Research in St. Patrick’s Cathedral archives in Melbourne notes that, as a boy, James attended a Mr. Collin’s school in Ballydonoghue, and then All Hallows College in Drumcondra, Dublin. He was ordained by Bishop Whelan on 24 June, 1868 and sailed to Victoria on the Donald McKay, accompanied by a pioneer band of Christian Brothers, arriving on 19 November that same year.
The first years of his ministry were spent at Castlemaine, Kyneton, and Geelong. At Geelong, for three years, Father O’Connell was in charge of the Mansfield mission, then a widely scattered territory, and as a keen and accomplished rider, travelled by horseback to administer to his widespread flock.
In his book My Life in Two Hemispheres, Charles Duffy writes:- A young priest in this district was fond of telling a story, which deserves to outlive the political gossip of the day. He accompanied his bishop on a pastoral visitation, and so pleased the prelate that he made him a gift of a handsome horse he had lent him for the journey. The young priest thought he could not do better than name the horse after the donor, and he called it “The Bishop”. Saddle the bishop, water the bishop, bring out the bishop, became the ordinary language of the stable. After a time the Bishop made a pastoral visit to the parish, and was met at the station and driven home in triumph, and all the notabilities of the district invited to meet him at dinner. As they sat down to table the priest’s groom put his head in at the door demanding, “Might I say a word to your Reverence?” “Not now, Mike, not now, you see I am engaged with his Lordship; come to me when we leave the dining-room.” “It will be too late then, your Reverence.” “You had better hear him at once.” says the bishop good-naturedly. “Go on, Mike, his Lordship permits me to hear you.” “It’s a horrid hot day, your Reverence, and that drive from the railway was killing. Don’t you think I ought to throw a bucket of water over the bishop?”
In 1881 he was appointed by the late Dr Goold to the pastorate of St George’s, Carlton and during the years he was in charge, it is estimated that close on £40,000 was spent in the parish. He was a proficient fundraiser and built the parish church, school and presbytery.
Freeman's Journal. Sydney, NSW. Saturday 25 May 1889. Page 19.
THE POPE AND A TREASURER OF THE NATIONAL LEAGUE.
The Rev. J. H. O’Connell, treasurer for the National League in Victoria, Australia, who is at present on his way to Ireland (says the Roman correspondent of the Catholic Times, April 12), was received in private audience by his Holiness Pope Leo XIII., on Saturday, the 30th March. The Holy Father expressed great pleasure at seeing a priest who has spent twenty years of missionary life in Australia, and desired him to convay to the Catholics of St. George’s, Carlton, the Apostolic Benediction, and a special blessing to each of the confraternities established in his mission.
The Argus, Melbourne, Vic. Monday 24 March 1890. Page 7.
The Rev. J H. O’Connell, who returned on Friday from Europe via Tasmania, was made the recipient of an illuminated address and purse of sovereigns in the evening from the parishioners of Carlton. The presentation took place in St George’s School, which had been tastefully decorated for the occasion. The proceedings opened with a miscellaneous programme of music, under the direction of Mr. Alfred Plumpton, in which Madame Carlotta Tasca, Miss K. Maher, Mr Stockwell, and others took part. A large number of clergymen of the archdiocese were present. At the conclusion of the musical prelude, Mr. M. Sheahan, as chairman of the committee, formally welcomed the rev. gentleman, and begged his acceptance of an address and purse of sovereigns as a mark of friendship and regard, and as an expression of sympathy with him in his sufferings from the accident which befell him on his journey to Rome. The address, which was richly illuminated and framed, was read by the secretary, Mr. D. J. Buckley. Father O’Connell thanked his parishioners for their kind words and presentation, and especially for their sympathy with him in his accident, which was hard to bear in a strange country, but, fortunately, he had good friends in Dr Reville, of Sandhurst, Dr. Moran, of Dunedin, and Monsignor O’Brien, who were most attentive to him. After referring to his interview with the Pope, the speaker alluded to the present position in Ireland. The Rev. Prior Butler having welcomed Father O’Connell on behalf of his clerical brethren, the proceedings closed. During the evening St George’s Brass Band discoursed appropriate music in the church grounds.
