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Australian Dictionary of Biography

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O'Collins, Sir James Patrick (1892–1983)

by W. J. McCarthy

This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 18, (MUP), 2012

Sir James Patrick O’Collins (1892-1983), Catholic bishop, was born on 31 March 1892 in Port Melbourne, second of eight children of Irish-born parents Patrick James O’Collins, iron worker, and his wife Ellen Mary, née Fitzgerald. At 14 Jim left St Joseph’s Primary School, Port Melbourne, to join his father in the meter shop of the South Melbourne Gas and Light Co. Later he commenced a course in plumbing and tin-smithing at the Working Men’s College. Sport played a big part in his life; he captained Catholic football and cricket teams. In 1914 he toured Europe, England, Ireland and the United States of America with his elder brother, Will, who had just been ordained a priest in Rome.

Once home, O’Collins decided to enter the priesthood. He stopped work and studied at Hassett’s Coaching College, completing his Leaving certificate in 1917. That year he began his ecclesiastical training at St Columba’s College, Springwood, New South Wales. In 1918 he was sent by Archbishop Mannix to the Pontifical Urban College of Propaganda Fide, Rome. Ordained on Christmas Eve, 1922, he returned to Melbourne and served as assistant-priest at Yarraville and East Brunswick, and as diocesan spiritual director of the Catholic Young Men’s Society.

Athletic in build, robust and dark featured, in 1930 O’Collins was appointed bishop of Geraldton, Western Australia, thus becoming Australia’s youngest bishop. Travelling throughout the vast diocese, he administered the sacraments and cared for his far-flung flock. Parishes, schools and churches effectively doubled in number under his control and, with the architect Monsignor John Hawes, he completed a new cathedral. Enthroned as bishop of Ballarat, Victoria, in 1942, he continued his wide-ranging and dedicated pastoral work.

At the 1945 annual meeting of Australian bishops in Sydney, O’Collins joined archbishops Mannix and Gilroy in an episcopal committee formed to control the Catholic Social Studies Movement, established by B. A. Santamaria in 1941. As the committee’s treasurer and, from 1946, executive officer, O’Collins supervised ‘the Movement’s’ efforts to combat the power of communists in trade unions. A close associate of Santamaria, O’Collins also endorsed the decentralist ideals of his National Catholic Rural Movement.

In the late 1950s O’Collins oversaw the building of Corpus Christi College, Glen Waverley, on behalf of the Victorian bishops, and in 1955 represented Australian bishops at the International Eucharistic Congress in Rio de Janeiro. He attended all sessions of the Second Vatican Council (1962-65) in Rome, considering this to be one of the highlights of his life and establishing an instruction program for priests in his diocese to assist in the introduction of new measures. He made four ad limina visits to Rome, the first in 1931, the last in 1970.

A man of many interests, O’Collins established an aviary, beehives, an orchard and a garden with ponds in the grounds of his palace in Ballarat. He enjoyed company, entertained hospitably, played golf regularly and remained immensely proud of his family, of whom two brothers were priests and two sisters nuns. Retiring in May 1971, he was appointed to the Order of Polonia Restituta (1978) for his service to Polish people in his diocese, and KBE in 1980. Sir James O’Collins died at Ballarat on 25 November 1983 and was buried in the crypt of St Patrick’s Cathedral, Ballarat. Monsignor Henry Nolan, vicar-general, described him as a ‘very down-to-earth, simple man with a deep piety’. A portrait by F. Zara is held by the cathedral.

Select Bibliography

  • D. F. Bourke, The History of the Catholic Church in Western Australia (1979)
  • G. Henderson, Mr Santamaria and the Bishops (1983)
  • W. J. McCarthy, James Patrick O’Collins (1996) and The O’Collins Story (2002)
  • Courier (Ballarat), 28 Nov 1983, pp 1, 4.

Related Entries in NCB Sites

Citation details

W. J. McCarthy, 'O'Collins, Sir James Patrick (1892–1983)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 2012, accessed online 1 October 2020.

This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 18, (MUP), 2012

View the front pages for Volume 18

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