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James Murray (1828–1909)

by W. G. McMinn

This article was published:

James Murray (1828-1909), Roman Catholic bishop, was born on 25 March 1828 in County Wicklow, Ireland, son of James Murray, farmer, and his wife Catherine, née Doyle. Educated for the Church, he was sent at 16 by his great-uncle, Archbishop of Dublin, to live at Propaganda College and study at the Urban University in Rome. There he became a protégé of Archbishop Cullen. In 1851 Murray was awarded a doctorate for theses on the authority of the Roman Pontiffs; ordained next year he returned to Ireland. After a short period of parish work he was Cullen's private secretary for eleven years. In 1865 Murray was appointed first resident bishop of Maitland, New South Wales. He and his cousin Matthew Quinn, first bishop of Bathurst, were consecrated by Cullen on 14 November. With Quinn's brother James, bishop of Brisbane, they formed the basis of a powerful Cullenite influence in the Australian Church.

Murray arrived in Sydney on 21 October 1866 with Quinn, nine priests and sixteen nuns to be greeted by great Irish celebrations; in the absence of Archbishop Polding, they discomfited the Benedictines and embarrassed secular clergy. Murray made an immediate impact on his diocese which stretched from the coast near Newcastle to beyond the Darling and north almost to Brisbane, and was served by only six priests and a tiny community of nuns. Some of Murray's first actions emphasized the Cullenite connexion: he gave his friend and successor as Cullen's secretary, Patrick Moran, the title of vicar-general, and vigorously disputed with Polding over diocesan boundaries. For years Murray was virtually a bush missionary but by 1878 had built up his staff of priests to twenty-five, established convents at Maitland, Newcastle, Singleton, Tamworth and Gunnedah, and founded an orphanage, an institution for deaf girls, a boys' college and many denominational schools. By 1887, when his diocese was reduced to cover only the Hunter, Manning and Hastings valleys, he had reorganized his mission on a proper parish basis. Though his lack of financial acumen worried some of his senior clergy, his pastoral energies were striking. Five pastoral letters, several circulars to clergy, a general conference of priests, a number of sessions of 'in-service' training for young clergy and a round of episcopal visits were normal for a single year.

Murray greatly influenced the whole Australian Church. To him Polding's Benedictine régime was not only too English in outlook for the Irish who made up most of the colony's faithful but also inclined to be complaisant towards intellectual and social developments that Murray saw as hostile to religion. His peculiar mission was to stiffen the resistance of Australian Catholicism to secularist ideas and to strengthen Australian bonds with Rome. He wounded Polding with his criticism of the archdiocese's policy on mixed marriages, which was at variance with Roman practice but not with current canon law, and stressed the point at the 1869 Provincial Council. He forced Polding into stronger opposition than the archbishop favoured to the New South Wales Education Act of 1866 and with Matthew Quinn framed the council's decree on the subject. He and his supporters succeeded in opposing the appointment of Polding's protégé, S. J. A. Sheehy, to a bishopric but failed to prevent Roger Vaughan from becoming coadjutor to the archbishop; Murray finally triumphed when Moran succeeded Vaughan in 1884 and the Plenary Council of 1885 radically reshaped the Church's discipline, particularly on mixed marriages. Murray did not attend the Vatican Council but was devoted to Pius IX and unswervingly supported the infallibility decree. His critical influence in developing a peculiarly Roman flavour in Australian Catholicism was emphasized by his introduction of the Redemptorists to Australia in 1881.

In his diocese Murray's charitable works made him popular with his people. He also strived to moderate sectarian bitterness which had been particularly severe in Maitland when he arrived, yet towards his clergy he was authoritarian, at times insensitive and always inclined to favouritism. He was a close adviser of Bishop Reynolds of Adelaide and the brothers Quinn in their dispute with the Josephite Order over episcopal jurisdiction.

Murray paid ad limina visits to Rome in 1871, 1881 and 1889. By the mid-1890s his health was deteriorating and in 1897 he chose his protégé, Patrick Vincent Dwyer, as coadjutor bishop, thereby ensuring that his pastoral policies would survive him. Despite an accident in 1903 he remained strictly as controller of his diocese and as elder statesman of the Church. He died at West Maitland on 9 July 1909 and was buried in the Catholic cemetery, Campbell's Hill.

Select Bibliography

  • H. Campbell, The Diocese of Maitland 1866-1966 (Maitland, 1966)
  • J. N. Molony, The Roman Mould of the Australian Catholic Church (Melb, 1969)
  • W. G. McMinn, ‘Bishop Murray and the pattern of Australian Catholicism’, Journal of Religious History, Dec 1971
  • Moran papers (Roman Catholic Archives, Sydney)
  • Murray papers (Roman Catholic Diocesan Archives, Maitland, New South Wales).

Citation details

W. G. McMinn, 'Murray, James (1828–1909)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1974, accessed online 20 April 2024.

This article was published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 5, (Melbourne University Press), 1974

View the front pages for Volume 5

© Copyright Australian Dictionary of Biography, 2006-2024

Life Summary [details]


25 March, 1828
Wicklow, Ireland


9 July, 1909 (aged 81)
Maitland, New South Wales, Australia

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