Maurice Joseph O’Reilly (1866-1933) was a Priest in the Congregation of the Mission who was born in Ireland and spent his life in Australia in mission work and in education. He was known for his skills in rhetoric especially when addressing public issues, and his patriotism towards his adopted country Australia.
Maurice O'Reilly was born at Roches Row, Cobh, Co. Cork in Ireland on July 15, 1866. He was educated at St Colman’s College, Fermoy, achieving medals in both French and Italian. He studied for the Priesthood at St Patrick’s College, Maynooth, joined the Congregation of the Mission (Vincentians) in 1887 and was ordained in 1890. After being engaged in parish ministry in Sheffield, England for two years, he volunteered to go to Australia, sailing on RMS Oroya and arriving in Port Melbourne on November 2, 1892.
His early ministry after arriving in Australia was in parish missions in the states of Victoria, New South Wales, and also in New Zealand. After some time in mission work he was transferred to Bathurst in the central west of New South Wales where he spent a year at St Stanislaus’ College as Dean before being appointed in 1903 as Superior of the Vincentian Community at Bathurst and President of the College. He remained at Bathurst till 1913 during which period great progress was made at the College. Among other improvements he began an art gallery and library there. He also at times acted as an assistant to Fr Joseph Slattery CM who was engaged in experimentation with wireless telegraphy.
In 1910 he became Vice-Provincial of the Australian Vincentian houses dependent on the Irish Province.
At the end of 1914 he returned to Ireland to take charge of Castleknock College as President, but he had only been back in Ireland for a short period when he was requested by the Australian Catholic hierarchy to become Rector of St John's University College in Sydney NSW. He returned to Australia in September 1915 and became the first Vincentian Rector of St John's College within the University of Sydney, a post he held for 18 years up to his death. In 1926 he was appointed the first Provincial of the Australian Province of the Congregation of the Mission (Vincentians).
Fr Maurice O’Reilly CM died at St John's College on September 25, 1933. Over 3000 people attended his funeral at St Mary’s Cathedral, Sydney.
A Rebel with a Cause
Maurice O’Reilly was a person of remarkable gifts who could have achieved success in any profession. Over six feet (183 cm) tall and of imposing appearance, he was an intelligent and learned man with large ideas and high ideals. His rhetorical skills were evident in conversation, and when addressing groups he could sway minds and hearts on a variety of issues. His literary skills were also displayed when engaging in polemics on controversial matters through the printed media.
He had a flair for language and poetry, and in Melbourne in 1899 he was invited to become information editor for the Catholic Monthly “The Austral Light”. Over many years he contributed a number of articles, songs, poems and hymns to “The Austral Light”. One of his musical works which became well known to students in Catholic schools was “God Bless Our Lovely Morning Land – a National Song” written in 1911 and published by E. J. Dwyer as “Australia – a National Anthem”. (See cover image at left.) This work was part of his contribution to the cause of Australian patriotism. While retaining his affection for Ireland, he was an Australian patriot, believing that Australians should focus their patriotism on their own adopted country Australia ahead of England and the British Empire.
He had strong views about inequality, and had been associated with the Society of St Vincent de Paul in Australia from 1903, when he helped to establish it at Bathurst. In 1919 he became Spiritual Director of its Supreme Council. In 1910 O’Reilly was prominent in the education debate and vigorously fought against the continued exclusion of Catholic schools from government funds. He was a supporter of educational equality and was the first representative of the Catholic body on the NSW Bursary Board. Through his efforts the first school registered by the Board was St Stanislaus' College at Bathurst.
Maurice O’Reilly was no stranger to controversy – particularly in areas such as patriotism and conscription. He was happy to speak publicly and carry on arguments and discussions about these and other issues through the printed media of the time. He has been seen by many as a rebel – and he even owned to being that himself. But he will be remembered also as a man of many talents committed to his Catholic beliefs, his concern about inequality in its various forms, his willingness to engage with the society of his time, and loyalty to his adopted country, Australia.
Bourke, D.F., “The History of the Vincentian Fathers in Australasia”, Congregation of the Mission, Melbourne, Australia, 1982
Cooney, G., “Maurice O'Reilly CM: A Rebel with a Cause - Australia Day” , Oceania Vincentian, 6, 2006: 89-126. (Text available in PDF format by email to: email@example.com)
King, Francis D., “Memories of Maurice O'Reilly C.M.”, Melbourne, Australia, 1953
Smith, Kit, “Music and Poetry of Maurice Joseph O'Reilly (1866-1933)”, Oceania Vincentian, 6, 2006: 43-88. (Text available in PDF format by email to: firstname.lastname@example.org)
Wilkinson, John P., ”O'Reilly, Maurice Joseph (1866–1933)”, Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/oreilly-maurice-joseph-7918 published first in hardcopy 1988, accessed online 30 May 2020. This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 11, (MUP), 1988