Gleeson for web.jpg
Date of Birth: 24/12/1920
Date of Death: 21/03/2000
Date of Ordination: 25/07/1945
Date of Installation: 01/05/1971

Archbishop James William Gleeson


Early life

James William Gleeson was born in Balaklava, a town in the mid-north of South Australia, on December 24, 1920. The son of John Joseph Gleeson and Margaret Mary O’Connell, he was the third born of six children – the elder brother of Thomas, John and Ray and the younger brother of Mary. Their first child died soon after birth. James was baptised in St Andrew’s Church, Balaklava by Fr T.P. Davis on December 29, 1920.


He received his primary education at the state school at Bowillia, 30 kilometres north of Balaklava. In 1932 he gained the Qualifying Certificate at the end of his primary education. He then continued at Bowillia school for two more years, assisting the sole teacher in tutoring the younger pupils and at the same time helping on the family farm, a property of 182 hectares devoted to mixed farming – crops, sheep, pigs and cows. The family really struggled financially.

In 1936 James resumed his education with the Sisters of St Joseph at Balaklava. He completed the requirements for the intermediate certificate (a three-year course) in one year and was then awarded a scholarship to Sacred Heart College. His priestly studies, commencing in 1938, were undertaken at Corpus Christi College, Werribee, Victoria,

James Gleeson was ordained on July 25, 1945 by Archbishop Matthew Beovich in St Francis Xavier’s Cathedral. He was one of 11 ordained to the priesthood that day. This was the largest ordination ceremony in the history of the Archdiocese – nine were Passionists, Fr James Gleeson and Fr John O’Donohue were ordained for the Archdiocese.


Fr Gleeson was appointed as an assistant priest in the Cathedral parish in December 1945. In 1947 he went to the Mercy Teachers’ Training College in Melbourne for a course which required one year of academic work followed by a year of teaching experience before applying for registration. On his return in 1948 Fr Gleeson was appointed Inspector of Catholic primary schools in the Archdiocese of Adelaide. This was accepted as satisfying the requirement for teaching experience and he obtained a teacher’s certificate in September 1948. He continued as Inspector of Catholic schools in the Archdiocese of Adelaide until 1952 when he succeeded Monsignor William Russell as Director of Catholic Education, a position he held until December 1958.

Auxiliary Bishop

On February 15, 1957, Gleeson was appointed as an auxiliary bishop to Archbishop Beovich with the titular see of Sesta in Caesarian Mauretania. He was the first diocesan priest of the Adelaide Archdiocese to be appointed a bishop. On May 21, 1957 he was consecrated by Archbishop Beovich, assisted by Bishop Brian Gallagher of Port Pirie and Bishop Fox. On July 6, 1964, Pope Paul VI made James Gleeson a Coadjutor Archbishop (titular see of Aurusuliana) with the right to succeed Archbishop Beovich.

When Archbishop Beovich, aged 75, retired on May 1, 1971, Fr Gleeson became Archbishop of Adelaide and Metropolitan of the Province of Adelaide. In January 1973 Fr Philip Kennedy was appointed Auxiliary Bishop, however he died rather suddenly in March 1983. Later in 1983 Fr Leonard Faulkner was appointed Coadjutor Archbishop. In September the following year Archbishop Gleeson suffered a serious heart attack and was admitted to the Royal Adelaide Hospital. He was re-admitted in October and underwent open-heart surgery. At the end of February 1985 Archbishop Gleeson resumed his duties but, conscious of his failing health, submitted his resignation from the office of Archbishop of Adelaide to Pope John Paul II on March 25, 1985. This was accepted and became effective on June 19, 1985. The Archbishop publicly announced his retirement at the annual Marian procession on May 5, 1985. His title in retirement was ‘Emeritus Archbishop of Adelaide’.

The man

James Gleeson was a practical, down-to-earth person who never forgot the lessons of his formative years. In the seminary he was appointed Kitchen Prefect during the Second War World when the students were responsible for most of the domestic duties. He rose at 5am to stoke the boilers. Some of the students cut down trees to supply wood for the boilers and Jim Gleeson purchased an old motor vehicle for £5 and adapted its engine to power a circular saw.

In 1959 Archbishop Beovich encouraged and assisted the Young Christian Workers (YCW) to purchase and renovate a house on Ayers Hill Road, Stirling, in the Adelaide Hills. The house, which cost £10,000, was to be a training centre for YCW leaders and the young people gave many hours of voluntary labour to put the property in order. They were impressed by the efforts of Bishop Gleeson who frequently on Mondays, the traditional clergy day off, assisted the project and even helped to dig the pit required for the septic tank. Archbishop Beovich officially opened the training centre in March1960.

