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Laurence Bonaventure Sheil (1815–1872)

by Ian J. Bickerton

This article was published:

Laurence Bonaventure Sheil (1815-1872), Catholic bishop, was born on 24 December 1815 at Wexford, Ireland. He was educated at St Peter's College, Wexford, and from 1832 at the Franciscan College of St Isidore, Rome, where he remained teaching theology and philosophy after his ordination in 1839. Returning to Ireland he became guardian of the convents of St Francis at Cork and Carrickbeg. He was recruited for the Australian mission, and arrived in Melbourne with Bishop Goold in the Koh-i-noor on 12 February 1853. He was appointed president of St Francis's seminary, later St Patrick's College, and was secretary and manager of the Catholic education board of Victoria. Because of ill health he was transferred as archdeacon to Ballarat in 1859 and remained until 1866, when he was appointed to succeed P. B. Geoghegan as bishop of Adelaide. Consecrated by Goold on 15 August, he was installed on 16 September.

Sheil's episcopacy was one of great expansion. By 1871 twenty-one new missions had been established, nineteen new churches built, including one of his first undertakings, St Laurence's at North Adelaide opened in January 1869, and the number of priests had increased from seventeen to thirty. Catholic education also grew rapidly. In 1866 the teaching congregation of the Sisters of St Joseph was founded by Mother Mary MacKillop and Fr J. Tenison-Woods, and next year Sheil appointed Tenison-Woods director general of Catholic education. By 1871 there were sixty-eight Catholic schools in the diocese; thirty-five of them conducted by Josephite nuns. He had also recruited a community of seven Irish Dominican nuns in 1868.

Despite initial high expectations, Sheil was not a success as bishop. He spent less than two years of his episcopate in Adelaide: he travelled to Rome and Ireland from April 1867 to December 1868 and from October 1869 to February 1871 to recruit clergy and to attend the Vatican Council, and carried out intercolonial visitations in 1869 and 1871. These absences and his poor health left the diocese virtually leaderless and resulted in bitter clerical administrative factionalism and lay disunity. The most serious and dramatic result was his precipitous and uncanonical excommunication of Mother MacKillop, the temporary disbanding of her congregation in September 1871 and the subsequent appointment, after his death, of an Apostolic Commission to investigate diocesan affairs.

Amiable, urbane and zealous, Sheil was better suited to teaching and scholarship than to coping with the problems of the Adelaide mission. He suffered greatly from the heat and, in the last years of his life, poor health contributed much to his erratic and autocratic behaviour. He moved to Willunga, south of Adelaide, in December 1871 and died there of a carbuncle on 1 March 1872. He was buried in Adelaide's West Terrace cemetery.

Select Bibliography

  • P. F. Moran, History of the Catholic Church in Australasia (Syd, 1895)
  • O. Thorpe, Mary McKillop (Lond, 1957)
  • Illustrated Melbourne Post, 18 Feb 1866
  • Freeman's Journal (Sydney), 6 Mar 1872
  • Harp and Southern Cross, 2 Mar 1872
  • Roman Catholic Archives (Adelaide and Sydney).

Related Entries in NCB Sites

Citation details

Ian J. Bickerton, 'Sheil, Laurence Bonaventure (1815–1872)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1976, accessed online 26 May 2024.

This article was published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 6, (Melbourne University Press), 1976

View the front pages for Volume 6

© Copyright Australian Dictionary of Biography, 2006-2024

Life Summary [details]


24 December, 1815
Wexford, Wexford, Ireland


1 March, 1872 (aged 56)
Willunga, South Australia, Australia

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