A short biography

Fr Hugh Daniel O’Sullivan


Date of Birth: 30/11/1938

Date of Death: 16/05/1997

Date of Ordination: 26/06/1964

Country background

Hugh Daniel O’Sullivan was born in 1939 in Tarlee, 80km north of Adelaide in the Gilbert Valley, where his parents Frank and Eileen raised eight children on a farm. Hugh had his first two years of schooling at home before attending the Tarlee State school and Riverton High School, then spent a year as a boarder at Sacred Heart College in Adelaide.

He loved all things rural and joined Rural Youth in the two years he worked on the farm after completing his secondary education. His leadership of the school debating team (his two other members were his brother Barry and sister Molly) was a portent of his ability as a preacher.

Hugh O’Sullivan was ordained priest in St Roses Church, Kapunda on June 26, 1964. Few priests have been able to wear so easily the two hats that adorned him: essentially faithful to the traditions of the church, he did not baulk at social agitation when it was needed.


Father Hugh O’Sullivan served as a priest in six South Australian parishes through the years – Hectorville 1965-1969, to Brighton 1970 and Mt Gambier, 1971-1972. During this time he served as a Diocesan Consultor. He also served as a member of the Council of Priests. But it was as a chaplain – at the local, diocesan and national levels – to the Young Christian Workers movement that he will be best remembered.

The YCW or Jocist movement was founded by the late Cardinal Josef Cardijn, a Belgian. Cardijn was inspired to work for the dignity of the young men and women he saw as oppressed by the conditions in factories.

The essence of the Jocist strategy was for young people to undertake actions in their daily circumstances, actions reviewed in the light of the gospels at weekly meetings. In this ‘review of life’ they shared and planned their individual and communal actions for God.

The YCW spread from Europe to much of the Catholic world from the 1920’s on, coming to Australia via Melbourne in the middle 1940’s. Fr Hugh became an ardent disciple of Cardijn and YCW as a young priest.

From his first parish appointment until his death, he used his ability to relate easily to people of all ages, coupled with his profound grasp of YCW skills in analysis and action.

While in the parish of Salisbury, he and some loyal supporters organized the picketing of a credit union office whose clients were getting unfair treatment in arranging loans for the purchase of their homes.

National Chaplain

From June 1977 he served as part-time YCW national chaplain, and then five years as full-time national chaplain from 1983 to 1988. Fr O’Sullivan’s passion for justice earned him strong criticism from a right-wing journal for his ‘Marxist’ leanings. Armed with his usual goodwill and directness he visited the proprietor of the magazine in question. Their discussion resolved nothing. The proprietor did not see that orthodoxy could also include a very practical approach to the church’s social teaching.

As national chaplain he worked from Sydney – the YCW office and residence for the leadership team was in the Parramatta area – and the men in the group shared a shed-like dormitory at the rear of the offices. This disdain for comfort and his readiness to wear whatever was at hand (‘never a picture of sartorial elegance’, according to his mother) was a sign of the authenticity of one who had taken literally Jesus’ admonition: “Consider the lilies of the field”.

In January 1988 Fr Hugh returned to Adelaide and was appointed Parish Priest at Para Hills. But in June the following year, at the request of the Asian bishops, Fr Hugh went to Hong Kong in 1989 as YCW chaplain to the Asia-Pacific region of the movement. He was based there from 1990 to 1995. From the cramped quarters that served as home and work-place, he was called to visit YCW groups in Africa and Asia.

He later recalled – matter-of-factly – his arrival late at night in an Indian city where there was no hope of accommodation, so he joined the vagrants sleeping on the pavement. He would tell many stories of encouraging young workers in the Third World to fight for justice and there are hundreds of young people in these places who remember the warm, amiable Australian priest who addressed everyone as “matey”.

While in Asia he kept in touch with the Australian scene, organizing the World Congress of the YCW in Adelaide in 1991.

His book The Clatter of Wooden Clogs on the dignity of work was the fruit of his lifetime reflections on justice.

Back to Adelaide

He would have gladly stayed in Asia but for the strong wish to be near his mother, brother and sisters. He returned to Australia at the end of 1995, taking on the role of chaplain to his alma mater, Sacred Heart College, and becoming parish priest of Hallett Cove, an outer suburb of Adelaide.

Toward the latter half of 1996 he was diagnosed with bone cancer. In spite of his rapidly failing health, he sought permission to remain in his parish as long as he was able. For many people, attending a Mass where the celebrant had to struggle to lift the chalice or turn the pages of the missal was a touching and spiritual experience.

Fr O’Sullivan died in Ashford Hospital on May 16, 1997 at the comparatively young age of 57. His funeral Mass was celebrated in St Martin de Porres church, Hallett Cove.

May he rest in peace.