In 1894, a large and representative gathering of priests from the several dioceses of Victoria assembled at St. George’s Prebytery, Carlton, to present a gold chalice to the Rev. Father O’Connell, in recognition of his unselfish and generous treatment of the late Father Fitzgerald during his last illness. The Right Rev. Monsignor Hoyne, V.G., Ballarat, occupied the chair and called on the Rev. F. Kearns, the hon. sec., to read the address which was as follows:-
To the Rev. J. H. O’Connell P.P., St. George’s Carlton.
Dear Father O’Connell,—Soon after the death of the late Father Fitzgerald a movement was initiated to mark in some fitting way the admiration and gratitude of your brother priests for your charity and kindness to him during his last illness.
The unique character of this testimonial to a priest from his brother priests must enhance it greatly in your eyes. It will be gratifying to you to know that the clergy in general throughout Victoria joined very heartily in the movement, all expressing their unbound admiration for your priestly and charitable conduct. In Father Fitzgerald we all recognised one of the most exemplary and scholarly priests that ever came to this country. The gift which we ask you to accept in recognition of your truly priestly conduct has the genuine ring of sterling gold.
Be assured, dear Father O’Connell, that the kindly feelings which prompted the gift are no less sterling and genuine. On behalf then, of your clerical friends and brother priests, we wish today to give expression to our admiration of your ever kind and genial manner, your manly sense of duty to God and your fellow men, and your unselfish and generous charity and kindness of heart which ever urge you to be the friend indeed, of those who are fortunate enough to secure your friendship.
For ourselves, then and your thousands of absent friends we wish to place on record our keen appreciation of your truly fraternal charity on a recent sad occasion. It may not be to our credit as a body to have to eulogise your conduct as unusual or exceptional, yet we must confess that we felt and feel proud of you as a true type of the good priest. The warm and active interest you have for years taken and still take, in the charitable institutions of this great city, and in every movement of a philanthropic nature throughout the colony has brought you into contact with every class and creed, and enable you to wield a power and influence for good with Protestants and Catholics alike that any dignitary in the church might well envy.
In conclusion, we hope and pray that length of days and Heavens blessing may enable you for long years yet to come to be as you have ever been, a champion of our cherished faith, and an ornament to the priesthood.
signed, on behalf of the subscribers,
M. FARRELLY, Treasurer.
P. KEARNS, Hon. Secs.
St George’s, Carlton, May 30, 1894.
After the reading of the address all the clergymen present bore testimony in most feeling terms to the regard entertained by the priests in general for the late Father Fitzgerald, and their sense of gratitude to Father O’Connell, who befriended him with true and unselfish charity in the hour of need.
Father O’Connell, who on rising to respond was received with applause, said that he accepted the gift with mingled feelings of sorrow and satisfaction. He could not help thinking that in their generosity they overrated the action he took in regard to their late friend. Looking back on the years he had known the deceased, he must say that in proportion as his knowledge of his character grew year by year so also did his esteem for him as a friend and his respect for him as a priest. He had never known him to be untrue to a friend, or to be guilty of an action unworthy of his high calling as a minister of God.
From The Catholic Press, Thursday 17 December 1914.
Audience With the Holy Father.
The Very Rev. Father J. H. O’Connell, P.P., (Carlton), and the Very Rev. Father W. F. O’Byrne, O.S.A. (Vicar-Provincial, Echuca), were received in audience by the Holy Father, Benedict XV., on October 23. His Holiness received both priests in a most gracious manner.
In 1918 he celebrated his sacerdotal golden jubilee on the Feast of St John the Baptist, when a Solemn High Mass was celebrated by Archbishop Mannix at the Sacred Heart Church, Carlton, on Monday, June 24, at 11 a.m., and his fellow priests gave a dinner to Father O’Connell in the Cathedral Hall at 1 o’clock, presenting him with an illuminated tribute featuring photographs of his church buildings in Carlton. The parishioners of the parish, at a reception in St George’s Hall, Carlton, were anxious to give Father O’Connell a tangible proof of their appreciation of his labours but he declined to accept any personal gift. However the committee erected a stained-glass commemorative window in the Church.
