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John Dunne (1846–1916)

The Right Rev. Dr. John Dunne, D.D., Bishop of Wilcannia for nearly thirty years, died at the Bishop's House, in Lane-street, on Christmas night, about 6 o'clock almost at the moment that the Angelus was ringing.

Dr. Dunne was the first Bishop of Wilcannia, and during his long term of office his administration of his diocese has been such as to elicit unanimous appreciation on all sides. He was 70 years of age. Dr. Dunne had been ill for some time, but recently took a slight turn for the better. He passed away last evening calmly and peacefully.

The deceased prelate was the father of the diocese.

Prior to the creation of the suffragan diocese of Wilcannia, the territory which it now embraces formed part of the dioceses of Goulburn and Bathurst, and extends from the Murray River near Tocumwal to the Murrumbidgee near Darlington, and to the Lachlan, twenty miles from Euabalong, thence northwards to the Queensland border.

The birth of the diocese of Wilcannia occurred in 1887. The Bishops of Australasia assembled in Synod in 1885, and petitioned the Holy See for its erection. The petition was granted, and by briefs of May 10 and 18, 1887, the new see was created.

Having created the see, the next thing to be done by the episcopal authorities was to appoint a bishop to take charge of it, and the choice fell on Dr. John Dunne. Dr. Dunne was born in the parish of Rhodes, King's County, Ireland, in 1846, and pursued his higher studies in the college in his native diocese, Carlow, for the diocese of Sydney. Being promoted to the priesthood, he was, at the request of his relative, the Very Rev. Dr. Dunne, Vicar-General of Goulburn, permitted by the late Archdeacon Polding to devote himself to the service of the mission in that diocese, where for 16 years he labored in zeal and devotedness. Burrowa was for a time the theatre of his missionary toil. He erected there the grand bluestone cruciform church, which is a great ornament to the beautiful township. Whilst in the country districts he built two other stone churches at Morengo and Howell's Creek, and what was a no less arduous task, he paid off a heavy debt with which the granite church at Murrumburrah was burdened. He also rendered important services to the diocese as president of the Diocesan College, watching over that institution in its early years, till he had the consolation of seeing it take its place among the principal educational establishments of Australia. He subsequently had charge of the Albury district, where the convent and grant Catholic hall and the Newtown orphanage are enduring monuments of his energy and zeal.

The consecration of Bishop Dunne to his new and highly important position took place in the Cathedral at Goulburn on August 14, 1887, the Cardinal Archbishop of Sydney (the late Cardinal Moran) being the consecrating prelate, assisted by the Bishops of Goulburn and Maitland. The Bishop of Bathurst was also present, and there was a large concourse of priests and people, many both of the clergy and of the laity of the diocese, coming from a long distance to show their respect and veneration for one who had labored with such devotedness and such success amongst them.

Early in September, 1887, the newly appointed Bishop arrived on the Barrier, and formally took charge of his diocese. One of the first duties which fell to Dr. Dunne on his arrival in Broken Hill was to open the first Catholic church in this part of the diocese, on the site where the Mica-street School now stands. The building was a very small one in those days, being an iron structure, measuring 50ft. x 30ft. The erection of this building was undertaken with a certain amount of trepidation at the time, as the success of the Broken Hill mines was by no means certain. However, the field prospered, and soon it was found that the building was all too small to accommodate the worshippers who flocked to divine service. The Bishop's next concern was to enlarge the building, and meeting with a ready response, the stone aisles were erected, and a large and commodious church resulted. This did duty for many years, but the growing needs of the church—or, rather of adherents—were such as to compel the building of a house of worship more fitting to the importance of the city (which it had outgrown) and the diocese, and the outcome of the labors of willing workers was the building of the present splendid edifice, the Sacred Heart Cathedral.

Returning to the early days of the church in Broken Hill. When Bishop Dunne arrived in 1887 Father Black, who was stationed at Silverton, then a busy and thriving mining town, journeyed to Broken Hill to conduct the services. Having settled matters for the time being, Bishop Dunne returned to Bathurst (then his headquarters), and Father Kiely (deceased) and the Rev. Father Connelly took over the management of the Broken Hill parish. A temporary house was erected for the two priests, and matters went along smoothly for awhile.

