Australian Dictionary of Biography

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Patrick Phelan (1856–1925)

by James Griffin

This article was published:

Patrick Phelan (1856-1925), Catholic bishop, was born on 2 January 1856 at Johnstown, Kilkenny, Ireland, son of Martin Phelan and his wife Margaret, née Collier. He greatly esteemed his exactingly devout parents; missing the family rosary was 'a crime of the first magnitude'. He had numerous clerical cousins; his brother Michael became a Jesuit preacher after serving in Australia. Patrick was educated at the Trappist seminary at Mount Melleray and at St Patrick's College, Carlow, until ordination on 26 May 1888. He arrived in Melbourne in October.

Phelan was posted to parish churches at Essendon and North Fitzroy, then to St Francis' Church, Melbourne. In 1896 he became rector of St Joseph's, Collingwood. Well-versed in literature, classics, church history and theology he was noted for sedulously prepared sermons as well as for clearing debts and for building. He was a founder and frequent contributor to Austral Light and became a noted pamphleteer and executive of the Australian Catholic Truth Society. An enthusiast for Laborites 'of the Fisher-Mahon stamp', he also publicly acknowledged his 'personal friend' John Wren.

In 1900 Phelan was appointed dean of Melbourne and administrator of St Patrick's Cathedral, and in 1908 vicar-general. He distinguished himself administratively and in public relations, receiving Lord and Lady Dudley at the St Patrick's Day march in 1909. However, he also inveighed against such 'abominations' as the anti-Catholic renunciation in the Coronation Oath and became a trenchant polemicist for 'Catholic educational justice' and supporter of the Australian Catholic Federation. His spirited defence of the ne temere decree against Professor J. L. Rentoul helped to earn him from Rome the rank of prothonotary apostolic (1912).

Self-evidently episcopabile, he might have expected the metropolitan see. When, at Daniel Mannix's reception in 1913, Archbishop Carr declared he had never thought of 'anyone else as my coadjutor', Phelan reputedly 'stunned' the clergy by walking the length of Cathedral Hall out into the street. He had been appointed second bishop of Sale on 12 November 1912 and was consecrated on 2 March 1913. He was to become Mannix's close if not uncritical ally. Before 1916 Phelan had been a sanguine supporter of Home Rule, appearing on platforms, even interstate, with visiting propagandists John Dillon and William Redmond. He mobilized 200 Catholic cadets in 1908 to escort co-religionists of the American 'Great White Fleet' to the cathedral, an effort which, he jibed, so-called 'loyal Protestants' could not match. He advocated compulsory military service with Irish-Australian regiments for Catholics. However, in 1916, with regard to conscription for overseas service, he stressed Catholic official neutrality. He refused with Carr and Mannix to join Archbishop Kelly in formally condemning the Dublin Easter Rising although he deplored German complicity.

When marking his first anniversary at Sale, Phelan rejoiced in 'the complete absence of that prolific mother of strife, sectarianism', and wished to draw 'the golden garment of charity' over England's 'unholy deeds', but in 1916 he was likening the 'iniquity' of proposed Bible-teaching in state schools to former persecutions. Anglicans, he said, were 'in bondage to the State'; they flourished the Union Jack in their sanctuaries where it would be 'idolatry to have Raphael's Transfiguration'. He became embroiled with the Gippsland Times and the local Anglican bishop. At the Te Deum for peace in Melbourne in November 1918 he reassured Catholic mothers that their fallen sons had gained salvation whereas, outside their Church, there was none. Standing in for Mannix on St Patrick's Day 1921, during the Black and Tan struggle, he outraged loyalists and made his archbishop's return more contentious by exulting in the burning of the Union Jack by Sinn Feiners. He criticized Mannix privately, however, for supporting de Valera's rejection of the Irish Free State.

Phelan was a much-revered, warm-hearted communitarian—of 'superb confidence and unequalled optimism', said the Advocate. He traversed his diocese of 16,350 sq. miles (42,346 km²) and only 14,000 scattered souls, personally examining every candidate for confirmation. Conspicuous among his foundations was St Patrick's College for boys, costing £28,000; he gave it his entire personal resources. He supported financially the foundation of Newman College and the engagement of Jesuits there and at Corpus Christi seminary. He revisited Ireland in 1905 and 1914, and, when stricken with cancer, finally in 1924 when he also pilgrimaged to Lourdes, France, in a wheelchair. He died in Dublin on 5 January 1925 and was buried at Johnstown.

Select Bibliography

  • W. Ebsworth, Archbishop Mannix (Melb, 1977)
  • U. M. L. Bygott, With Pen and Tongue (Melb, 1980)
  • M. M. McKernan, Australian Churches at War (Syd, 1980)
  • Austral Light, 1 Feb 1913
  • Advocate (Melbourne), 29 June 1912, 10 Oct 1914, 27 May, 12 Aug, 11, 18 Nov 1916, 8 Jan, 5 Feb 1925
  • Tribune (Melbourne), 3 June, 12 Aug, 23 Sept, 21 Oct, 11 Nov 1916, 8, 15 Jan, 5, 26 Feb 1925
  • Argus (Melbourne), 21, 22 Mar 1921
  • Kelly papers (Sydney Diocesan Archives, St Mary's Cathedral, Sydney)
  • Mannix file (Society of Jesus Archives, Hawthorn)
  • private information.

Citation details

James Griffin, 'Phelan, Patrick (1856–1925)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1988, accessed online 19 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]


2 January, 1856
Johnstown, Kilkenny, Ireland


5 January, 1925 (aged 69)
Dublin, Ireland

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.