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Australian Dictionary of Biography

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O'Connor, Michael (1829–1883)

by James Griffin

This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 5, (MUP), 1974

Michael O'Connor (1829-1883), by unknown engraver

Michael O'Connor (1829-1883), by unknown engraver

La Trobe Picture Collection, State Library of Victoria, IAN14/06/75/92

Michael O'Connor (1829-1883), Catholic bishop, was born on 4 October 1829 in Dublin, son of John O'Connor and his wife Mary, née Murtagh. In 1845 with W. Kelly and T. Cahill he studied at Maynooth. Out of a class of seventy in his logic year (1847) he won first prize and was soon promoted to Dunboyne where the most distinguished students were sent; he won repute for integrity and scholarship, taking the chair of moral theology while a professor was ill. Ordained on 10 June 1854, he was soon given the important parish of Rathfarnham, through the patronage of Cardinal Cullen. He was noted for missionary work among the poor and for his affectionate and kindly way with subordinates.

On 31 March 1874 the suffragan diocese of Ballarat was created on Archbishop Goold's recommendation and on 17 May O'Connor was consecrated to the see by Cardinal Franchi in the Church of Propaganda, Rome, with Goold and Dean Moore attending. He arrived at Melbourne in the Ceylon on 18 December. With Goold he was drawn to St Patrick's by four white horses but Goold upstaged him as the bells pealed and a Te Deum was sung. In Ballarat he was drawn by four grey horses and installed bishop on 20 December, also to a Te Deum; he was then given a carriage and pair.

According to Moran, O'Connor 'seemed to be sent by Providence to grapple with the difficult problem' of Catholic education. For this reason he must have been preferred to the less gifted Dean Moore, who in welcome had stressed that religion was flourishing despite a hostile and dangerous system of education. O'Connor replied that they might as well deny the infant the care and protection of its mother as deprive it of religious education. He soon began a tour of his diocese, cogently persuading his flock to combat secularization. In 1875 his Lenten Pastoral opposed the divorce of religion and knowledge: the state's duty was not to educate but to enable parents to do so, and he could hardly suppose that the government was actuated by bad motives so much as ill-informed as to what Catholics wanted. He concluded that: 'Crime does not arise from ignorance of secular knowledge; it arises from the unsubdued passions of the wicked'. He entered into polemics in the Courier, but without acrimony.

O'Connor's rule was notable for building forty new churches and bringing in teachers such as the Loreto nuns from Rathfarnham, the Sisters of Mercy and the Christian Brothers. Most lavish was the splendid bluestone two-storied Bishop's Palace in Sturt Street West near Lake Wendouree. It stood in a twelve-acre (5 ha) park and cost £10,000. As Ballarat was suffering recessions, this clerical Keynesianism was appreciated by non-Catholics. In March 1881 he left for Europe to make his ad limina and to recruit priests. His flock donated 1080 sovereigns. He had a private audience with Leo XIII, gave him £400, praised Australian Catholics and told him that all that was wrong in Australia was the state school system. Leo said that was a maximum malum and granted his request to put the diocese under the patronage of Mary Immaculate.

After eight months in Ireland O'Connor returned via America and was enthusiastically received. His popularity derived from his gentle disposition and the prestige which his scholarship lent to this Irish flock. Early in 1883 his health failed and on 14 February he died after a sudden haemorrhage of the lungs. The obituary in the Star was inserted on request; the Courier gave only six inches (15 cm). However, he was esteemed by Protestants and a Methodist minister was at his graveside. His old Maynooth colleague, Fr Cahill, preached the panegyric and 'wept bitterly at the vault'.

Select Bibliography

  • P. F. Moran, History of the Catholic Church in Australasia (Syd, 1895)
  • R. Fogarty, Catholic Education in Australia 1806-1950, vol 2 (Melb, 1959)
  • Advocate (Melbourne), 11 July, 19, 26 Dec 1874, 16 Jan, 6, 13, 20 Feb 1875, 17, 24 Feb 1883
  • Ballarat Star, 18, 21 Dec 1874, 2 Mar 1881, 15, 18 Feb 1833
  • Illustrated Australian News, 27 Jan, 14 June 1875
  • Ballarat Courier, 3 Feb 1875, 15 Feb 1883
  • Australasian Sketcher, 14 Mar 1883.

Citation details

James Griffin, 'O'Connor, Michael (1829–1883)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1974, accessed online 29 October 2020.

This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 5, (MUP), 1974

View the front pages for Volume 5

© Copyright Australian Dictionary of Biography, 2006-2020

Michael O'Connor (1829-1883), by unknown engraver

Michael O'Connor (1829-1883), by unknown engraver

La Trobe Picture Collection, State Library of Victoria, IAN14/06/75/92

Life Summary [details]


4 October 1829
Dublin, Dublin, Ireland


14 February 1883

Cultural Heritage
Religious Influence