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John O'Reily (1846–1915)

by M. French

This article was published:

John O'Reily (1846-1915), by John Gazard, c1900

John O'Reily (1846-1915), by John Gazard, c1900

State Library of South Australia, SLSA: B 3912

John O'Reily (1846-1915), archbishop, was born on 19 November 1846 at Kilkenny, Ireland, son of Michael O'Reilly, military officer, and his wife Anne, née Gallagher. His sister Kate had two sons who became priests, later O'Reilly's only relations in Australia. He was educated at a National school, and St Kieran's College, Kilkenny. Ill health caused him to eschew soldiering. In 1864 he entered the missionary training seminary of All Hallows, Drumcondra, Dublin, where he excelled in mental philosophy, mathematics and ecclesiastical studies. He also strove to perfect himself in the Celtic tongue.

O'Reilly was ordained on 21 June 1869 and on 14 October left for Western Australia, arriving next January. Following brief appointments to Newcastle and Northam, he was priest at Fremantle and from 1883 was publisher-editor-printer of the Western Australian Catholic Record. In 1886 O'Reilly was elected bishop of the new diocese of Port Augusta, South Australia. Reluctantly, he was ordered there by the Pope and consecrated in Sydney in May 1888. He immediately set out to visit the whole inhabited portion of his huge diocese. That year he changed his name to O'Reily, 'to save time and labour in signing documents'. Papal pressure was again applied before he accepted his election as successor to Archbishop Reynolds of Adelaide in 1895.

In a period of depression O'Reily's task was to rationalize the diocesan financial structure, its building programmes and the Church debt through rigorous fund-raising and the sale of surplus Church lands. Only in the late 1890s did he permit modest expansion in the teaching, hospital and charitable functions. Much of the financial backing for this came from Protestants among whom he was popular for his wit and lack of ostentation. Preoccupation with financial and extension matters made him feel that his life was more 'that of a bookkeeper than an archbishop'.

He was a 'hard hitter' politically, especially over religious education. Responding to the 1885 Plenary Council's call for renewed effort in Catholic education, O'Reily in his Pastoral Letter on Education (1889) defended Christian education in a secular world, expounded the 'double taxation' view of church-state relations, and indirectly threatened closure of diocesan schools. Recognizing the sectarian volatility of the 'paradise of dissent', he played a minor role in the 1896 referendum on state aid. He blamed Liberal Premier C. C. Kingston's reliance on the United Labor Party's parliamentary support for the secularists' success. O'Reily sought to alienate the Catholic vote from the Labor Party: he installed a priests' majority on the hitherto pro-Labor diocesan newspaper, Southern Cross (J. V. O'Loghlin was replaced as editor by W. J. Denny); and he organized an electoral campaign disparaging Labor in the eyes of Catholics. He also deplored women's suffrage.

O'Reily had a major interest in reform of Church music. Influenced by the New Norcia mission in Western Australia, he was a devotee of Gregorian chant, Palestrina and the modern Cecilian movement. He published Church Music in Australia in 1904 and argued for an Index expurgatorius, anticipating Pius X's Motu proprio (1904) on Church music. O'Reily's attempt to introduce this form into his own diocese failed.

In 1904 he paid his ad limina visit to Rome. He also visited Kilkenny, became a freeman of the city, and criticized English policies on Irish education. He was a son of Empire, however, as shown in his 1904 pamphlet, Two Phases of Australian Civicism. He had urged the formation of an Irish Corps for the South African War, celebrated the relief of Mafeking with a public banquet, and became one of only two civilians elected as vice-patron of the South Australian Veterans' Corps. Interested in military history, he was a welcome speaker on the subject; in January 1915 he confidently predicted Germany's imminent defeat.

O'Reily was frail and likened his position to 'a prisoner cracking metal on the stone heap'. From 1905 he had retreated to his cottage to grow vegetables and raise Irish terriers. Here the modest, balding, bespectacled, snuff-taking archbishop, of careless dress, unkempt beard and wan, drawn face, was dubbed the 'Recluse of Glen Osmond' by an admiring press; he was elected patron of the State branch of the Australian Journalists' Association. From 1913 he had a coadjutor archbishop.

After long illness, survived by his 90-year-old mother, O'Reily died on 6 July 1915 and was buried in West Terrace cemetery beneath a massive Celtic cross. His energy, enthusiasm and straight talking, as well as his intellect, compassion and generosity, had endeared him to South Australians. A succinct obituary came from the Labor Daily Herald (ordinarily no friend): 'There was a man sent from God, whose name was John'. With his encouragement the Passionist Fathers had settled at Glen Osmond and Dominican Friars had come to South Australia. His great concern had been for the poor, the aged, and orphans; in his will he bequeathed his Glen Osmond property to the Sisters of St Joseph of the Sacred Heart, for the Fullarton Refuge.

Select Bibliography

  • M. French, ‘The church extension crisis in South Australia’, Journal of Religious History, 8, no 4, 1975 and ‘Roman Catholics and the Labor Party’, Labour History, May 1977, no 32
  • Southern Cross (Adelaide), 15, 22, 29 Aug 1904, 14 Apr, 21 July, 29 Sept 1905, 9, 23 May 1913, 9 July 1915
  • Port Augusta Despatch, 11 May, 17 July 1888, 5 Apr 1895
  • Western Australian Record, 31 Jan 1895
  • Mail (Adelaide), 29 Mar 1913, 30 Jan 1915
  • Advertiser (Adelaide), 6, 7 July 1915
  • Daily Herald (Adelaide), 7 July 1915
  • M. French, Churches and Society in South Australia 1890-1900 (M.A. thesis, Flinders University, 1969)
  • O'Reily papers (Catholic Church Office, Adelaide).

Citation details

M. French, 'O'Reily, John (1846–1915)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1988, accessed online 13 June 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

John O'Reily (1846-1915), by John Gazard, c1900

John O'Reily (1846-1915), by John Gazard, c1900

State Library of South Australia, SLSA: B 3912

Life Summary [details]

Alternative Names
  • O'Reilly, John

19 November, 1846
Kilkenny, Kilkenny, Ireland


6 July, 1915 (aged 68)

Cultural Heritage

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