Towards the close of the year 1888 Bishop Dunne, being alive to the growing possibilities of the Barrier, and at the same time recognising that no parish priest would take on himself the responsibility of building up the church in proportion to the importance of the city, decided to make Broken Hill his headquarters. Having arrived, he at once set to work, and began to put matters straight for the commencement of building up the various organisations and institutions in connection with the church.

No time was lost in making a beginning, and early in February, 1889, the Convent was established in Broken Hill. Bishop Dunne secured the services of nine Sisters of Mercy from Singleton, in the Diocese of Maitland, and they were housed in a very modest cottage at the side of the present imposing structure. The work of the Sisters progressed, and each year showed their sphere of usefulness extending. The most important part of their labors—the education of the young folk—grew in importance, and as year succeeded year it was found imperative to add to the original number, until today no fewer than forty-eight Sisters or nuns are engaged in educational and other work in Broken Hill.

The land upon which the Convent stands was purchased at a high figure. This was eventually removed to make way for more pretentious buildings, and the buildings, and the first section of the handsome two-storied building was erected. It took three separate contracts to complete the Convent—the last one about nine or ten years ago. Altogether the Convent represents an outlay of just on £16,000.

Having placed the Convent on a sound basis, the growing needs of the church was next paid attention to. More priests were required to cope with the worst. But before any further addition to the clerical staff could be made, it was necessary to have sufficient accommodation wherein to house them. So the building of Bishop's House was taken in hand. The house was not built at once. Funds being limited, resources had to be husbanded and a little inconvenience had to be borne by the Fathers. So it came about that only one section was at first built. As the years rolled on, and the burden on the parishioners became considerably lighter to bear, the second section was constructed, and later the third and last section, was completed.

The expansion of church work, which followed as a corollary to the rapid growth of Broken Hill, made it necessary to provide accommodation for adherents of the church at North Broken Hill, South Broken Hill, and Railway Town. Between 1889 and 1890 South Broken Hill was provided with a church building and convent at a cost of £2000. The building did duty for both church services and school purposes until, in 1913, a schoolroom, consecrated by the Bishop, was added. At North Broken Hill and Railway the buildings, although of wood and iron, have done good service.

Having accomplished all this, there remained for the Bishop, assisted by a zealous body of priests and the willing co-operation of a solid army of workers, one thing more—and that was to place, the coping stone on an administration which despite some ups and downs, was on the whole a gloriously successful one. The church had grown to great proportions, keeping time with the march of progress of the greatest silver and lead mining field in the world. Broken Hill was now the second or third city in New South Wales. Its importance and stability, was proved beyond question. That being so, Bishop Dunne had no fear now in launching out, and reaching out for something greater than had gone before. The Diocese of Wilcannia had grown in 16 years, from an insignificant institution to one of great proportions, and to mark that epoch in the church's history a gigantic effort on the part of Bishop priests, and parishioners was decided upon. The outcome of the effort was the resolution of all to build the Pro-Cathedral of the Sacred Heart, which was to stand, perched on the eminence of Convent Hill (one of the finest sites in the city), as a lasting monument to the energy and whole-souled fervor of the Bishop's administration. The resolution having been come to, those responsible placed their hands to the plough—and there was no turning back. Committees galore were formed, and dance socials, bazaars, and such like forms of entertainment were arranged, and successfully carried through, with the result that in a short space of time a respectable banking balance stood to the credit of the Cathedral building fund.

At last the eventful day of starting the erection of the handsome pile arrived. The foundations were excavated and built up, and on the afternoon of Sunday, December 6, 1903, the Catholic community of Broken Hill held a gala day for the purpose of setting the foundation stone. The honor of performing this ceremony fell to the Very Rev. Father Francis, O.P., Superior of the Passionate Order Monastery at Glen Osmond, near Adelaide. Father Francis spoke eloquently on the history of Christianity and of the Catholic Church. In concluding the speaker said: "They had, in the building to be raised to God, an evidence of the indestructibility of their Catholicity of which they should be justly proud."

