Of the six Augustinian bishops in Australia between 1848 and 1948 James Dominic Murray was easily the most outgoing of them, and possibly the only one who was an extrovert. Born in Ireland in 1847, he was an Irish Christian Brother for ten years before deciding to become an Augustinian and a priest.
Of these four bishops only James Goold and James Murray came to Australia as priests, and were then appointed a bishop years afterwards while working here. Martin Crane and John Heavey were consecrated as bishops before setting out from Ireland.
In 1884 Murray was one of the initial three Augustinian priests sent to far North Queensland. He was stationed in the inland tin-mining district of Herberton long before the railway reached there, and was in 1887 sent 450 kilometres kms further inland (two long days’ travel by stagecoach) to the arid gold-mining town of Croydon to begin a parish there. In 1888 he was called to coastal Cooktown, and in 1891 to 1897 served well away from the tropical heat at the Augustinian Parish in the prosperous market and river-boat town of Echuca in northern Victoria. It was there in 1897 that with a valid trepidation but with a sense of loyalty that he accepted the position of bishop in Far North Queensland, and served in that enervating role for the remaining sixteen years of his life.
Before leaving Victoria, he was consecrated a bishop in the presence of Bishop Martin Crane, who himself in 1875 had been installed as Bishop of Sandhurst (Bendigo) by Archbishop James Goold of Melbourne. Murray was of a different generation to Goold and Crane, and Bishop John Heavey in a third generation after them all.
When Murray returned to Cooktown in 1898, it had virtually become a ghost town because the gold mines it serviced had been exhausted. The town had deteriorated so much by 1904 that Murray moved his residence from there to the up-and-coming town of Cairns. Murray’s personal shift symbolized the Church’s following the gravitation of people from the many scattered inland mining districts to the larger agricultural towns developing around sugar cane mills on or near the North Queensland coast.
The challenges that Murray faced were enormous. The region had still been relatively prosperous when he had departed there in 1890 en route to his assignment in Victoria, but when he returned north in 1898 the area was still struggling to emerge from a severe financial depression, and the Church was not only poverty-stricken but effectively bankrupt. Murray forbade every church district from undertaking any further debt. He visited Ireland and the United States to beg and borrow money to defray church loans; in this he had only moderate success because even in these dire circumstances he found it personally difficult to ask strangers for money. Even so, Murray held together the structure of the Vicariate of Cooktown during these economically-straightened times that extended throughout all of his sixteen years as its bishop (1898 to 1914), and over that period reduced the Vicariate’s debt from £8,000 (pounds) to £2,000.
His task was further burdened by the reality that the geographical area under his responsibility was four times larger than all of Ireland but had a maximum of only nine priests simultaneously while Murray was the bishop. One way he Murray compensated for the shortage of priests was to travel throughout the Vicariate to give himself maximum contact with the people; he journeyed by train and stagecoach, penetrating into even the most remote areas to visit people in their houses. He much preferred to be on the road visiting homes than in his office at Cooktown or Cairns. In five months of continuous travelling during 1911 he announced that he was attempting to visit every known Catholic family in the entire Vicariate; for a bishop in Australia, this would have been a unique goal, but in Murray’s case it was the nature of the man. After 1912, by which time he was sixty-five years’ old, he travelled with the assistance of crutches, but nevertheless he continued to travel. Being with people meant everything to him.
His contact with people also included letter-writing, for which he had a folding letter case (still in Augustinian possession, and now over a century old) containing his supply of notepaper, steel pen nibs, envelopes and ink for use while travelling; the case contained a surface that became a desktop on one’s knees. There still exist letters in which he mentioned that he was writing while waiting for a few hours at some remote railway station for a connecting train to his destination.
This personal contact nicely suited both his gregarious sense and his pastoral gifts; he became a well-known figure in Far North Queensland, and was well liked for being approachable and able to converse comfortably with one and all, regardless of their religion, age, occupation or state of life. Young adults whose marriage he conducted soon after he arrived in Far North Queensland 1884 were grandparents towards the end of his life there thirty years later in 1914, and he sometimes even referred to a child by the Christian name of one of his or her parents or grandparents; He loved to teach and to preach. On his visits to the various districts within Far North Queensland, Murray would give religious instruction to the children either immediately before or immediately after their school day, and at Sunday Mass by his inimitable style of preaching. His much-appreciated sermons often included quotes from Saint Augustine and from Latin classical literature.
Murray died in 1914, after insisting on travelling hundreds of kilometres inland by train in order to attend the blessing and opening ceremony of Chillagoe’s Catholic school (long since closed). Better judgement would have had him remain resting in Cairns instead; he returned to Cairns ill, and died there a fortnight later. At his request, his body was taken to Cooktown for burial.
Murray’s ministry in developing and reinforcing the Catholic presence in For North Queensland was a significant contribution in preparing the region for its elevation into a diocese during the time of his successor, Bishop John Heavey OSA. Murray had loyally undertaken a leadership role that he had never sought and that his gentle and compassionate nature made very personally demanding upon him. These were Christ-like qualities that enabled his ministry to be cherished by all who encountered him.