Australian Dictionary of Biography

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William Anthony Ross (1895–1973)

by Mary R. Mennis

This article was published:

William Anthony Ross (1895-1973), Catholic missionary, was born on 23 September 1895 at Whiteport, New York State, United States of America, sixth of ten children of Irish-born parents William Ross, engineer, and his wife Mary Agnes, née O'Laughlin. William's mother died when he was 7. While at the Franciscan Sisters' welfare home at Peekskill, he heard of Fr Damien's work with lepers on Molokai Island, Hawaii, and dreamed of becoming a missionary. After he had completed high school, the Sisters arranged for him to attend college at St Laurent, Montreal, Canada. In 1913 he began an apprenticeship in an electrical-engineering firm. Three years later he entered the seminary run by the missionaries of the Society of the Divine Word (S.V.D.), at Techny, Illinois. Ordained priest on 10 June 1922, he was appointed to the S.V.D. seminary at Duxbury, Massachusetts.

In 1926 Francis Wolf, the German bishop at Alexishafen in the Mandated Territory of New Guinea, wrote to the American province of the S.V.D. requesting an English-speaking priest to be his secretary. Ross volunteered, and arrived in New Guinea on 19 November. Among other responsibilities, he acted as liaison officer between German missionaries and Australian administrators of the former German colony. His cheerful disposition, wry sense of humour and unpretentious manner equipped him for the role.

Although he was only 5 ft 2 ins (157 cm) tall, Ross quickly earned respect for his endurance and his missionary zeal. Armed with a .38-inch (9.6 mm) calibre revolver, he made two exploratory trips into the hinterland of the Alexishafen mission in the early 1930s. When the Australians Mick Leahy, his brother Dan and Jim Taylor opened up the Wahgi Valley to foreigners in 1933, they invited Ross to join them there. Encouraged by Bishop Wolf, who recognized his pioneering aptitude, Ross took part in an expedition in 1934 to Mount Hagen, where he established a station and became the first missionary in the Western Highlands. He was a dedicated priest who walked up to thirty miles (48 km) a day to visit the sick and dying. Like the Hagen men, he grew a bushy beard. Fluent in the local languages, he encouraged the people to retain their traditional culture and mode of dress, and integrated their understanding of good and evil spirits with Christian beliefs.

During World War II Ross and his colleague Fr George Bernarding helped Australian civilians to escape from Japanese troops advancing from the north coast. Despite protests from the Catholic Church, both priests were evacuated to Australia under military orders in February 1943. For the next two years Fr Ross served in the parish of Kogarah, Sydney. In September 1944 he and Bernarding returned to New Guinea. Mount Hagen became a separate vicariate in 1959, under Bishop Bernarding.

Over the years Ross and his fellow missionaries were responsible for the growth of Catholicism in the Western Highlands, which became the third largest Catholic mission in Oceania. Church membership increased from 28 in 1938 to 70,000 by 1968. Ross was appointed O.B.E. in 1971. He died on 20 May 1973 at Rebiamul Catholic mission, Mount Hagen, and was buried in its graveyard.

Select Bibliography

  • M. Mennis, Hagen Saga (Port Moresby, 1982), and for bibliography
  • Post-Courier, 14 June 1971, 25, 28 May 1973.

Citation details

Mary R. Mennis, 'Ross, William Anthony (1895–1973)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 2002, accessed online 17 April 2024.

This article was published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 16, (Melbourne University Press), 2002

View the front pages for Volume 16

© Copyright Australian Dictionary of Biography, 2006-2024

Life Summary [details]


23 September, 1895
Whiteport, New York, United States of America


20 May, 1973 (aged 77)
Mount Hagen, Papua New Guinea

Cultural Heritage

Includes subject's nationality; their parents' nationality; the countries in which they spent a significant part of their childhood, and their self-identity.

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.