Recalling Daniel Mannix

Review Essay on Patrick Morgan’s new book on Mannix by Brenda Niall

Patrick Morgan The Mannix Era: Melbourne Catholic Leadership 1920-1970. Connor Court Publishing 2018 pbk. pp. 304

ISBN: 9781925826166

RRP: $29.95

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At a time when many Melbourne Catholics, and Catholics everywhere, are traumatised by the clerical abuse scandal, it is a strange experience to read Patrick Morgan’s deft and informed history of our immediate past. Morgan looks at the period between 1920 and 1970. His theme is leadership, and Archbishop Mannix is the undisputed leader.

Morgan gives a good sense of what it was like to be part of the emerging Catholic middle class. Mannix set a high value on education. Part of his mission was to lead his people from their impoverished underclass status as Irish immigrants so as to become equal members of the Melbourne community. Mannix also fostered the various religious institutions that looked after the sick and the poor. Catholics moved into tertiary education in large numbers. Residencies (often generous scholarships) at Newman College helped to found the careers of barristers and judges, medical practitioners and consultants. St Vincent’s Hospital, directed by the Sisters of Charity, grew to a significant institution that did not need to defer to the Royal Melbourne or the Alfred Hospitals.

Meantime, the diocesan seminary was flourishing, as were the many congregations of priests, nuns and brothers. Right up to the 1960s, religious vocations continued to draw large numbers of dedicated, talented and hard-working men and women. Daniel Mannix looked more than likely to reach his hundredth birthday in March 1964. His death in November 1963, while still in office, occasioned many a backward glance of pride in his immense achievement.

Because my own background is similar to Morgan’s, I read many pages with the pleasure of awakened memory. My father and Morgan’s father were friends and colleagues at St Vincent’s Hospital. But as I followed the progress of the hospital, I missed some familiar names. Where, for example, is Mother Gonzaga Considine, the rectress who steered St Vincent’s through the difficult, understaffed war years? Or Sister Philippa of the Mercy Hospital? These women were household names to me as I was growing up. I checked the index. Not there.

Morgan’s book is richly personal. It is written with considerable charm and an acerbic wit. But to read it in 2019 is to be overwhelmed by its masculinist perspective. Women come in as incidental members of a family of high-achieving men. Thus, Dr Kathleen Galbally gets a mention as part of the Galbally-O’Bryan clan. Mary Parker’s brief, sparkling career on stage and screen in 1950s London, and her subsequent role as interviewer and news reader on Australian television, are reduced to one line; she is placed as wife of painter Paul Fitzgerald and sister of Prince Philip’s friend and equerry Michael Parker. Patricia Kennedy’s extraordinary record on stage, film and radio over seventy years doesn’t rate her a mention. The influential stage director, Maie Hoban, whose Pilgrim Theatre in East Melbourne gave many Australian actors their start, is another notable absence in Morgan’s discussion of the arts.

Who else has gone missing or been obscured? Prehistorian John Mulvaney, philosopher Max Charlesworth and poet Vincent Buckley are shown as undoubted leaders in their academic fields. Each of them won Mannix Travelling Scholarships for post-graduate study overseas. But there is no mention of Emeritus Professor Mary Hiscock, who fits into Morgan’s time frame. Hiscock had her schooling at Genazzano Convent. In 1962, recently graduated, she was the first woman appointed to a full-time teaching position in the Melbourne University Law School; and in 1972 she was the first woman to reach the rank of Reader in the same Law School. Aided by a Ford Foundation grant, Hiscock did her doctorate in Chicago, and today is an internationally acclaimed authority on Asian law.

A very important omission is Emeritus Professor Margaret Manion, brilliant medievalist scholar and author, a Loreto nun who did postgraduate work at the University of Melbourne in 1962, became Professor of Fine Arts at the University of Melbourne in 1972, and was the first woman to chair the university’s academic board.

Although the Mannix era saw a huge increase in the numbers of nuns working in schools and hospitals, they are almost invisible as individuals. Yet much depended on their quality of leadership. They needed managerial and diplomatic skills of a high order. Mother Mary McKillop and Dr Mary Glowrey are our stars but there were others in the firmament. Mother Mary Patricia O’Neill, superior-general of the Mercy order was a notable mover and shaper: generations of teaching and nursing nuns were trained and deployed during her long period of authority.

Nuns of the Mannix period exerted a great deal of power, but the cult of personality, which embraced bishops and archbishops, didn’t extend to women in religious orders. A 1928 photograph says it all. The scene is a garden party at the Catholic college for women at the University of Melbourne, St Mary’s Hall. Dr Mannix stands with the Premier of Victoria, the Lord Mayor, the Apostolic Delegate, the rector of Newman College and the chancellor of the university. The Lord Mayor’s wife is just fitted in, at the edge of the row. The college principal, Mother Patrick Callanan IBVM, isn’t in the picture.