From The Argus, Friday 31 May 1918.
The pastor of St George’s parish, Carlton, the Rev. Father J. H. O’Connell, will attain the golden jubilee of his ordination in a few days, and the occasion is to be suitably celebrated. He will be the first in the archdiocese of Melbourne to reach his jubilee of priesthood. In June, 1868, he was ordained in Ireland, and since November of that year has been attached to the archdiocese of Melbourne. He has laboured in Castlemaine, Kyneton, Geelong, South Melbourne, and Mansfield, and in 1881 was appointed to the pastorate of his present parish.
From The Catholic Press, Thursday 6 June 1918.
The Very Rev, Father J. H. O’Connell, P.P.
On the 24th inst. the Very Rev. Father J. H. O’Connell, of Carlton, Melbourne, will celebrate his golden jubilee. He was ordained at All Hallows on June 24, 1868, and arrived in Melbourne five months later, and began the great work which made him widely known throughout the Commonwealth. During the early days the missions in which he laboured covered vast distances, and the stalwart young priest spent days in the saddle, and became an expert bushman.
Leaving Ireland in 1868, in a sailing vessel named the Donald McKay, Father O’Connell reached Melbourne after a voyage of 84 days. On the same vessel were a community of the Christian Brothers, the first to come to Australia. For a few months after his arrival, Father O’Connell was stationed in Castlemaine, but when the appointments of young priests were made by the late Archbishop Goold, Father O’Connell was sent to Kyneton, where he remained until 1871. At that time Kyneton took in Woodend and East Trentham, and Father O’Connell found much scope for his activities. Afterwards, he was stationed for two years at Emerald Hill (now South Melbourne), and then laboured at Geelong, which was a very extensive mission, stretching across to Little River and Steiglitz on one side and to Queenscliff on the other. The late Archdeacon Slattery, of “Free and Flashing Sword” fame, was then in charge at Geelong.
Father O’Connell used to celebrate his first Mass at Queenscliff, and his second at Drysdale, and he covered the ground between Geelong and those places on horseback. The Very Rev. Dean Hegarty, of Kyneton, was associated with Father O’Connell as a curate at Geelong on those days. For three years Father O’Connell was in charge of the Mansfield mission, then a widely-scattered territory, including Yea, Alexandra, and Marysville, and 30 miles beyond Wood’s Point. It was during this period that Father O’Connell injured his knee while on a visit to Sorrento, and, being unable to ride without difficulty, he was relieved of the trying mission at Mansfield, and resumed duties at Emerald Hill, where for three years he was administrator to the late Dean O’Driscoll.
In 1881 he was appointed the first pastor at Carlton, and has remained in charge of the parish ever since. During those intervening years the parish has greatly expanded under Father O’Connell, and it is well equipped with a stately church, fine presbytery and large schools. The foundation stone of the Sacred Heart Church was laid on June 20, 1897, by the late Archbishop Carr. St. George’s school for boys, conducted by the Christian Brothers, has close on 200 pupils, and the school for girls and infant boys, conducted by the Sisters of Charity, has over 500 pupils. At the two latter plenary councils held in Sydney, Father O’Connell represented the clergy of the archdiocese, and he has frequently been the spokesman for the diocesan clergy at important functions. He holds the important office of examiner to the diocese.
On behalf of our readers, we wish Father O’Connell “multos et felices annos.”
From The Argus, Wednesday 19 June 1918.
In connection with the golden jubilee of the ordination of the Rev. J. H. O’Connell.
Solemn High Mass will be celebrated at the Sacred Heart Church, Carlton, on Monday, June 24, at 11 a.m. Archbishop Mannix will preside. An address from the priest will be read after Mass by Dean Hegarty, of Kyneton, and the priests will give a dinner to Father O’Connell in the Cathedral Hall at 1 o'clock. In the evening the parishioners will hold a reception in St George’s Hall, Carlton.
From The Catholic Press, Thursday 8 January 1920.
