In 2018, historian Dr John Luttrell, a lecturer in Church history in tertiary institutions in Australia for many years, published the first full biography of Australia’s first Australian born cardinal. Cardinal Norman Gilroy led the Catholic community of Sydney through years of political division and political battles for State Aid for Catholic schools and disputes over the relationship between the Catholic church and the Labor Party. In the devastating Labor split of the 1950s, Norman Gilroy maintained close relations with the Labor government of Premier Joe Cahill while his Melbourne counterpart, Archbishop Daniel Mannix, threw his support behind the breakaway Democratic Labor Party and B A Santamaria’s “Movement” or National Civic Council. The rift was bitter and splintered the church. To discuss the life and times of Cardinal Norman Gilroy, John Luttrell was joined by long time historian of the Australian Catholic church Edmund Campion in addressing The Sydney Institute on Wednesday 4 April 2018.
A CARDINAL AND SERVANT – NORMAN THOMAS GILROY
Why revisit the life of Norman Gilroy? For many Australians over the age of sixty Cardinal Gilroy is a key face and image of the Catholic Church of their youth. For three decades after 1945 a mention of “the Cardinal” would have immediately meant Norman Thomas Gilroy. Many have met him personally or attended ceremonies where he presided. They remember the broad smile, his formal language and they might imitate his intonation. But these memories would likely be of the 1960s only. His actual career and influence as a church leader spans nearly four decades from his appointment as Bishop of Port Augusta in 1935 to his retirement as Archbishop of Sydney in 1971. Only John Bede Polding had a longer term as Archbishop of Sydney.
His actual career and influence as a church leader spans nearly four decades from his appointment as Bishop of Port Augusta in 1935 to his retirement as Archbishop of Sydney in 1971.
Over 31 years, Gilroy oversaw the life of the largest diocese in Australia during World War II and then as it more than doubled in population to over 700,000 Catholics by 1971 – this is 100,000 more than its Catholic population today. He responded to the growth by creating over 70 new parishes in the archdiocese. This meant new churches and schools to be built and paid for by the local community, and almost weekly blessings of foundations stones and new buildings. Recent archbishops have struggled to maintain these individual parishes as the number of clergy and active church attenders has plummeted.
The large central administration of today’s Catholic Church in Sydney owes much to Gilroy. When he became Archbishop much of Catholic life was directed by parish priests or religious congregations. The archdiocesan bureaucracy consisted of a few clerical secretaries at St Mary’s Cathedral. Today the multi-storeyed Polding Centre in Sydney houses such major offices as the Chancery, Catholic Development Fund, the Catholic Weekly newspaper, the Confraternity for Christian Doctrine, Catholic Youth Services and the Catholic Immigration Office. Then there is the extensive Catholic Education Office with its central office at Leichhardt and three regional offices employing thousands of teachers and other staff. These and other central organisations began in Gilroy’s time, although they were comparatively small when he retired. Nor were they unique to Sydney. His significance lies more in persuading and leading the Catholics of Sydney to accept this increased centralisation, coordination and extension of services at the expense of some autonomy held by parishes and other organisations.
His significance lies more in persuading and leading the Catholics of Sydney to accept this increased centralisation, coordination and extension of services at the expense of some autonomy held by parishes and other organisations.
From the 1840s, most Australian priests had been Irish-born, while Irish bishops had led the Archdiocese of Sydney and most other dioceses from the 1880s. Gilroy, as the first Australian-born Archbishop of Sydney was a central figure in the “Australianisation” of the archdiocese and the Australian Church. His role as a standard-bearer for the Australian clergy was actually foisted on him by Apostolic Delegates who sought Australian-born clergy to succeed the mostly Irish bishops of the time. In 1937 Delegate Giovanni Panico pressured the Irish-born Archbishop Michael Sheehan to resign and Gilroy was quickly installed as Coadjutor to the aged Archbishop Michael Kelly. After Kelly died in 1940, and the number of Irish clergy declined, Gilroy gradually appointed Australians to leadership positions in the diocesan administration, seminaries and parishes.
Indeed, his office at St Mary’s Cathedral seemed almost a school for continuing Australianisation, as nine of his former secretaries and aides were ordained bishops: Eris O’Brien to Canberra, John Toohey to Maitland, Henry Kennedy to Armidale, James Carroll and Thomas Muldoon as his auxiliaries in Sydney, John Cullinane to Goulburn, Albert Thomas to Bathurst, Edward Kelly to Darwin and James Freeman to Armidale and then as his successor in Sydney. All were Australian-born.