‘Prominent Catholic laymen’ flourished in Mannix’s Melbourne. ‘Laywomen’? Very few. Morgan notes lawyer Anna Brennan – again a member of a prominent family – and Dame Mary Daly, the dynamic leader of the Catholic Welfare Organisation during World War Two.

Patrick Morgan knew a very large number of the Catholic clergy and laymen whose achievements he rightly celebrates. Doctors and lawyers predominate. Morgan doesn’t discuss the public service, in which many Catholics found careers and some exercised real power, as did Sir John Dillon, head of the Chief Secretary’s Department from 1961 and Victoria’s first Ombudsman. Sport, which gave heroes and role models, seems underdone. Collingwood’s Jock McHale appears, in the John Wren orbit, but not Richmond’s John Kennedy, nor Test cricketer ‘Chuck’ Fleetwood-Smith.

The great strength of this book comes from Patrick Morgan’s skilful disentangling of the threads of politics and religion, where the Catholic Church and the Australian Labour Party were in a close but often mutually hostile relationship. On B.A.Santamaria’s anti-Communist ‘Movement’ and its role in the 1950s A.L.P Split, Morgan is not unduly partisan though his often rueful admiration for Santamaria shines through. Morgan’s appreciation of Arthur Calwell’s gifts and misfortunes is generously and warmly expressed, as is his sympathy for Archbishop Justin Simonds, Mannix’s unwanted coadjutor, caught in the crossfire between Mannix and the Apostolic Delegate.

Like many others, Morgan is fascinated by elusive, seemingly all-powerful, Mannix, and by B.A. Santamaria who became Mannix’s protégé, confidant and close friend. Who was in control?, he asks. In accounts of the ALP Split, Santamaria is seen as prime mover yet he acted with Mannix’s unfailing support. Morgan gets past the chronicle of events to discuss each man’s strengths and weaknesses. He shows their capacity to charm and to infuriate. Surprisingly, he doesn’t discuss their opposed views on Vatican Two reforms.

Just months before his death, Mannix sent his response to the Vatican Two document, De Ecclesia which he deplored for its legalism and clericalism. He thought it reflected ‘hardness and perhaps even pride.’ He expressed disappointment that the document had nothing to say about the obligation of the church to provide religious liberty to all people of good will. Drafted for Mannix by a future archbishop Eric d’Arcy, then a young scholar-priest of the diocese, the document was sent to six cardinals who had emerged as high profile progressives – Cardinals Suenens of Malines and Dopfner of Munich among them – at Vatican Council sessions. The letters that accompanied them were vintage Mannix, an old man speaking de haut en bas to younger churchmen, encouraging them to press for change.

Locked away in a safe in the archives at St Patrick’s Cathedral, unknown or perhaps unwelcome, copies of these letters were discovered in 2013 when, as a Mannix biographer, I struck lucky while looking for something else. They complicate Morgan’s picture of the old man looking back sadly to the Ireland he had not seen since 1925. Granted, the regret and hurt of his rejection in Ireland were still deeply felt, but the Vatican Council letters show Mannix’s intellectual energy and his capacity for renewal. It is often said that he lived too long, but it may be that he didn’t live long enough. For the Vatican reforms to reshape his diocese, strong leadership was needed.

Morgan aptly describes the structure of Mannix’s Melbourne as ‘an oldfashioned power vertical’. After Mannix’s death, there was considerable tidying up but no real leadership. Morgan’s study shows the pleasures of living in a close-knit world, rather than the inevitable limitations. He writes in a spirit of gratitude to the past generations, who deserve their place in the sun. The warmth with which he recalls their achievements may be timely in these difficult days.

Brenda Niall AO is the author of more than a dozen books, including The Riddle of Father Hackett, True North (the story of the Durack women) and a number of works on the Boyd family of artists and writers. In 2016, she was awarded the Australian LIterature Society Gold Medal for her biography of Daniel Mannix. Her most recent book  was Can You Hear the Sea? My grandmother’s story (2018). Her next book, Friends and Rivals: the writing lives of Ethel Turner, Barbara Baynton, Henry Handel Richardson and Nettie Palmer is due from Text Publishing in late 2019.

One thought on “Recalling Daniel Mannix

  1. Such a pity when women are left out of history and the important role so many played as Catholics during this period is ignored. So pleasing that Brenda Niall has highlighted this omission. A great review. Looking forward to reading ‘The Mannix Era’.

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