Bishop Joseph Shiel – Bishop of Rockhampton, Australia.

The fourth bishop of Rockhampton, Australia, was a native of the parish of Kilmessan/Dunsany. Joseph Sheil was born at Swainstown, Kilmessan, County Meath, on 17 February 1873. The surname was spelled Sheil by his parents and family and then in Australia it was spelled Shiel.

The bishop’s parents came from Westmeath. Richard Sheil married Anne Smyth in Mullingar on 11 June 1859. Their first child, Mary, was born in 1860 and baptised in Mullingar. Their second daughter, Anne, was born in 1864 and baptised in Mullingar. By the birth of their next child, Patrick, the family were living in Multyfarnham. Pat became an engineer in Ohio, America and died in 1930.  There is an Elizabeth Sheil born in Westmeath about 1869 listed as a member of the family in the 1901 census.

Kilmessan School

By 1871 Richard and Anne had moved to Swainstown, Kilmessan, where twins Helen and Richard were born that year. Helen became a Franciscan De Sacre Coeur nun, Mother Mary Etheldreda. She entered the order at Clevedon, England in 1899 and then went to Belgium for a two-year novitiate. She became a missionary in Chefoo, China, and took her Perpetual Vows there in 1907.  She remained in China for the rest of her life working as a sacristan, superior and infirmarian before dying at Ichang, China, in 1932.

Joseph was baptised on 21st February 1873 at Kilmessan Church by the curate, Fr. James Nulty. A note says “Baptised sub conditione” which may suggest that he may have been in danger of death at his birth and he was baptised by the mid-wife. The church in which he was baptised was altered in the 1890s and 1970s but still serves the parish today. John was the next of the family to arrive in 1875 and Margaret in 1877. John established butcher shops on Moore Street and Manor Street, Dublin. Another brother, William, is recorded as attending the 1913 presentation but no trace of his birth can be found.  

Richard worked as a steward/gamekeeper on the Preston estate at Swainstown. Richard Sheil died 29 September 1894 aged 63 years. The family then moved to Lower Exchange Street, Dublin and established a number of businesses in the city including Grattan Stores in Temple Bar and the Grattan Hotel on Essex Street. Richard’s widow, Anne Sheil, died 12 January 1924 aged 85 years and was buried in Kilmessan.

Joseph Shiel began his education at Kilmessan National School. The school would have been a single storey building at the time. Having shown signs of a vocation he received his secondary education at St Finian’s College, Navan.

In June 1892 Joseph won a scholarship place to St. Patrick’s College, Maynooth, entering in September 1892. He was ordained there on 19 June 1898 by the Archbishop of Dublin, William Walsh. Dr. Carr, Archbishop of Melbourne, was on a visit to Ireland and made an appeal to the newly ordained priests to volunteer for Australia. Fr. Shiel applied and the Bishop of Meath granted permission for him to go for five years. 

On 11th October 1898 Fr. Sheil arrived in Melbourne. He did temporary work at St. Patrick’s, Melbourne, until January 1899, when he was appointed assistant to Ven. Archdeacon Slattery, Geelong. In January 1901 he was transferred to Collingwood and in March 1903 to St. Peter’s and Paul’s, South Melbourne. Dr. Higgins, the second Bishop of Rockhampton, was in Ireland in 1903 and as a native of Meath diocese he visited the bishop of Meath. The Bishop of Meath gave permission for Fr. Shiel to remain in Australia and relocate to Rockhampton diocese.

In April 1904 Fr. Sheil transferred to Rockhampton diocese at the invitation of Bishop Higgins. He became Administrator at Mt Morgan, and then in February 1905, he was appointed Administrator of St Joseph’s Cathedral, Rockhampton. Bishop Higgins was appointed Bishop of Ballarat and in March 1906 Father Joseph Sheil joined him there. He later became Administrator of the Cathedral at Ballarat. Fr. Sheil also visited Japan, China and all parts of America.

