LITTLE is known about Brisbane’s first archbishop except that he took such a title.
In fact, much of Australian Catholic history refers to Archbishop Robert Dunne only in footnotes and references despite more than 50 years of service to the Church in the Great Southland.
Brisbane Archbishop Mark Coleridge, in a tribute to Archbishop Dunne on Facebook, recognised him as a “quiet man” who has been largely forgotten.
“Quiet he may have been but achiever he certainly was, and he left his stamp on the archdiocese in all kinds of ways,” Archbishop Coleridge said.
Now, 100 years since his death in Brisbane on January 13, 1917, is a fitting time to redeem the story of the quiet, simple priest who improved the status of Catholicism in colonial Queensland.
According to his biography, written in 1990, Fr Dunne “was a spiritual man but not so heavenly-minded as to be indifferent to the problems of the world”.
Robert Dunne was born in Ardfinnan, Ireland, on September 5, 1830, one of two sons and a daughter to Irish-Catholic parents.
Robert was fed on a traditional and monastic Catholic spirituality that never left him even when he was ordained a bishop.
He studied theology in Rome before being ordained a priest on June 4, 1854.
After his ordination, he returned to Ireland and worked as a teacher at St Laurence’s seminary, Dublin, where his brother, who had declined the invitation to the priesthood, was also teaching.
Here he worked under Fr James Quinn, whom he knew from Rome.
When Fr Quinn was appointed the first Bishop of Brisbane, one of the newest sees in the new country of Australia, he appointed Fr Dunne as his secretary and administrator of his new cathedral.
Fr Dunne was shocked at the state of society in Brisbane.
Drunkenness was rampant, Irish nationalism divided the colony’s people, sectarianism deeply affected the practise of the Catholic faith, and there were growing tensions between consecrated religious and secular priests.
The infant diocese also suffered at Bishop Quinn’s insistence of building churches, leaving Brisbane in a pile of debt, and many Catholics turning their backs on God.
After six years as the bishop’s secretary, when Fr Dunne refused to side with Bishop Quinn on financial matters and his dealings with religious sisters and certain clergy, he was transferred to Toowoomba.
On the Darling Downs he found his purpose, realising the best way to serve his flock was assisting the people to purchase and work the land, which preoccupied them enough to stop drinking and led to flourishing family life.
His region soon became the fastest-growing Catholic settlement in Queensland, until Bishop Quinn terminated his appointment and removed him from Toowoomba in 1880.
Disillusioned about life in colonial Queensland, Fr Dunne made the serious decision to abandon the Australian priesthood and become a Trappist monk, not before reconciling his differences with Bishop Quinn.
When he learned Bishop Quinn had died he was already in Ireland, and entrusted to himself the task to support the next leader in re-establishing the diocese but had no intention of taking the mitre.
Rome had other plans.
He learned of rumours of his appointment as Bishop of Brisbane from the headlines on Adelaide newspapers floating around on his ship back to Australia, where he hoped to serve in Sydney.
Queensland was in turmoil and under massive debt but also a dissipating faith, with less than 25 per cent of the population actually practising Catholics.
According to his biography, the person who inspired him to take on the episcopacy was none other than Fr Julian Tenison Woods, whose optimistic account of Brisbane swayed the simple priest.
He was ordained a bishop on June 18, 1882, and went about fixing up the diocese Bishop Quinn had left behind by ceasing all exorbitant church builds and encouraging the Irish to settle in rural areas to help them abstain from drinking and restore family life.
The only church constructions he allowed were simple timber churches in regional areas, including in Gatton and Ipswich.
By 1885, Catholics in Queensland were increasing in number, many of them “well-off” farmers who packed out rural churches to standing room only.
The city was identified by the mainstream press as having “a class of respectable Irish settlers without equal in the country”.
When Brisbane was made a separate see in 1887, he was named the first archbishop.
Archbishop Dunne remained one of the most popular bishops in all of Australia, prioritising spiritual and material welfare of his people.
Brisbane Church historian Fr Chris Hanlon is doing research on Archbishop Dunne’s influence on colonial Queensland, with limited resources, as there is only one biography on the first Archbishop of Brisbane.
Newspaper clippings have shed some light on his visits to St Stephen’s Cathedral.
“Bishop Dunne was involved in the blessing of the stained-glass windows, which I believe are being restored at the cathedral,” he said.
“He lurks around with us even after he’s dead.”
Fr Hanlon said Archbishop Dunne had created a framework for his successor Archbishop James Duhig.
“Archbishop Duhig could only build on the framework Archbishop Dunne had provided,” he said.
“I would suspect his legacy is that the Catholic Church develops as an established part of the world.”