McENCROE, JOHN (1794-1868), Catholic priest and archdeacon, was born on 26 December 1794 in Ardsallagh, near Cashel, County Tipperary, Ireland, son of William McEncroe and Mary D'Arcy. Two years later his father was killed in an accident. One of the children of his mother's second marriage was Teresa Walsh, later to become a Sister of Charity working in the same Australian mission as her brother.
McEncroe was educated at Flynn's Grammar School. Wishing to become a priest he entered the seminary of Maynooth and was ordained in 1819. In 1822 he volunteered to go to the American mission with Bishop England of Baltimore, whose liberalism and enterprise had greatly influenced him.
He was also deeply impressed by the striking contrast between American democracy and the repressive conditions he had known in Ireland. McEncroe became editor of England's United States Catholic Miscellany. Convinced by his American experience of the need of a Catholic press, he was later to establish in Sydney in 1850 the Catholic Freeman's Journal.
McEncroe returned to Ireland in 1829. In 1832, at the suggestion of J. H. Plunkett, newly appointed solicitor-general to New South Wales, McEncroe became the official chaplain of the Catholics of Australia. Father J. J. Therry had recently been deprived of his official status because of his numerous clashes with the colonial government. It is a monument to McEncroe's patience, tact and sympathy that he won and retained the friendship of the irascible pioneer priest until his death in 1864.
During his first ten years in the colony McEncroe spent much of his time and energy in caring for convicts, with whom he had considerable influence. He volunteered for Norfolk Island where he was chaplain from 1838 to 1842. Towards the end of his chaplaincy his concern for the convicts prompted him to write a number of letters to Governor Gipps describing the administration of the commandants from Anderson to Maconochie.
He hoped these first-hand descriptions would be a guide to Gipps and perhaps the Colonial Office. Though he admired Maconochie, he felt his system was a failure because he was too lenient and too easily deceived. Indeed, he was strenuously opposed to the entire system of transportation because it failed to reform the convict and brought social and political evils to the colony.
Remarkable for His Moderation
In Sydney McEncroe was a familiar figure on the public platform. In his forthright, racy style he advocated the rights of the working man and opposed the demands of the squatters on such issues as the Constitution, the revival of transportation, and land policy.
He was a prominent member of benevolent societies, whether religious or secular, and a pioneer and apostle of the temperance movement; for many years the direction of Catholic education was his responsibility.
His most valuable contribution in this field was the introduction of the Sisters of Mercy and the Marist Brothers into his parish schools. In securing the services of religious teachers he was paving the way for Vaughan's decision of 1879.
Within the church in Australia he wanted more priests and teaching orders, and above all the creation of new sees under Irish bishops. However, his friend and superior, Archbishop Polding, dreamed of a flourishing colonial church under the care of his own order of English Benedictines.
But the Catholic population in the colony was overwhelmingly Irish and these and the secular clergy resented the English Benedictines. The bitter struggle that ensued reached its peak in 1858-59, and the main medium for the Irish attack on the Benedictines, directed chiefly at the vicar-general, Abbot Gregory, was the Freeman's Journal.
McEncroe, no longer personally responsible for the Journal, condemned the offensive articles that appeared in it but refused to condemn the paper itself. This estranged him from his archbishop though fundamentally they remained friends. Throughout this struggle McEncroe never compromised his personal integrity and it was his line of argument that Rome eventually followed.
He died on 22 August 1868 at St Patrick's, Church Hill, where he had been parish priest since 1861. He had one of the biggest funerals ever seen in the colony and his remains are interred with those of Therry and Polding in the crypt of St Mary's Cathedral, Sydney.
Two loves inspired McEncroe's life and directed all his energies: his church and his fellow-countrymen. In an age of bitter sectarianism and extreme nationalism, he was remarkable for his moderation and respect for opinions different from his own. These qualities, and his evident sincerity, won him the esteem and affection of Protestants and Catholics alike.
- Guilday, P., The Life and Times of John England … (1786-1842), vol. 1-2 (New York, 1927).
- Rigney, J., An Account of the Life and Missionary Labours of the Late Archdeacon McEncroe (Sydney, 1868).
- Watson, F. (ed.), Historical Records of Australia. Series I. Governors' Despatches to and from England. 1788-1848, Library Committee of the Commonwealth Parliament (Sydney, 1914-1925).
Copyright © P. K. Phillips Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 2