On 19 August 1912, while visiting his mother in Ireland, Father Sheil was notified of his appointment as Bishop of Rockhampton. Rockhampton was a relatively new diocese; it had been created in 1882.  He was the second priest from the Diocese of Meath to serve as bishop to this diocese in Central Queensland, Australia. Bishop Joseph Higgins, Moyvore, Co. Westmeath was Bishop of Rockhampton (1899-1905). The diocese of Rockhampton was ten times the size of Ireland. The Catholic population amounted to one quarter of the total population of nearly 400,000 people.

At a special presentation held in the Temperance Hall, Kilmessan, on Sunday, 12 January 1913, Bishop Joseph Shiel was presented with a silver-gilt crosier by the parishioners of Kilmessan and Dunsany. The silver crosier was based on the crosier of Clonmacnoise.

Fr. Lynch, curate,  read an address and then parish priest Fr. Morrissey made the presentation to Bishop Shiel. Fr. Morrissey said it gave him great pleasure of presenting the beautiful present on behalf of the parish. Dr. Shiel thanked everyone from the bottom of his heart. He was pleased to be back in Kilmessan, his native parish, among the friends of his youth.

 “With the coming of Home Rule”, Bishop Sheil looked forward to “brighter and happier days for Ireland.”  He advocated that prospective emigrants consider Australia as their destination. “Although under British rule no country in the world was freer and nowhere offered better prospects to a man of energy and sobriety. For eight months of the year the weather was delightful, although perhaps somewhat warm. During this time the sun shines and the sky is always blue.”  Bishop Shiel said he loved the old church where he first received the Sacraments, and where when he became a priest he celebrated one of his first Masses. Bishop Sheil said every time he held up the crosier it would remind him of the people of Kilmessan.  The crosier presented to Dr. Joseph Shiel was made by Messrs John Smyth & Son, Wicklow Street in Dublin.

Prior to the presentation children from the local school presented an operetta entitled “Princess Snow White.” Children who performed included Eileen Martin, Ada O’Reilly, Ellie Maher, Mary Foley, Lily Whelan, Annett Martin and Kathleen Comey.With funds left over from the collection for the crosier Father Lynch said he would organise an outing for the children in the summer.

Joseph was consecrated Bishop of Rockhampton at Maynooth by Archbishop Mannix, Bishop Gaughran of Meath and Bishop McKenna of Clogher on Sunday, 26 January 1913. Bishop Shiel sailed from Dover, England on 15 February 1913 on the RMS Orana with Archbishop Mannix and Archbishop Mannix’s cousin, Dean Foley, afterwards Bishop of Ballarat. Joseph Shiel was enthroned by Archbishop Duhig at Rockhampton in May 1913.

His lifetime of service given to the Australian church was a busy one. Rockhampton’s Mater Misericordiae Hospital was opened and blessed by Bishop Shiel in 1915. Bishop Shiel opened a number of new churches including those at Duchess, Ingham, Giru and Hughenden. He was also involved in the establishment of parishes and schools. Bishop Sheil was described as a quiet unostentatious worker, who had a strong personality. 

Bishop Shiel returned on a visit to Ireland in 1920 and visiting Drogheda, carried the Relic of the head of the martyred Blessed Oliver Plunkett, in a procession from the Dominican Convent to St. Peter’s Church on West Street. Pope Benedict XV beatified Oliver Plunkett in May 1920 and the procession may have been the high point of ceremonies in Drogheda.

In June 1923 Bishop Shiel celebrated the 25th anniversary of his ordination. The laity of the Cathedral parish presented him with a Hupmobile motor car while the Sisters of Mercy gave him a statue of St. Joseph.

Bishop Shiel became unwell and was hospitalised in early 1930.  He continued his duties though still unwell but was again hospitalised in late 1930. Bishop Joseph Shiel died the Mater Hospital, Rockhampton on 7th April 1931 aged fifty-eight years.


Thank you to Rev. Fr. Terence Toner, Mary Gannon, Kevin Murray,  Martina Shiel O’Beirne (grand-niece of Bishop Shiel), John Donohoe, Mairead Crinion, Fr. V. Soolepoff, the Archivist of Diocese of Rockhamption, Kerry Scanlon of FMM Archives, Meath Chronicle, Navan Historical Society, Central Queensland Herald and Maynooth College.