His many friends throughout the Commonwealth will regret to learn that the Very Rev. Father James Hennessy O’Connell, parish priest of the Sacred Heart Church, Carlton, Melbourne, died on Sunday afternoon at the presbytery. He was 74 years of age, and was in the 52nd year of his priesthood. Father O’Connell studied at All Hallows College, Drumcondra, Ireland, and was ordained on June 24, 1868. A few months after his ordination he left for Victoria. He travelled in a sailing ship, the Donald McKay, and with him came the famous pioneer band of Christian Brothers. The first years of his ministry were spent at Castlemaine, Kyneton, and Geelong. At Geelong, Dean Hegarty, of Kyneton, and deceased were curates, when the late Archdeacon Slattery was parish priest. For three years Father O’Connell was in charge of the Mansfield mission, then a widely scattered territory, and for three years he was Administrator to the late Dean O’Driscoll, at Emerald Hill (South Melbourne). In 1881 he was appointed by Archbishop Goold to the pastorate of St. George’s, Carlton. and during the years he had charge it is estimated that close on £40,000 was spent in the parish. In 1889 Father O’Connell, with the late Bishop Reville, O.S.A., visited Europe, and at the Plenary Council held in Sydney he represented the clergy of the Melbourne Archdiocese. He held the office of diocesan examiner, and celebrated his sacerdotal golden jubilee on the Feast of St. John the Baptist, June 24, 1918. The parishioners of the parish were anxious to give Father O’Connell a tangible proof of their appreciation of his labours, but he declined to accept any personal gift. However, the committee erected a stained-glass commemorative window in the Church of the Sacred Heart. Father O’Connell took an active interest in St. Joseph’s Receiving Home in the parish, which he established, and practically maintained in its early struggling days.
Father O'Connell’s remains were removed to the Sacred Heart Church, and the members of the H.A.C.B. Society kept watch in the church on Monday and Tuesday. The Solemn Office and Requiem Mass was celebrated at the Sacred Heart Church on Wednesday, at which his Grace Archbishop Mannix presided, and there was a very large assemblage of priests and laity. The late Father O’Connell was an able administrator, and a striking personality. Few priests were better known in Australia, and his great work in this country for upwards of 50 years will long keep his memory green in the minds, not only of those who knew and loved him, but in those who can appreciate the zeal and difficulties of the pioneer priests.— R.I.P.
On his death on 4 January, 1920, aged 75, Father O’Connell's remains were removed to the Sacred Heart Church and the members of the H.A.C.B.S. kept watch in the church for two nights. The requiem took place in the Sacred Heart Church on Wednesday morning. The solemn dirge began at half past 10 a.m. at which Archbishop Mannix presided. There was a very large assemblage of priests and laity.
From The Freemans Journal, Thursday 8 January 1920.
Last week the “Freeman” announced that the Very Rev. Father James Hennessy O’Connell, P.P. (Carlton), the senior priest of the Melbourne archdiocese, was in a dying state. The end came on Sunday, 4th inst. He had attained the ripe age of 75 years and the fifty-second year of his priesthood. The late Father O’Connell celebrated his golden sacerdotal jubilee on June 24, 1918. There was a distinguished assemblage of prelates and priests, his Grace the Archbishop of Melbourne (the Most Rev. Dr. Mannix) presiding, the Bishop of Sandhurst (the Right Rev. Dr. M’Carthy) being also present. Some sixty priests assisted in the choir.
In the course of a graceful tribute the Archbishop said: — “I think it is only fitting that on this great day of your jubilee I should offer you a few words of personal congratulation. Indeed, I am also privileged to offer you congratulations from far and near. Our Holy Father the Pope, even in the midst of all his present cares and anxieties, has not been unmindful of you in this great day of your life, nor unmindful of the great services which you at this end of the world have rendered to him and to the Church over which he rules. Over the waters today the Holy Father sends to you on your jubilee day his heartfelt congratulations and his paternal and abundant blessing. I have, therefore, the great pleasure and privilege of conveying to you the felicitations and the benediction of the Father of Christendom. I think I may also offer you the congratulations of the whole episcopate of Australia. You are well known to every member of the Hierarchy, and by everyone to whom you are known you are deeply and deservedly respected. On behalf of the Bishops of this Province especially, I offer you warm congratulations and good wishes. . . . I am confident that every word of the priests’ address, no matter how eulogistic it may be, finds an echo in the heart of every priest here to-day.” The priests’ address; was signed by Dean Hegarty, P.P., V.F., the late Father Robinson, and by Father A. May (the present parish priest of Clifton Hill). Father O’Connell replied at length.
