the Irish government under George III. At this seminary, called St Patrick's but officially the Royal College of Maynooth, he was ordained deacon in 1824 and priest in 1825. He was among the first to benefit from the Dunboyne establishment for advanced ecclesiastical studies, and completed courses in theology and sacred scripture with such conspicuous success that he won from his contemporaries the title of doctor.

Formal studies ended, he volunteered for missionary work in England and was sent to minister to the Irish Catholic workers in the Bradford woollen mills, and their families. He soon proved a sound administrator and an able controversialist, publishing the closely reasoned Letter to … J. Taylor … in Reply to his … Attack on the Dedicatory Sermon Preached by … Dr Barnes, on the Opening of the New Catholic Chapel (Bradford, 1827). In 1827 he was transferred to St Patrick's Church in Liverpool.

In 1837, influenced by Dr William Ullathorne, he obtained permission to go to Australia for five years. He arrived in Sydney in July 1838 with other priests whom he had induced to follow his example. Almost immediately, because of the impending departure of Bishop John Bede Polding, he was appointed vicar-general with jurisdiction over the whole of Australia. In 1843 he was designated by Pope Gregory XVI to the new see of Adelaide. On 8 September 1844 he was consecrated in St Mary's Cathedral, Sydney, by Archbishop Polding assisted by Bishop Robert Willson and by Archdeacon John McEncroe, thus becoming the first bishop consecrated in Australasia.

The bishop sailed for Adelaide in the Mary White in October with one priest and two schoolteachers, calling at Port Phillip where he officiated at the first Pontifical High Mass celebrated in Melbourne. On 26 December he wrote from Adelaide, 'I found my Mission utterly destitute of church, chapel or school. The only priest in the Colony was obliged to celebrate Mass in a large storehouse'. Relief came unexpectedly with a gift of 500 rural acres (202 ha) and £2000 from William Leigh of Little Aston Hall, Staffordshire. With an annual subsidy of £490 from the Society for the Propagation of the Faith at Lyons and small subscriptions from his own flock who were mostly unskilled labourers, he was able to build a large schoolroom which was also used as a church called St Patrick's, and which was his pro-cathedral during his episcopate. He also built a stone house for himself and his clergy. In February 1846 he went to Europe in search of priests for his diocese and returned in July 1847. While in England he obtained from Charles Hansom, brother of Joseph of hansom cab fame, a model and plans of a cathedral for Adelaide. The foundation stone was laid on 17 March 1856. Many of his flock who joined the gold rush to Victoria sent their gold to him to sell and hold in trust or buy land for them. The return of these diggers brought some prosperity to the diocese.

Bishop Murphy was tall and sandy-haired with a fine sonorous voice that drew crowds, non-Catholic as well as Catholic, to hear him preach. His pulpit utterances about what Catholics did not believe amazed Protestants and led them to conclude 'that he would either become a Protestant or effect a union between the Romanists and the English branch of the Catholic Church'. His insistence on the pledge to avoid alcohol encouraged Protestants to revive their own temperance societies. He was naturally quick-tempered but easily appeased, and because of the warmth of his personality and the integrity of his judgment was highly regarded by his brother priests. It was partly through his exertions that the long-standing dispute between Bishop Willson and Father John Joseph Therry was finally settled in 1857. He returned from a visit to Hobart Town in weakened health and died of pulmonary tuberculosis on 26 April 1858, and was buried in the unfinished St Francis Xavier's Cathedral.

Though always an ardent educationist Bishop Murphy will be better remembered as a church builder. In December 1857 his last report to Rome summed up his work: 'Twelve churches and six chapels have been built in the diocese, and two others are being built as well as a magnificent cathedral'.

Select Bibliography

  • F. Byrne, History of the Catholic Church in South Australia (Adel, 1896)
  • H. N. Birt, Benedictine Pioneers in Australia, vol 2 (Lond, 1911)
  • F. Murphy journal (Archdiocesan Archives, Adelaide)
  • Therry papers (Canisius College, Pymble)
  • Society for the Propagation of the Faith, Archives (Rome, Fribourg)
  • Benedictine Abbey, Downside, Archives.

Related Entries in NCB Sites

Citation details

Osmund Thorpe, 'Murphy, Francis (1795–1858)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1967, accessed online 18 May 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

Francis Murphy (1795-1858), by unknown photographer

Francis Murphy (1795-1858), by unknown photographer

State Library of South Australia, SLSA: B 2763

Life Summary [details]


20 May, 1795
Navan, Meath, Ireland


26 April, 1858 (aged 62)
South Australia, Australia

Cultural Heritage

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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.