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Home » People » Who was James Quinn? Meet the priest unraveling the mysterious man who was Brisbane’s first bishop

Who was James Quinn? Meet the priest unraveling the mysterious man who was Brisbane’s first bishop

Historian: Fr Chris Hanlon delving into the life and times of Bishop Quinn. “There is so much more to discover. He was an enigma. Not the bad man many have thought him to be. He was trained in Rome and sent to a far-flung land.” Photo: Mark Bowling

The Archdiocese of Brisbane is about to celebrate the 200th anniversary of Bishop James Quinn’s birthday on March 17, 1819 (St Patrick’s Day) – as a landmark for the Church in Queensland – but it turns out that even that birthdate is wrong

A BRISBANE priest has uncovered archival evidence revealing significant new information about the life and times of James Quinn, the first Catholic Bishop of Brisbane.

“A lot of what is said about him is not true. He is much misunderstood,” Brisbane Catholic Historical Society’s Fr Chris Hanlon said after spending months sifting through records, letters and reports in Rome.

The Archdiocese of Brisbane is about to celebrate the 200th anniversary of Bishop Quinn’s birthday on March 17, 1819 (St Patrick’s Day) – as a landmark for the Church in Queensland – but it turns out that even that birthdate is wrong.

“He was actually born on April 15, 1819. I think we need to get that right,” Fr Hanlon said. “However, it doesn’t take away from a sense of the foundation of the Church in Queensland and all that has sprung from that.”

Fr Hanlon has uncovered a treasure trove of source material about Irish-born Bishop Quinn, the son of a farmer from County Kildare, who was sent to start seminary life at age 17 in the Irish College in Rome.

Even during his formation, Fr Hanlon’s investigations show Bishop Quinn was identified for higher duties.

After extensive theological and other academic studies, James Quinn was ordained as deacon and priest only a fortnight apart in August 1846, but stayed on in Rome for a further two years to complete a doctorate in divinity.

“Why was Quinn chosen? He was no doubt a bright star but why was he handpicked for further studies?” Fr Hanlon said. 

Fr Hanlon believes Quinn’s good work impressed his superiors, particularly the Irish College rector Cardinal Paul Cullen. 

However, his research also reveals that Cardinal Cullen was related to Quinn – probably his uncle.

“It’s a significant detail. The Irish were always very tribal, even to this day,” Fr Hanlon said, noting that Quinn’s brother, Matthew, became the Bishop of Bathurst in New South Wales.

“It tells you how they trained someone for the priesthood in the 1840s. 

“Also, Cardinal Cullen had a role in the First Vatican Council and was close to Pope Pius IX. 

“That gives you an idea of the circle we are looking at surrounding James Quinn.”

When the Diocese of Brisbane, covering all of Queensland, was created in 1859, Fr Quinn was appointed the first bishop. 

He gathered priests from across Europe and did not arrive in Queensland until 1861.

Bishop Quinn was immediately active in trying to expand the influence of the Church.

He made several long journeys by steamer and on horseback to visit gold-rush towns as far away as Charters Towers and Cooktown.

In Rome, Bishop Quinn’s travels across Queensland must have impressed Church officials. 

Fr Hanlon found archival records detailing his journeys including a memo entry that noted: “This is larger than any European country except Russia”.

Rome documents studied by Fr Hanlon also uncovered a growing rivalry between Bishop Quinn in Brisbane and Benedictine monk John Polding, the Archbishop of Sydney, about the way each man visited around their huge dioceses.

Fr Hanlon said there was little communication between Bishop Quinn and Archbishop Polding because each would write reports about their work, and their letters would be sent direct to Rome along divergent shipping routes. 

Letters were not shared between the two colonies.

“He (Quinn) didn’t have any real liking for Polding anyway,” Fr Hanlon said

“The Benedictines in Sydney said ‘Quinn never writes to us’, whereas Cardinal Palin (in Rome) or the head of propaganda Cardinal Barnibo were getting regular letters from Quinn – because he would just put letters on the boat and they would go home (to Rome).”

Bishop Quinn insisted on a strict diocesan control of Church and school affairs, and it was his authority and style that led to the joke that the colony should not be called Queensland, but Quinn’s Land.

Fr Hanlon has a new theory about the reason Bishop Quinn had strained relations with St Mary MacKillop and the Josephites trying to establish Catholic schools in Queensland. 

He banished the order from Brisbane.

“I believe that Quinn suffered from some form of PTSD,” Fr Hanlon said, pointing to the fact that Bishop Quinn was in Rome in 1870 when Italian troops entered Rome, ending more than 1000 years of papal control over the city.

“He (Quinn) would go down to the place where the fighting was going on. 

“A lot of the people fighting on the papal side were Irish mercenaries for the pope. 

“These Irishmen were getting wounded and dying, and Quinn was in there doing what a priest does. 

“It was after 1870 when Quinn came back to Australia that the trouble starts with Mary MacKillop, or with the Augustinians of the Assumption. 

“He tried to get the Vincentians to come out. They wouldn’t come. The only religious priests in Queensland, believe it or not were the Marists. All the rest were diocesan fellows.

“That was a total difference to the Benedictine-run Church in Australia run from Sydney. 

“In Queensland it was a diocesan-run diocese.

“He (Quinn) couldn’t work with religious people. He tried, but they had their own spirit of institute.

“That’s the dilemma of James Quinn. 

“He tried in so many ways but everything had to be run by the diocese, from Brisbane. He objected to Sydney sticking its nose in and so many people had trouble. It wasn’t only Mary MacKillop.”

Fr Hanlon notes that Bishop Quinn mainly recruited “ex-pat” priests. 

“During his heyday, half of the priests in the Brisbane diocese were not Irish – they were French or Italian,” Fr Hanlon said.

His research also revealed that Irish priests were refusing to work with Italian priests in parts of Brisbane.

“They (Irish priests) can’t understand what they (Italians) are saying, so they refused to work with them,” Fr Hanlon said, referring to documented comments he uncovered.

Fr Hanlon said while much of his research showed Bishop Quinn was “a hard man”, he could also be “a thorough gentleman in the old school”.

“One of the things that made him cry were stories of young nuns who were sent out to the bush and died in isolation or from disease,” he said.

“Quinn said to the Mercy Sisters – ‘you can’t beg because you are worth more than that’. And so the idea of nuns teaching music in the convent was born.

“And yet, Quinn, the man who said that, was the same man who sold raffle tickets for the grand opening of the All Hallows’ School.

“Quinn was very much a man of his time, the late 19th century – for better or worse, Mary MacKillop or no Mary MacKillop.”

Fr Hanlon said he learnt to speak Italian so he could effectively sift through archives in Rome, spending many months doing so. 

The aim of his research is to answer the question “What was the role of the Church in Queensland as it developed in colonial times?”

It may lead to a new book, or published works, through the Brisbane Catholic Historical Society.

“There is so much more to discover,” Fr Hanlon said. “He (Quinn) was an enigma – not the bad man many have thought him to be. He was trained in Rome and sent to a far-flung land.”

Written by: Mark Bowling
Catholic Church Insurance

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