The young people who frequented the Centre got to know Bishop Gleeson very well – even more so after the Second Vatican Council of 1962-1965. The YCW executive spent prime time with him, hearing his personal experiences as well as learning the outcomes the Council decisions.

While Bishop Gleeson did not attend all sessions of the Vatican Council he was certainly imbued with the Spirit of the Council and enthusiastic in his efforts to implement the outcomes. Each time he returned home with vast energy and enthusiasm and spent time with priests, parishes, schools and Church groups sharing the deliberations of the Council, especially when some Decree was promulgated. For lay people the special ones were the Constitution on the Church in the Modern World and the Decree on the Laity. Many of those young YCW people later became very committed and active in serving the Church and God’s people.

At the Student Induction Ceremony at Gleeson College in October 2009, 28 young men and women were brought forward as leaders of the college for 2010. Each was presented with a colourful tea towel – a symbol to encourage the leaders, in imitation of Archbishop Gleeson, to contribute to the welfare of the community and to relate in a meaningful way to all involved in the college.

A man of prayer

James Gleeson was a man of prayer. He once said: ‘I usually try to have an hour of reflective prayer each day, as well as celebrating holy Mass, and reciting Divine Office, the prayer of the Church.’  Each year he made an eight-day retreat a priority. After Bishop Leonard Faulkner returned to Adelaide in 1983 he shared a day of prayer and reflection with Archbishop Gleeson four times each year. Archbishop Gleeson cherished and frequently reflected on two passages from the scriptures. One was the passage from the prophet Micah: ‘This is what God asks of you, to act justly, to love tenderly and to walk humbly with your God’ (Mic.6:8); the other, the passage in St John’s gospel, where Jesus charged Peter to feed his lambs and sheep (Jn. 21:15-17).

A pastoral bishop

James Gleeson was a very pastoral bishop who sought to be in touch with parishes and people. The obituary in The Australian, said of Archbishop Gleeson: ‘No mean hand as an administrator, he never allowed that aspect of his responsibilities to smother his role as a pastor.’

When making the canonical visitation of parishes, apart from the legal requirements, he sought to reach out to the priests and individual parishioners. He had a gift for remembering names which was a great asset. He had a good relationship with his priests, a real fatherly concern, especially for anyone in trouble. He was also very caring toward the Religious of the diocese.

He was consultative leader. He sought advice and he usually listened to it. In response to the call of the Second Vatican Council many consultative bodies were set up – Diocesan and Parish Pastoral Councils, Council of Priests, Diocesan Liturgical Commission and SA Catholic Schools Commission, etc.

In an interview published in The Southern Cross, in response to one question he said: ‘I like to draw a distinction between the taking of decisions and the making of decisions.’ He asserted that before publicly announcing some policy the bishop needed to consult with people with appropriate knowledge and experience. The Archbishop admitted that this manner of proceeding was much more evident since the Second Vatican Council and that it was ‘very demanding on patience and time’. However, he welcomed it as a preferred way of governance.

He was an enthusiastic contributor to the Diocesan Pastoral Council which was formed in 1968. This was especially so during the Council’s annual live-in meeting where he related in a meaningful way with all participants.


James Gleeson showed great concern for migrants. At the end of World War II many were housed in an army camp at Woodside in the Adelaide Hills. In 1949 he was appointed to care for the Catholic migrants. He arranged for the Dominican Sisters to visit the camp each Sunday and obtained the support of the Legion of Mary to arrange transport. He regularly made the trip to Woodside in his motor vehicle, a Škoda. The migrant children were given religious formation and prepared for the reception of the sacraments. The friends he made during these years with people from such countries as Croatia, Poland and Lithuania remained friends for life. As Bishop and Archbishop he tried to ensure that all migrant groups had chaplains to provide pastoral care and appropriate liturgies for them.

Pro Life Stance

Throughout his ministry James Gleeson was steadfast in his opposition to abortion in any circumstances. He was well aware that there was little chance of changing the law but was conscious of the need for the Church to proclaim the rights of the unborn and the dignity of all human life.

In November 1969 a Bill for an Act to amend the Criminal Law Consolidation Act was introduced Parliament. The opponents of this Bill claimed that if passed it would lead to abortion on demand. In a speech at that time Bishop Gleeson bluntly presented the position of the Catholic Church which asserted the sacredness of human life from conception to natural death: ‘The difference between the gas chambers of Belsen and Auschwitz and the operating theatres and incinerators of the abortionists is only one of capacity and rate of destruction.’ The Bill, despite stiff opposition, was passed by the Legislative Council a few days later. But he continued to be outspoken in his opposition to abortion.