The opening ceremony, which took place on July 2, 1905, was a brilliant function, in which the most distinguished prelates of the Australian Catholic Church took part. His Grace Archbishop Carr performed the ceremony of dedication, and Dr. Kelly, Archbishop of Sydney (then Coadjutor-Archbishop) also took a prominent part. Among others who were in the forefront of the celebration were the Bishop of Ballarat, Victoria the late Right Rev. Dr. Higgins; the Bishop of Maitland, New South Wales, the Right Rev. Dr. Murray; the Bishop of Goulburn, the Right Rev. Dr. Gallagher; the Bishop of Sale, the Right Rev. Dr. Corbett; the Right Rev. Monsignor Byrne, V.G., Adelaide; and many visiting priests from all parts of Australia.

The jubilations in connection with the crowning glory of the great work were such as will be long remembered by those who took part and those who witnessed them. The Bishop, the visiting prelates, and all concerned were proud of the new monument erected to from Mr. William Orr, an early-day Barrierite. Upon the land was a small the glory of God, which, standing high above all other buildings of the city, presents a bold front, and stands as a striking example of the solidity of the Catholic congregation of the Barrier. 

During the great strike of '92 his Lordship took an active part in endeavoring to bring about a settlement of the dispute between the strikers and the directors of the Proprietary. At that time the great question at issue was the recognition by the mining companies of the unions, for which principle the workers fought a hard battle extending over 19 weeks. Dr. Dunne's sympathies were with the workers, and he was one of the delegation that waited upon the directors of the Proprietary Company, with the object of bringing about an amicable and honorable ending of the battle. But the delegation met with little success. To use the bishop's own words, "My action alienated the sympathies of some of the 'aristocratic' Catholics. I was told by one of the officials on the mines, 'We can do what we like with our own,' but to that I replied," added the bishop with a reminiscent smile, "that, although we may own a thing, we cannot at all times do as we like with it, and that it was quite within the province of the sanitary authorities to come on the mine and prescribe for them. That,'' concluded the bishop, "was the beginning of the great Labor movement, and they knew they were up against it."

On Sunday, August 18, 1912, Bishop Dunne celebrated his Episcopal silver jubilee—25 years as Bishop of Wilcannia. The clergy who visited Broken Hill on that occasion were his Grace the Archbishop of Melbourne, Dr. Carr; the Right Rev. Dr. Reville, Bishop of Sandhurst; the Right Rev. Dr. Higgins, Bishop of Ballarat; the Right Rev. Dr. Gallagher, Bishop of Goulburn; the Right Rev. Dr. Norton, Bishop of Port Augusta; and Monsignor the Very Rev. M. J. Treacy, Vicar-General of Deniliquin. There were many clergy of the diocese and of other parts of the Commonwealth also present. Several masses were celebrated during the day, including the important Pontifical High Mass at 11 o'clock. Many addresses were read and presentations made on behalf of Catholic organisations, to the bishop, and each of the visiting prelates delivered addresses of congratulation. Dr. Carr paid Bishop Dunne a particularly high compliment in stating, during the course of his address:—"He believed that, were they to search the world around, they would fail to get another to undertake and accomplish what Dr. Dunne has accomplished."

The silver jubilee celebrations were made the occasion for a particularly important event—the setting and blessing of the foundation stone of the new infants' school erected in the Convent grounds. This was a very impressive ceremony, and was attended by all the visiting prelates.

Since his jubilee celebrations, Bishop Dunne's health has never been satisfactory. He, however, continued his episcopal duties, and, among other buildings, the new infants' school in the Convent grounds, a new infants' school at South Broken Hill, a new school and convent at Nyngan, a new school at Cobar, and a new church at Mathowra have been opened by him.