So far, we have concentrated on his significance in the Archdiocese of Sydney. In the international Church, before 1945, Australia had been a backwater, especially in the isolation caused by World War II. Immediately after the war, Gilroy featured as one of 32 new cardinals created by Pope Pius XII. In Catholic understanding of the time, cardinals were styled as “princes” under the papal monarch. They took precedence over bishops. Only cardinals would elect a pope or be elected as pope. They could also act as delegate for the pope in a period when popes themselves did not travel outside Italy. Gilroy helped to give Australia a higher profile within the international Church by his many travels as cardinal and papal legate, by his role as leader of the Australian bishops in the Second Vatican Council and as president of its 1962 session, and by his extensive contacts with other leaders reaching back to his days in Rome as a student. He could even bring his cardinal peers to see Australia for themselves – Agagianian from Rome, Gracias from India, Spellman and O’Hara from America, McQuaid from Dublin, Heenan from England, and, finally, Paul VI. One could argue that his international status during his career was at least as high as that of any other Australian church leader before or since. His “elevation” also meant that from 1946 he presided over meetings of the Australian bishops (including senior Archbishops Mannix and Duhig) and at least was perceived popularly as their leader.
Immediately after the war, Gilroy featured as one of 32 new cardinals created by Pope Pius XII.
“Cardinal and servant – Norman Thomas Gilroy” is the title for tonight’s discussion shared with Edmund Campion. It captures well much of the Gilroy story. He accepted that the Catholic Church had a hierarchy of pope, cardinals, bishops, and clergy with religious authority over the lay faithful. He embraced the elevated concept of “cardinal” with visits to Australian dioceses in the late 1940s, wearing the “cappa magna” (scarlet cloak with metres of train), holding out his hand to kneeling Catholics for the kissing of the cardinatial ring. He also used his status as cardinal to good effect in dealing with church bureaucracy. A prime example was in having Vatican officials locate a document which proved crucial for the cause of canonisation of Mary MacKillop – a document which his predecessor, Archbishop Kelly, had been unable to obtain.
He also used his status as cardinal to good effect in dealing with church bureaucracy. A prime example was in having Vatican officials locate a document which proved crucial for the cause of canonisation of Mary MacKillop
Whether he was seduced into enjoying the trappings of hierarchical authority, I cannot say. But it does bring me to the “servant” caption in the discussion title. My general belief is that he did not seek status and authority. His first employment was in the postal service and then a year serving in the Navy. In retirement he reflected that ‘All I ever wanted was to be a priest’. It was not just rhetoric because, when newly ordained as a priest in 1924 and asked to be secretary to the papal delegation in Australia, he wrote to his bishop in Lismore that he would much rather be a priest in the diocese. Ten years later when Apostolic Delegate Bernardini informed him that Pope Pius XI had chosen him to be Bishop of Port Augusta in South Australia he wrote in reply:
Your terrifying ltr of the 19th has filled me with awe. My ambition was a complete annihilation in the Society of Jesus by the superiors of which I was accepted. It was my ambition to be a Jesuit because I thought that was God’s will in my regard. My ambition is still to do His will. If the Holy Father indicates Pt Augusta as God’s will for me I submit with my whole heart…
Yr Obed Serv.
Your terrifying ltr of the 19th has filled me with awe. My ambition was a complete annihilation in the Society of Jesus by the superiors of which I was accepted.
Ever after he was scrupulously loyal and obedient to the four popes of his career as bishop and cardinal. He retired in the 1970s to live with other retired priests and lay people in the nursing home run by the Little Sisters of the Poor at Randwick. A main interest then was to accompany Sisters of the Brown Nurses congregation in visiting poor people in Sydney. So, the term “servant” does capture well a key aspect of his life – obedience to a sense of vocation and then to the calls and demands that followed. When seeking a sub-title for my biography I settled on “An Obedient Life”.
All the above should demonstrate Gilroy’s importance as an Australian churchman and perhaps indicate a more complex personality behind the clerical facade. Nevertheless, it took me some time to come to this appreciation.
Some background to my biography
In the 1990s I was teaching Church History at a seminary and also looking for a topic for a PhD thesis. I settled on a study of Norman Gilroy’s role as Archbishop of Sydney. As a thesis topic this had the advantages that it was largely unexplored gap in Australian religious history and that local primary sources would hopefully be available – although the latter proved to be a problem.
As a thesis topic this had the advantages that it was largely unexplored gap in Australian religious history and that local primary sources would hopefully be available – although the latter proved to be a problem.
