Australian Dictionary of Biography

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Patrick Mary O'Donnell (1897–1980)

by T. P. Boland

This article was published:

Patrick Mary O'Donnell (1897-1980), Catholic archbishop, was born on 2 February 1897 at Fethard, County Tipperary, Ireland, youngest of sixteen children of Thomas O'Donnell, draper, and his wife Johanna, née Sheehan. Schooled by the Patrician Brothers at Fethard and by the Jesuits at Mungret College, Limerick, Patrick studied for the priesthood at All Hallows College, Dublin, and at the Pontifical Urban College of Propaganda Fide, Rome. His fellow students in Rome included the Australians (Sir) Norman Gilroy, who was to became a cardinal, and Matthew Beovich, a future archbishop of Adelaide. O'Donnell's Irish and later Australian loyalties were broadened by an easy relationship with people from other countries. He was ordained priest on 15 April 1922 at the basilica of St John Lateran and sent to the diocese of Sale, Victoria. Its bishop Patrick Phelan was a family friend.

Appointed to the staff of the cathedral, O'Donnell served as curate (1922-27) and administrator (1927-37). He then served as parish priest at Leongatha (1937-46) and Warragul (1946-49). Learned, genial and witty, he established a reputation as a preacher, and as a raconteur. His stories of all classes of people from farmers to popes were noted for their quirkish insight, pastoral understanding and complete lack of malice. In the quiet country parishes he devoted himself to reading canon law, which suited him for the role of vicar-general (from 1941) to Bishop Richard Ryan. O'Donnell was made a domestic prelate in 1944. His special interest in the care of the Italian community brought him to the attention of Archbishop John Panico, the apostolic delegate.

In 1947 O'Donnell travelled with Panico to Europe where he met Archbishop (Sir) James Duhig of Brisbane and Archbishop Angelo Roncalli, the future Pope John XXIII. On 8 November 1948 O'Donnell was appointed titular archbishop of Pelusium and coadjutor archbishop of Brisbane with the right of succession. He was consecrated on 17 March 1949 by Cardinal Gilroy in St Mary's Cathedral, Sale. For his sixteen years as coadjutor, O'Donnell stood in the shadow of the formidable Duhig. Occupied locally in minor episcopal functions, he attempted a canonical reform of the Brisbane archdiocese. In this work he was largely frustrated by his principal, but he was more successful with his committee-work in the Australian hierarchy. From 1950 he served on the Federal Catholic Immigration Committee (president 1954-72). He negotiated with Australian and overseas bodies for the financing of immigration, but his main concern was to minister to the new citizens.

O'Donnell sided with Gilroy and the New South Wales party in the episcopal divisions over the Catholic Social Studies Movement and the National Civic Council. Although he differed from Duhig in this regard, they maintained respect for each other's position. In 1956 O'Donnell, Gilroy and Bishop (Archbishop) James Carroll went to Rome to seek intervention in the dispute. O'Donnell attended every session of the Second Vatican Council in 1962-65. His expectations of it were purely canonical before he came to realize the pastoral and theological implications of Pope John's modernizing of the Church. He was disturbed by them, but accepted them, describing his attitude as 'enlightened conservatism'.

On 10 April 1965 Duhig died and O'Donnell became archbishop of Brisbane. Reorganizing the archdiocese, he established agencies that brought a curial style to Brisbane. His oversight was less personal than that of Duhig, but it was thorough. He increased lay participation in the official work of the Church, and he initiated the Archdiocesan Development Fund to create resources for rational expansion. His innate scrupulosity and canonical formation made him nervous of the changes, liturgical and pastoral, required by Vatican Council II. To his credit, he found a technique for handling the situation. He was a skilled chairman, and he chose advisers to recommend and plan the changes. Then he moderated, but generally accepted, their advice. In particular, he took the first, tentative steps to implement the conciliar and post-conciliar decisions on ecumenism. It was indicative of his attitude that he always mispronounced the word. He played little part in public life, but in the background he maintained the connexions established by Duhig.

O'Donnell tendered his resignation when he turned 75. It took effect on 5 March 1973. For the next seven years he lived quietly in his historic home, Glengariff, at Hendra. He died on 2 November 1980 in the Mater Misericordiae Hospital, South Brisbane, and was buried in the vault of St Stephen's Cathedral. Pope Paul VI praised him for being 'a man of dignity . . . unshakeable in faith, calm in prosperity, firm and active in adversity'. It was a just, if kindly, estimate.

Select Bibliography

  • Acta et Documenta, Concilio Oecumenico Vaticano II Apparando, series 1 (Antepraeparatoria), 2: Consilia et Vota Episcoporum ac Praelatorum, pt 7, America Meridionalis-Oceania (Vatican City, 1961)
  • F. A. Mecham, The Church and the Migrants, 1946-1987 (Syd, 1991)
  • Brisbane Catholic Historical Society Proceedings, 3, 1992, p 78
  • Catholic Leader (Brisbane), 24 Mar, 21 Apr, 5 May 1949, 15 Apr 1965, 27 May, 10 June 1973, 9 Nov 1980.

Related Entries in NCB Sites

Citation details

T. P. Boland, 'O'Donnell, Patrick Mary (1897–1980)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 2000, accessed online 23 April 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]


2 February, 1897
Fethard, Tipperary, Ireland


2 November, 1980 (aged 83)
South Brisbane, Brisbane, Queensland, Australia

Cultural Heritage

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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.