During the last year it was manifest to the friends of the bishop that his constitution was failing. Nevertheless, through the great courage and hopefulness that has marked his whole career as bishop he persistently attended to the many duties of his extensive diocese. His last missionary tour a little over 12 months ago, embracing as it did visits to Wentworth, Balranald, Hay, Hillston, Cobar, and Bourke, proved conclusively that he no longer possessed the physical vigor of former days. This trip left him prostrate. On his return from the extreme portion of his diocese he was constrained to become an inmate of the Lewisham Hospital, and, indeed, for a long time there was then great danger of his collapse. However, the rest and treatment and a change to the seaside worked wonders, and the bishop recuperated to a marked degree. He returned to Broken Hill in time for the 1915 Christmas festivities, but was again compelled to go to the seaside for the months of January and February. He again returned to Broken Hill for the Easter solemnities. Probably his last public and official appearance in the Cathedral was on Pentecost Sunday, when he presided at the Solemn High Mass, and imparted the Papal Benediction to the people.

Since then the bishop gradually and daily became more and more enfeebled in spite of the skill of his medical attendant and kind and skilful nursing. During the last three months of his life Bishop Dunne celebrated mass with one of the priests daily in his private oratory. During the last fortnight, being no longer able to perform even this duty, the Holy Mass was celebrated for him daily by the Rev. Dean Killian. On Saturday morning last it was evident that the end was not very far off. Holy Mass, was celebrated by the dean in the bishop's bedroom and with the utmost resignation and piety his lordship received the last sacraments of the Holy Church.

On Sunday at midnight the bishop was reminded by Dean Killian that Christmas morning had come, and the dean asked his lordship to give his blessing, as was his wont every Christmastide to his people. Rousing himself with remarkable energy as for a last supreme effort the bishop raised his hand, and pronounced in a strong, clear voice the usual form of Christmas benediction. This was practically his last official act. During Christmas Day he gradually sank, being visited during the day by a stream of sisters and priests and immediate friends, and he joined with them, though not in audible tones, in the prayers of the time.

As the Cathedral bell was calling out the Angelus at 6 o'clock on the evening of Christmas Day the bishop passed away.

Immediately after his decease the body of his lordship was laid out and dressed in his full pontifical robes, and it then lay in state in his bedroom where it was visited during the night and in the morning by a constant stream of sorrowing parishioners. The body will be removed in solemn procession this evening at 5 o'clock to the Catholic Sanctuary, where it will remain in state for viewing by the people.

The leaden casket in which it will be enclosed will be sealed at 10 o'clock to-night, and the coffin will remain in the sanctuary until the interment, which will take place in a specially constructed vault in the crypt of the Cathedral on Friday morning.

Requiem masses will be said tomorrow and Thursday morning at 7 o'clock and 9 o'clock, and every evening at 7.30 o'clock prayers for the dead will be publicly read. The Solemn Obsequies will take place on Friday morning.

The most striking indication of the extent of the Wilcannia Diocese, over which Bishop Dunne has presided for the past 30 years, is forthcoming in the figures set out below. The total area of country embraced by the diocese is computed at well nigh 150,000 square miles. In cold figures that does not convey a very impressive idea of the magnitude of the diocese. A more convincing estimation can be formed by stating that the diocese embraces nearly one-half of New South Wales. True, that half represents the more sparsely populated portion of the State, but at the same time it does not lessen, but rather adds, to the responsibilities attaching to the duties of the Bishop as the head ecclesiastic representative of the church for this particular community.

In the year 1887, when Dr. Dunne was first appointed its Bishop, the diocese contained seven parishes or districts, with eight priests to look after the spiritual welfare of its 7000 Catholic people, and with 28 sisters to teach and guide the 770 scholars attending its five Catholic schools. To-day, after a period of nearly 30 years, we find the diocese made up of 13 parishes and 29 churches, with 20 priests and 157 sisters, to whom is entrusted the spiritual welfare of over 20,000 Catholic people. In addition, there are now 18 primary schools, 8 boarding schools and 8 superior day schools, and an orphanage. The primary schools are attended by 2783 children, and the high schools by 304.

Original publication

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Citation details

'Dunne, John (1846–1916)', Obituaries Australia, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, accessed 18 June 2024.

© Copyright Obituaries Australia, 2010-2024

Life Summary [details]


Rhodes, Offaly, Ireland


25 December, 1916 (aged ~ 70)
Wilcannia, New South Wales, Australia

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