In the beginning it was primarily an administrative study focused on Sydney. Inevitably, the life of Gilroy and its broader context took my attention. Even if one were to accept a fairly common view that Norman Gilroy was a mediocre, conventional and unattractive churchman, his life was interesting and varied. There was young Norman in a poor, struggling family in Glebe in 1900, a decade later at Gallipoli for the Anzac landings, in 1922 studying in Rome as Mussolini took over Italy, a brief period as a priest in Lismore, then parachuted into the Apostolic Delegation at North Sydney where he first became involved in the cause of canonisation of Mary MacKillop. Next, he is a young bishop in depressed rural South Australia. Finally, his three decades in Sydney gave great insight into how the Australian Church reacted to World War II, the Cold War, the Labor Split, Vatican II, and crises of the 1960s. And then there was the company he mixed with: five popes and many religious leaders of various faiths, Queen Elizabeth II, Emperor Hirohito, President Diem, Australian prime ministers and other political leaders. In his retirement, he was in company with Bea Miles at the Little Sisters of the Poor home in Randwick. He lived in interesting times and dealt with interesting people.
His three decades in Sydney gave great insight into how the Australian Church reacted to World War II, the Cold War, the Labor Split, Vatican II, and crises of the 1960s.
After the thesis was completed, I contemplated a biography and researched some of the biographical gaps, such as Gilroy’s student years in Rome and his time as Bishop of Port Augusta from 1935 to 1937. However, sources were a problem. Gilroy himself showed little interest in having his life recorded; his few writings and his speeches are very formal, even laboured, and lack the wit and sharpness of leaders like Archbishop Mannix. Most problematic was the policy of the Sydney Archdiocesan Chancery that personal papers of a deceased Archbishop of Sydney would not be available for research until 50 years after his death – in Gilroy’s case it would be 2027. The biography seemed to be out of the question.
Most problematic was the policy of the Sydney Archdiocesan Chancery that personal papers of a deceased Archbishop of Sydney would not be available for research until 50 years after his death – in Gilroy’s case it would be 2027. The biography seemed to be out of the question.
After Archbishop Pell arrived in Sydney, I noted that his biography was written by Tess Livingstone in 2002. So, in 2011 I informed him that I wished to embark on a biography of Gilroy and would like his support. He readily agreed and provided me with a letter of recommendation. That letter led to extensive access to the Sydney Archdiocesan Archives and was helpful in my approaching other archivists.
I was most anxious that the biography not be characterised as a hagiography or propaganda piece commissioned by the Catholic Church. It was a personal initiative intended as contributing to Australian religious history. It was not commissioned or financed by either the Catholic Church or by the Gilroy family, although I had approval and cooperation from both groups. Nor did Cardinal Pell or his successor Archbishop Fisher see the text before it was published. I did send individual chapters to people or groups who may have featured in a chapter, asking for their comments. None of those consulted asked for substantial revision. The great blessing was that I could research and write independently with no undue constraints.
John De Luca’s thoughtful and positive review in The Swag (Autumn 2018) commended St Pauls Publications for ‘the physical volume [which is] … beautifully presented and easy to read. The font is large and the lay-out beyond reproach.’ I too am most grateful to St Pauls for the smooth editing process and the quality final publication.
End of story?
Hopefully the biography will encourage new interest in Gilroy and his times.
Readers’ comments and my own further reflection suggest that there are still puzzle points and gaps in the story.
Readers’ comments and my own further reflection suggest that there are still puzzle points and gaps in the story.
Prevailing understandings of Gilroy have been limited, partial and superficial. People remember his formal public image and his general style of leadership. Because there was no extended biography, most writing about him has focused on a few issues: his roles in the State Aid debate, his clashes with BA Santamaria and Daniel Mannix over the Movement, his welcoming Pope Paul VI to Sydney. Critics have handed down stories of harshness and inflexibility and thrift – particularly in his dealings with diocesan clergy and religious congregations.
Fr Edmund Campion once wrote a short piece about the extreme formality and aloofness of Gilroy as a bishop and wondered what had happened to the young man of Gilroy’s 1915 diary in which he recounts climbing the Sphinx in Egypt and avidly attending plays and music halls in London. Campion titled his article “A necessary isolation”, implying that Gilroy consciously chose this aloof detachment as priest and bishop. His seminary diaries suggest that seminary formation may have led him to this behaviour. There are a few stories of his retirement days which indicate that he was later able to shed some of the formality.
Campion titled his article “A necessary isolation”, implying that Gilroy consciously chose this aloof detachment as priest and bishop.
Gilroy’s application to enter the Jesuit order in 1933 raises tantalising questions which I have not managed to explore. Was he disillusioned with the bureaucratic roles he had been given in his first decade as priest? Was he trying to avoid becoming a bishop? He most likely knew that in 1931 he had been considered for the role of Bishop of Rockhampton. Did he tell his bishop, John Carroll, about his “ambition” to seek “annihilation in the Society of Jesus”? One would presume so.
