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Robert William Spence (1860–1934)

by Ruth Schumann

This article was published:

Robert William Spence (1860-1934), by George A. Rogers, 1920

Robert William Spence (1860-1934), by George A. Rogers, 1920

State Library of South Australia, SLSA: B 3913

Robert William Spence (1860-1934), Catholic archbishop, was born on 13 January 1860 at Cork, Ireland, son of Robert Spence and his wife Ellen, née Sullivan. Educated at Cork by the Christian Brothers and the Vincentian Fathers, he entered the Dominican novitiate at St Mary's, Tallaght, near Dublin, where he was professed in 1878. In Lisbon he studied at Corpo Santo college where he displayed linguistic and vocal abilities. He was ordained priest on 23 December 1882. Two days later at Bom Sucesso convent he celebrated the first Dominican high mass in Portugal since the suppression of the religious orders in 1833. On his return to Ireland in 1885 he was assigned to St Mary's, Cork, and later St Catherine's, Newry. He gave retreats and missions throughout the country, gaining prominence as a forceful, zealous preacher. From 1892 he was for six years prior of Black Abbey, Kilkenny, where he restored the old church and built a new priory.

In 1898 Spence went to Adelaide as prior (until 1901) of the first house of the Dominican friars in Australia. His photographs show a man of earnest appearance with tiny steel-rimmed glasses and receding hair. At St Laurence's Church and parish, North Adelaide, he built a similar priory to that in Kilkenny. His retreats and missions ministered particularly to other religious. First president of the State branch of the Australian Catholic Federation, he also revived the North Adelaide branch of the Hibernian Australasian Catholic Benefit Society and ran the Adelaide Catholic Club. During his second priorship at North Adelaide (1908-14), he made additions and alterations to St Laurence's which were completed in 1910. While there, Spence advised Archbishop John O'Reily and became involved in administering the archdiocese.

On 13 July 1914 Spence was appointed coadjutor archbishop of Adelaide with the right of succession; on 16 August he was consecrated archbishop and next year succeeded to the see. He continued the restructuring of diocesan finances begun by O'Reily, removing the remaining heavy debt; he also carried out extensive and costly building works, among them the transformation and completion of St Francis Xavier's Cathedral. Returning from an ad limina visit to Rome (1920-21), he travelled the archdiocese appealing for funds for the cathedral; at the building's opening ceremonies in 1926 only a small debt remained which was a tribute to his initiative and drive. Spence's bearing and manner were impressive, yet he continued to wear the plain robes of his order rather than the episcopal purple soutane. Combining 'urbanity, common sense, business acumen, tact and scholarship', he was an outstanding speaker among contemporary Catholic prelates.

In Ireland on 27 August 1920 Spence received the freedom of the city of Cork. He later spoke in Newry Town Hall where he made a point of saluting 'the flag of Ireland'. His speech alleged that 'soldiers of the British Government were committing atrocities in Ireland'. The incident sparked controversy in Australia. Diplomatic in his approach to the Adelaide community, he obtained from Rome in 1930 a papal blessing for those in his archdiocese, including non-Catholics. Celebrating the golden jubilee of his ordination in 1932, Spence remarked, 'I must be one of the happiest bishops in the world'. In July 1933 he was appointed a count of the Holy Roman Empire, an assistant at the pontifical throne and a companion to Pius XI; in the same month he received a coadjutor, Andrew Killian. On 5 November 1934 the archbishop died at Glen Osmond; the Adelaide City Council adjourned as a mark of esteem and sympathy. He was buried in West Terrace cemetery.

Select Bibliography

  • J. O'Rorke, St Laurence's Priory, North Adelaide, South Australia (Melb, 1973)
  • Southern Cross (Adelaide), 18 Sept 1898, 31 July, 16 Aug 1914, 23 Dec 1932, 9 Nov 1934
  • Chronicle (Adelaide), 22 Dec 1932
  • Sydney Morning Herald, 25 Sept 1920, 24 Feb 1921, 19 Dec 1933
  • Advertiser (Adelaide), 13 Nov 1934
  • Reminiscences of D'Arcy Woodards, Archbishop's Secretary, (manuscript, Catholic Archives, Adelaide)
  • Spence papers (Catholic Archives, Adelaide)
  • Conventual Archives diary (Archives of Dominican Fathers, North Adelaide).

Citation details

Ruth Schumann, 'Spence, Robert William (1860–1934)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1990, accessed online 20 April 2024.

This article was published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 12, (Melbourne University Press), 1990

View the front pages for Volume 12

© Copyright Australian Dictionary of Biography, 2006-2024

Robert William Spence (1860-1934), by George A. Rogers, 1920

Robert William Spence (1860-1934), by George A. Rogers, 1920

State Library of South Australia, SLSA: B 3913

Life Summary [details]


13 January, 1860
Cork, Cork, Ireland


5 November, 1934 (aged 74)
Glen Osmond, Adelaide, South Australia, Australia

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