He wrote to the editor of the daily newspaper, The Advertiser, noting that the following day, December 28, was the Feast of the Holy Innocents and he called on all citizens to ‘observe a day of prayer in atonement and sorrow for the unborn who have died as a result of abortion in SA.’ A year after the passing of the abortion legislation, Archbishop Beovich, in a circular, urged the priests to promote the Feast of the Holy Innocents as a day of atonement for the destruction of the unborn in the community. This custom is still observed today.

Gleeson’s insistence that abortion was the destruction of the most defenceless of human beings was only one aspect of his ‘passion for justice’. The eulogy in The Australian, headed ‘Pastor’s path lit by passion for justice’, stated: ‘His passion for the rights of Aboriginal and Islander people, migrants and refugees was constant and this from a country boy whose rise in the hierarchy of the Church never diminished his pastoral love for ordinary people.’


Before the Second Vatican Council ecumenism was not a priority for the Catholic Church. Gleeson shared the dominant Catholic view of the time: ecumenism meant other Christians joining the true fold of Christ and becoming Catholics. The Second Vatican Council in approving the Decree on Ecumenism (Unitatis Redintegratio) on November 21, 1964 called for a change in attitude.

Bishop Gleeson insisted that the Catholic view was still valid but oversimplified. He preferred to speak of the unity among Christians effected ‘through the sharing of the life of Christ in baptism by which we became brothers’. He asserted that the presence of non-Catholic observers at the Council had been a constant reminder of the tragic disunity of Christians and quoted the Council’s words that ‘such division openly contradicts the will of Christ, scandalises the world, and damages that most holy cause, the preaching of the Gospel to every creature’.

At a public meeting, jointly sponsored by the Catholic Church and the South Australian Council of Churches in September 1968, Gleeson reasserted the belief of the Catholic Church that it was the true Church founded by Jesus Christ. But, he added, “the Council had gone beyond this by recognising that Jesus Christ, through his Holy Spirit, was at work in the Churches and communities beyond the visible limits of the Catholic Church”.

In April 1975 the Lutheran-Catholic Dialogue, authorised by the Lutheran Church and the Australian Bishops Conference, commenced in Adelaide and James Gleeson took a leading role in these discussions. Bishop Gleeson attended most meetings, held four times a year and leading to a number of joint statements on Baptism, Eucharist, Ordained Ministry, Scripture and Tradition, Justification etc. Gleeson formed a close relationship with many Lutheran leaders, as well as other Church leaders.

He was one of the organisers of the Heads of Churches in SA who often met at Archbishop’s House, West Terrace. He was also noted for his outreach to the Jewish community. He consistently asserted that ecumenism was not an ‘optional extra’ for Catholics.

Archbishop Gleeson also voiced his strong opposition to all forms of racism, particularly towards the Aboriginal community.  He showed great courage in asserting standards that he knew were opposed by large and vocal sections of the community.

Cor Unum

This is a Pontifical Council to promote human and Christian development, established by Pope Paul VI in 1971. Pope Paul VI appointed Archbishop Gleeson to Cor Unum in November 1971 and re-appointed him in 1977.  Archbishop Gleeson attended the first meeting of the super-agency in January 1972. He described the work of the Council as having given ‘a new strength and harmony to all the Church’s attempts to make the loving hands and face of Christ present to those who are suffering’.

James Gleeson had long been a champion of aid to those in need. The Second Vatican Council’s ‘Pastoral Constitution on the Church in the Modern World’ (Gaudium et Spes) and the 1967 encyclical letter of Pope Paul VI, ‘On the Development of Peoples’ (Populorum Progressio) provided a new stimulus in this area.

Leadership in Liturgy

Archbishop Gleeson was quite enthusiastic about the implementation of the Vatican Council decrees on liturgy. He had a strong and active Diocesan Liturgical Commission, including several laity, to help promote the changes introduced following Vatican II. He was one of those who really encouraged the Australian Bishops Conference to allow Communion in the hand, Communion under both kinds and the acceptance of both men and women as Extraordinary Ministers of the Eucharist.

