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Maurice Joseph O'Reilly (1866–1933)

by John P. Wilkinson

This article was published:

Maurice Joseph O'Reilly (1866-1933), Catholic priest, was born on 15 July 1866 at Roches Row, Queenstown, Cork, Ireland, eldest of five children of Thomas O'Reilly, shopkeeper and later stevedore, and his wife Mary Anne, née Garde. He was educated at St Colman's College, Fermoy, becoming a medallist in French and Italian, then studied philosophy and theology at St Patrick's College, Maynooth. Entering the community of Vincentian priests in 1887, he was ordained on 6 January 1890 and worked at Sheffield, England, until he volunteered in 1892 to join the members of his community in Australia. Arriving in Melbourne on 2 November, O'Reilly directed parish missions in Victoria, New South Wales and New Zealand. In Melbourne in 1899 he became information editor of the Catholic monthly, Austral Light; he was to contribute prose and verse to it for over twenty years. In 1900 he publicly took up the cause of Catholic education rights.

Appointed dean of discipline for 1901 at St Stanislaus' College, Bathurst, New South Wales, O'Reilly was transferred next year to the Sydney parish of Ashfield. As president of St Stanislaus' College in 1903-14, he was responsible for the completion of Edward Gell's design for its building with central and flanking towers. He enriched the college's interior with works of art and developed an enthusiasm and spirit which drew old boys to their Alma Mater. In 1910-14 he was also vice-provincial of the Vincentians. He entered into bitter controversy in 1911 over the celebration of Empire rather than Australia Day.

From 1910 O'Reilly was prominent in the education debate and vigorously fought against the continued exclusion of Catholic schools from government funds. In the 1913 election he unsuccessfully campaigned against W. A. Holman who had forbidden Labor candidates to give any pledge on education. From 1912 to 1925 he served on the government's Bursary Endowment Board. He displayed considerable talents as a Catholic apologist in 1913 when he countered the claims of the Anglican bishop of Bathurst, G. M. Long, for the continuity of the Church of England; he published his newspaper letters on the controversy as Anglican Inventions (1913).

At the end of 1914 Fr O'Reilly left the college for Ireland to become president of St Vincent's College, Castlenock, but resigned next June when appointed rector of St John's College within the University of Sydney. He presented a high ideal to Johnsmen and to Catholic students in general: he hoped to cultivate in them a Catholic mind that would make their contribution to the nation in professional life rich and generous. He campaigned actively against conscription in 1916-17, publicly defended Archbishop Mannix and brilliantly rebutted accusations of disloyalty and inciting rebellion, thereby alienating many influential Catholics such as Sir Thomas Hughes. In March 1918 O'Reilly invited Mannix to address the huge gathering assembled for the laying of the foundation stone of the east wing of the college.

Over six feet (183 cm) tall and a master of rhetoric, O'Reilly addressed large crowds demonstrating support for Fr Jerger in May 1920 and expressing indignation at the treatment of Mannix in England in August. Next year in an address on a living wage to the Workers' Educational Association, he voiced some principles on human stewardship of material possessions that were foolishly interpreted as justifying theft. Before the International Eucharistic Congress in Sydney in 1928 he engaged in religious controversy in the columns of the Sydney Morning Herald with Rev. J. E. Carruthers over the planned Eucharistic procession and the doctrine of transubstantiation. O'Reilly's speeches, sermons and published letters all showed his power over minds and hearts. His ability and qualities of leadership could have made him a mob orator, while his sincerity and concern for the poor and for the victims of sectarian bigotry (he declared that the 'Sydney “pommy” Press is the vilest on earth') brought him a popularity that scarcely could have been surpassed before the mass audiences of radio and television.

O'Reilly had been associated with the Society of St Vincent de Paul in Australia from 1903, when he helped to establish it at Bathurst, and in 1919 became spiritual director of its supreme council. In 1922 he represented New South Wales at the Irish Race Congress in Paris. From 1926 he was provincial of the Vincentians. He befriended the poet Christopher Brennan in his last years, helping him to recover his dignity and peace of mind. O'Reilly himself had published a volume, Poems (London, 1919), which reveals the depth, seriousness and whimsicality of his rich personality.

Although appearing uncompromising and belligerent, O'Reilly suffered much from thoughtlessness in others and from false attribution of motives. Characteristically interested in people, he was so sensitive that people thought him aloof. He and Archbishop Kelly did not always share the same point of view or priorities. His enthusiasm for mounting a campaign to raise funds for St John's was not shared by the archbishop or by well-to-do Catholics. His castigation of their apparent niggardliness and timidity did not win him friends among those who could have helped him. Even some of his correspondence with Kelly in 1918 revealed a cut and thrust, the very opposite of fearfulness, aimed at manifesting his hurt and demanding justice. To his credit, Kelly did not harbour rancour and on his recommendation the Pope conferred on O'Reilly a doctorate of divinity in 1920.

A diabetic, O'Reilly died at St John's College on 25 September 1933. He was buried in Rookwood cemetery by Mannix, after a requiem Mass in St Mary's Cathedral; some 3000 people, unable to find room in the cathedral, stood in Hyde Park during the service. A memorial chapel at St Joseph's Seminary, Eastwood, was named after him; portraits of him are held by St Stanislaus' and St John's colleges.

Select Bibliography

  • F. D. King, Memories of Maurice O'Reilly C.M. (Melb, 1953)
  • A. R. Chisholm and J. J. Quinn (eds), The Verse of Christopher Brennan (Syd, 1960)
  • P. O'Farrell, The Catholic Church and Community in Australia (Melb, 1977)
  • D. F. Bourke, The History of the Vincentian Fathers in Australia (Melb, 1980)
  • A. Clark, Christopher Brennan (Melb, 1980)
  • J. P. Wilkinson, ‘Fr Maurice O'Reilly: a controversial priest’, Australian Catholic Historical Society Journal, 7, pt 3, 1983
  • Argus (Melbourne), 21 Aug 1900
  • Age (Melbourne), 1 Sept 1900
  • Freeman's Journal (Sydney), 13 June 1918, 5 Oct 1933
  • Bathurst Times, 25, 26 May 1911, 30 June 1913
  • National Advocate (Bathurst), 23 Dec 1912, 6 Feb, 8 Oct 1913
  • Sydney Morning Herald, 27, 28 Jan 1911, 28, 30 Nov, 2, 5, 7 Dec 1917, 11 June 1918, 20 June, 18 Nov 1919, 18, 30 Nov 1920, 18, 19 Apr 1921, 18 May, 3 July 1928, 26, 27, 28 Sept 1933
  • M. L'Estrange, Rebellion Without Disloyalty: Reverend Father Maurice J. O'Reilly, C.M. and the Conscription Referenda, 1916-17 (B.A. Hons thesis, University of Sydney, 1974)
  • Catholic Diocesan Archives, New South Wales (St Mary's Cathedral, Sydney).

Citation details

John P. Wilkinson, 'O'Reilly, Maurice Joseph (1866–1933)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1988, accessed online 18 May 2024.

This article was published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 11, (Melbourne University Press), 1988

View the front pages for Volume 11

© Copyright Australian Dictionary of Biography, 2006-2024

Life Summary [details]


15 July, 1866
Queenstown, Cork, Ireland


25 September, 1933 (aged 67)
Sydney, New South Wales, Australia

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