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Hugh Daniel O'Sullivan (1939–1997)

by John Raftery

This article was published online in 2022

Hugh Daniel O’Sullivan (1939–1997), Catholic priest, was born on 28 August 1939 at Riverton, South Australia, third of eight children and eldest son of Francis Jerome O’Sullivan and his wife Eileen Johanna, née Slattery, South Australian-born dairy farmers. Hugh was educated at Tarlee Public and Riverton High schools, before boarding for a year at Sacred Heart College, Adelaide. In 1958, after two years working on the family farm, he entered St Francis Xavier Catholic Seminary. He was ordained in 1964, and parish appointments followed at Hectorville, Brighton, Mount Gambier, and Salisbury.

While still a seminarian, O’Sullivan encountered the philosophy of the Belgian priest, Joseph Cardijn, who founded the Young Christian Workers’ movement (YCW) in 1924. Cardijn was committed to improving workers’ lives and working conditions, encouraging them to exercise their Christian vocation by confronting structural injustice within their own situations. By the time O’Sullivan entered the priesthood, the movement had a worldwide following and had developed an influential model for worker action, based on the see-judge-act method of engaging in social problems. In all his appointments he fostered YCW groups. His commitment to Cardijn’s vision, insight into translating it into action, and capacity to communicate it to others became hallmarks of his ministry.

From 1972 O’Sullivan combined parish duties with successive appointments within the YCW, including as Adelaide diocesan chaplain and as national chaplain from 1977. By 1983 he had taken on the latter role full time, based in Sydney. His commitment to the YCW’s goals of creating social awareness and skills for community service among its members, and building an informed Catholic laity, were incorporated in his guide, Notes for Leaders (1979), and later reflections, The Clatter of Wooden Clogs (1991). Conservative elements within the church criticised the movement for being too political—especially in relation to the Vietnam War—and O’Sullivan was personally censured. After five years he returned to South Australia as parish priest at Para Hills in northern Adelaide.

In 1989 O’Sullivan was elected collaborator for the Asia-Pacific region of the International YCW. Stationed in Hong Kong, he travelled extensively to support the movement’s activities, especially in developing countries in Africa and Asia. YCW support in these nations for overtly political responses to social and economic dislocation arising from industrialisation and globalisation strengthened his commitment to radical worker action. His skills as a social and political analyst were honed through grassroots exposure to the problems of the poor and disadvantaged. In this work he forfeited many comforts and securities of clerical life, but appeared to relish, and count as opportunities, the challenges of his sometimes precarious situation. He resided among those he worked with, acutely aware that he ‘would have no credibility’ if he ‘lived any differently’ (Diocesan Newsletter 1990, 5). Back in Adelaide by 1996, he worked as parish priest at Hallett Cove and chaplain at Sacred Heart College.

Whether carrying out routine parish duties, exercising leadership roles, or negotiating across class and cultural divides, O’Sullivan remained approachable and down-to-earth. He warmly addressed people as ‘matey’ and retained an interest in farming, commenting on weather and crops wherever he went. His letters to Australian associates reported little conventional priestly activity, but bore testimony to his conviction that ‘the task of building a better world where people are involved in taking up their individual mission … is what God is asking of us’ (O’Sullivan Papers).

O’Sullivan was diagnosed with multiple myeloma in November 1996, and died on 18 May 1997 in Adelaide. His funeral mass was held at St Martin de Porres Church in the Hallett Cove parish, and his remains buried in Centennial Park cemetery. Tributes published following his death attest both to the respect and love he evoked in those who knew him, and to his capacity to inspire and empower them to realise ‘their unique vocation’ by ‘taking action in their own situations’ (AYCW 1997, 48). His commitment to worker action and social justice was commemorated through the establishment of the O’Sullivan Centre for Action, Analysis, and Training, in 1999.

Research edited by Nicole McLennan

Select Bibliography

  • Australian Young Christian Workers (AYCW). ‘O’Sullivan, R. Hugh.’ Advertiser (Adelaide), 21 May 1997, 48
  • Crafter, Greg. Interview with the author, December 2019
  • Diocesan Newsletter: Monthly Newsletter of the Archdiocese of Adelaide. ‘Asia Post for Adelaide Priest.’ April 1990, 5
  • Egar, Robert. ‘Priest Dedicated to Universal Social Justice.’ Australian, 13 June 1997, 19
  • ‘Hugh O’Sullivan: Adelaide Priest and YCW Chaplain in Australia and Asia.’ Accessed 6 January 2021.
  • O’Sullivan Hugh. Interview with the author, 24 February 1997
  • O’Sullivan, Hugh. The Clatter of Wooden Clogs: A Challenge for Today’s Young Worker. Granville, NSW: Australian Young Christian Workers’ Movement, 1991
  • O’Sullivan Papers. Held by the author

Citation details

John Raftery, 'O'Sullivan, Hugh Daniel (1939–1997)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published online 2022, accessed online 15 June 2024.

© Copyright Australian Dictionary of Biography, 2006-2024

Life Summary [details]


28 August, 1939
Riverton, South Australia, Australia


18 May, 1997 (aged 57)
Ashford, South Australia, Australia

Cause of Death

cancer (multiple myeloma)

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.

Key Organisations