Sacrament of Reconciliation – third form

The Congregation for Divine Worship issued the Ordo Paenitentiae in December 1973. The new Ordo provided for three forms of the sacrament: the third form, under certain conditions, allowed a number of penitents to be absolved in a group after a general confession of sin. Archbishop Gleeson promoted the third form and prepared for its implementation more systematically and with greater enthusiasm than other bishops. Two sessions of a seminar for priests were conducted in August 1975; a seminar for religious was held in November; in February 1976 he spoke to about 110 persons who were to be leaders of parish study groups; on Sunday March 7, 1976 homilies at all Masses addressed the new rite of penance and encouraged attendance at the study programs. In April 1976, Gleeson issued pastoral guidelines for the celebration of the third form of penance in the Archdiocese of Adelaide. They had been approved by Cardinal Knox, Prefect of the Congregation for Divine Worship in a letter dated November 6, 1976. From 1976 until 1999 the Archdiocese celebrated the third form, especially during Advent and Lent, and these were always well attended.

When Archbishop Faulkner succeeded Gleeson in June 1985 he continued the policy of celebrating the third form of reconciliation in Advent and Lent. Then came the Statement of Conclusions at the end of the Australian bishops’ ad limina visit in 1998 which condemned the ‘illegitimate use of general absolution’. Sadly permissions for the use of the third form of the rite are now very rarely given.

As an Administrator

One of Archbishop Gleeson’s great strengths was the involvement of lay people in positions of leadership in the life of the Church. Not only was he one of the first to establish a Diocesan Pastoral Council, he also encouraged all parishes to have a Parish Pastoral Council. In 1983 he launched a Diocesan Pastoral Renewal program.

In 1972 he formed the Sites Development Committee of the Archdiocese of Adelaide to help oversee various development projects. In an effort to provide financial security for the diocese Archbishop Gleeson asked the Adelaide City Council May 1973, if it would approve a 19-storey office tower, to be known as the Cathedral Precinct Tower, on the site adjacent to the Cathedral. From the lease of this building he wanted to enable the Church to continue to provide services for the Church and the wider community. This application was not successful. Subsequently a Diocesan Centre, including some leased area, was built at 39 Wakefield Street on the other side of the Cathedral. Ironically while he was unable to achieve his aim, in later years the idea came to fruition with the building of the multi-storey office tower at the rear of the Cathedral which is now leased to SA Water.


On June 12, 1958, Queen Elizabeth II appointed Bishop Gleeson a Companion of the Most Distinguished Order of St Michael and St George (CMG), ‘for service as Director of Catholic Education in South Australia’. He also received a Fellowship of the Australian College of Education (FACE), he was one of 200 Queen’s Silver Jubilee Medals, given to leaders in South Australia for service to the community. On January 26, 1979 Gleeson was made an Officer of the Order of Australia (AO) for ‘service to religion and social welfare’.  While still a young priest he was awarded, by ‘Command of Her Majesty the Queen’, a medal to be worn in commemoration of the Coronation of Queen Elizabeth II on June 2, 1953. Even at this early stage of his career his talents, it seems, were appreciated.

The Archbishop was also honoured when his name was attached to various buildings and projects. There was Gleeson Hall at Mercedes College in Springfield, where he was the first chaplain (1954-57), Gleeson House at St Paul’s College, Gilles Plains, Aquinas College, the Catholic residential college at the University of Adelaide, in 1984 named one of its buildings Gleeson House. The Gleeson Library opened in 1985 at St Francis Xavier’s Seminary. Gleeson College, a coeducational secondary school, began in 1989 in the northern suburb of Golden Grove.


The dominant characteristic of Gleeson was his commitment to pastoral care. He was also passionately committed to proclaiming the sacredness of human life. In line with the call of the Second Vatican Council he embraced with enthusiasm the ecumenical cause and also inter-faith outreach. It seems that he was unique in Australia, in his efforts to promote and prepare for the third form of the rite of penance.

After he retired because of ill-health in 1985, Archbishop Gleeson continued to live at ‘Ennis’, his residence at Medindie, in inner-suburban Adelaide. For the next 15 years he was a gracious host to the many meetings there and he welcomed people who came to spend time in spiritual conversation. He also spent a lot of time visiting the sick. He was a regular visitor at Calvary Hospital, the Royal Adelaide Hospital and many of the Convents around the city. He thought he was very blessed to have these years for purely pastoral work in caring for the elderly, the sick and the dying.

He died on March 21, 2000, at his residence where he had risen early to spend time in prayer before going to celebrate Mass for the Sisters of Mercy at their Angas Street convent.

A Vigil Service was held in St Francis Xavier’s Cathedral on Sunday March 26, 2000 and the concelebrated Funeral Mass, attended by many of his brother bishops, was celebrated the following day. The Principal Celebrant was Archbishop Faulkner who also delivered the homily. The burial was in West Terrace Cemetery, Adelaide.

May he rest in peace.

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