Father O’Connell was ordained in All Hallows College on June 24, 1868. He reached Melbourne in the following November. The voyage from Ireland to Australia took 84 days to accomplish. What a contrast to that by aeroplane to-day, the journey being accomplished in 28 days, only six of which were occupied in actual flying at an average of 90 miles an hour! He came on the sailing ship Donald M’Kay, an illustration of which he prized highly. With him came a pioneer band of Christian Brothers. Father O’Connell spent nearly 52 golden years in the Archdiocese of Melbourne under three great prelates — Archbishop Goold, Archbishop Carr and the patriotic Irish-Australian, Archbishop Mannix. (We say “Irish-Australian” because his Grace has a warm corner in his big heart for the land of his adoption. He labored successfully in Castlemaine, Kyneton, Emerald Hill, Geelong and Mansfield. In 1881 he was appointed parish priest of St. George’s, Carlton, where the fruits of his 38 years’ labors can be seen in the fine church, which cost £20,000, boys’ and girls’ schools, and presbytery.
The members of the H.A.C.B. Society kept watch before the remains on Monday and Tuesday evenings.
On Wednesday at 10.30 a.m. his Grace the Archbishop of Melbourne (the Most Rev. Dr. Mannix) presided at the Requiem in the Church of the Sacred Heart, Carlton, and paid a graceful tribute to the deceased priest. There was a large attendance of the clergy and laity. The remains were placed in the vaults beneath the mortuary chapel in the Melbourne general cemetery. — R.I.P.
From the Argus.
St. George's Church, Carlton, was densely crowded yesterday morning for the Requiem for the late Very Rev. James H. O’Connell, who had charge of the parish for 38 years. Archbishop Mannix presided and Bishop McCarthy (Bendigo) was also present. Dr Mannix was attended by the Right Rev. Monsignor Shanahan, P.P. (Hamilton) and the Very Rev. Dean Coyne, V.G. (Leongatha). The solemn dirge began at half past 10 a.m. The chanters were - Rev W O’Sullivan, B.A., Rev. P. O’Brien, Rev. J. F. Egan, and Rev. M. J. Hayes. Amongst the clergy parochial and regular, who numbered over 100, representatives from the dioceses of Ballarat, Bendigo and Sale, while Rev. J. Cullen, B.A. (Hobart) and Rev. A. McDonald, S.M. (Wellington N.Z.) were also present.
At the conclusion of the High Mass of Requiem, Archbishop Mannix paid a tribute to the life and labours of Father O’Connell, in the course of which he said he wished most earnestly to ask their prayers for the repose of the soul of the departed priest. That was a remarkable demonstration of the esteem and affection in which Father O’Connell was held. The friends of his youth-he never lost a friend-friends of his later years, had also come to pay their tribute to his memory. It was telling that his remains should rest in his parish church. He wished to thank the public anthorities for giving the gracious concession of allowing the remains to be buried in the church which Father O’Connell loved so much. He (the speaker) was glad that public men with whom Father O’Connell had been associated in charitable work were present to pay a tribute to his memory, and to acknowledge his worth as a citizen.
After the appointed prayers had been said over the remains, the funeral procession left the church, and proceeded through Rathdown, Grattan, Lygon, and Queensberry streets, and back through Rathdown street to the church, where the coffin was placed in the vault beneath the Lady Chapel. The prelates, priests, acolytes, Children of Mary, members of the H.A.C.B.S., C.Y.M.S., and other organisations took part in the funeral procession.
In 1927 a new Roman Catholic school was erected in Carlton as a memorial to the late Rev. J. H. O’Connell, the former pastor. Archbishop Mannix laid the foundtion stone on Sunday, January 16.