There are also questions about his appointment as Coadjutor Archbishop of Sydney in 1937 and his elevation to the cardinalate in 1946. Brenda Niall, in her recent biography of Archbishop Mannix, elaborates a “Vatican Chess Game” managed by the new Apostolic Delegate Panico and seeking to replace Irish bishops with Australian-born clergy and to particularly to undermine the influence of Archbishop Mannix. Patrick Morgan took a similar view in a paper delivered to the Australian Catholic Historical Society in 2017, which includes a section on “Panico’s Plan”. Their view is borne out by the documents relating to the resignation of Archbishop Sheehan and the speedy appointment of Gilroy to Sydney. Niall, however, further implies that Gilroy was cultivating Panico. In 1936, all the bishops and Panico were in Adelaide for an education conference. After the conference Gilroy invited Panico to his Diocese of Port Augusta and drove him on a road tour of the diocese. Niall’s description of Gilroy’s invitation as “a shrewd diplomatic move” is plausible but could hardly apply to his appointment to Sydney because in 1936 Archbishop Sheehan was the designated successor to Archbishop Kelly.
Brenda Niall, in her recent biography of Archbishop Mannix, elaborates a “Vatican Chess Game” managed by the new Apostolic Delegate Panico and seeking to replace Irish bishops with Australian-born clergy
Niall’s description of Gilroy’s invitation as “a shrewd diplomatic move” is plausible but could hardly apply to his appointment to Sydney because in 1936 Archbishop Sheehan was the designated successor to Archbishop Kelly.
Gilroy’s elevation to be cardinal in 1946 is characterised by Morgan and Niall as a “last move” by Panico in the chess game and a final snub to Mannix, widely seen as having a greater claim to the elevation. Again, this is plausible, but difficult to substantiate. The final decision was with the Vatican rather than Panico, and it could be argued that the status of Sydney as the then foundational archdiocese influenced the Roman choice (as it has for all later Australian cardinals). The same might be said of the simultaneous elevation of Archbishop Bernard Griffin of Westminster in England. Roger Pryke, who was Panico’s secretary in 1945-46, maintained that Panico had no prior knowledge of the appointment. John O’Brien examined Panico’s involvement and concluded that “until the Vatican Archives are opened, one can only speculate”.
Clearly, Gilroy was a theological conservative and many may see this as his overall approach to life. However, a final impression not covered in my biography is that in his administrative role as a bishop he was prepared to utilise the means of the period, particularly in regard to mass media. When appointed bishop he undertook a course in accountancy and thereafter was a careful supervisor of church finances. As Archbishop of Sydney he utilised the Catholic radio station 2SM, established his own newspaper The Catholic Weekly, and applied for a television licence for the Archdiocese of Sydney in 1952 when television was in its formative stage in Australia.
A final impression not covered in my biography is that in his administrative role as a bishop he was prepared to utilise the means of the period, particularly in regard to mass media.
Biographers can easily become cheer-leaders for their subjects. My biography takes quite a favourable view of Gilroy, although I hope it is not taken as hagiography. I am aware of his many critics, particularly clergy and members of religious congregations. Let me just repeat the conclusion in the biography:
[There is] a kaleidoscope of views about Gilroy: from aristocratic, patriarchal, sarcastic, remote and rigidly conservative to humble, spiritual, caring, pastoral, whimsical, wise and efficient. There is probably truth in all these memories, but they are generally limited and partial. It is to be hoped that this and further biographical study will provide a more complete understanding of a man who did not seek the major roles he was given, but undertook them in obedience and loyalty and to the best of his ability.
 Australian Catholic Directory, 1940, 1972, 2016.
 Gilroy to Bernardini, 20 December 1934, Sydney Archdiocesan Archives, Series 43/11.
 John Luttrell, Norman Thomas Gilroy: An obedient life (Sydney: St Pauls Publications, 2017).
 Brenda Niall, Mannix (Melbourne: Text Publishing, 2015), 226-40.
 Patrick Morgan, ‘The parallel careers of Arthur Calwell and Archbishop Simonds’, Journal of the Australian Catholic Historical Society, vol. 38 (2017), 76-78.
 Panico to Cardinal Fumasoni-Biondi, 6 June 1937, Archivo Storico di Propaganda Fide, vol. 1329 (Sydney file, 1937), 467-70.
 See profile on Gilroy in Woman’s Day, 15 June 1970. Roger Pryke, secretary to Panico at the time, claimed that Panico had no prior knowledge of the appointment. Roger Pryke interviewed 23 April 1997.
 John O’Brien, ‘The Australianisation of the Australian Catholic Church: Panico – Culprit or Victim?’, in Philip Bull and others, ed., Ireland and Australia, 1798-1998 (Sydney: Crossing Press, 2000), 183.
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