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Father Dunlea and boys 1940
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Father Thomas Dunlea

Priest and protector of the poor (1894–1970)

About Father Thomas Dunlea

Father Thomas Dunlea was an Irish-Australian Catholic priest. He was known for his work with vulnerable youth and alcoholics. In the 1930s, after discovering that some parishioners were living rough, he set about caring for the homeless boys among them. In 1940, he established a permanent shelter which he named Boys’ Town. In 2010, the shelter was renamed the Dunlea Centre in Father Thomas’s honour.

Location

  • Street address:Dunlea Centre, 35A Waratah Road, Engadine 2233

Accessibility

  • Wheelchair accessible

Category

  • Welfare and humanitarianism
  • Religion

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Detailed information

A closeup of Father Dunlea surrounded by a group of smiling boys at Boys Town in Engadine, now known as the Dunlea Centre. Father Dunlea holds his hat and gloves in his hands in a moment of reflection.
Father Thomas Dunlea at Boys’ Town (close up), c. 1964. Image courtesy of Dunlea Centre: Australia’s original Boys’ Town archive

Thomas Vincent Dunlea (Father Tom) was born on 19 April 1894 in Ballina, County Tipperary, Ireland. He trained for the Catholic priesthood at St Peter’s College, Wexford. Ordained in 1920, he set sail for Sydney that year.

In 1921, Father Tom was assigned to St Francis church in Surry Hills, a few doors from the Albion Street children’s shelter. One day he heard a child at the shelter singing ‘I wish I had someone to love me’. This sparked an enduring interest in providing care for poor orphans.

Dunlea served in various inner-city parishes before being appointed parish priest for Sutherland in 1934. At this time, the area was still largely undeveloped bushland encompassing the Royal National Park.

After discovering that some of his parishioners were living rough in caves and makeshift huts, Father Tom began seeking a way to support the homeless boys among them.

He began by offering shelter at the presbytery. When numbers grew, he rented a home nearby before eventually moving the boys to the Royal National Park where they lived in tents until more permanent accommodation could be found.

As word spread, Father Tom received a gift of seven acres at Engadine. In 1940, he established a permanent shelter on this site, naming it ‘Boys’ Town’ after a 1938 Hollywood movie. The film was based on the true story of Father Edward Flanagan, who founded the original Boys’ Town in Nebraska in 1917.

Following its example, Father Tom envisaged the shelter as being largely self-supporting and run by the residents themselves with his oversight.

A young Father Dunlea with a large group of boys of all ages standing in front of a building at Boys Town in Engadine, now known as the Dunlea Centre.
Father Dunlea and boys, c. 1940. Image courtesy of Dunlea Centre: Australia’s original Boys’ Town archive

He said, “I want to make the venture dynamic and revitalise boys who, by certain unfortunate circumstances, have fallen into bad company or been left to stray through the loss of parents. The town is to be self-supporting, and self-governed.”

His initiative won considerable local support. The bookmaker George Nathan organised a fundraising carnival with trotting, cycling, and midget-car racing that filled the Sydney Sports Ground every Sunday. Nathan raised 50,000 pounds for Boys’ Town over six years – a massive sum at the time.

In 1942, at Archbishop Norman Gilroy’s request, the De La Salle Brothers took charge of Boys’ Town. With the shelter in safe hands, Father Tom turned his attention to helping alcoholics. In 1944, he helped found a Sydney branch of Alcoholics Anonymous.

In 1953, he was appointed chaplain of the Matthew Talbot Hostel for destitute men, then located at Young Street, Circular Quay. Father Tom said daily Mass here and took a keen interest in the residents, many of whom were recovering alcoholics.

In 1955, he went to Hurstville as a parish priest, where he remained until his death on 22 August 1970.

In honour of Father Tom, Boys’ Town was renamed the Dunlea Centre in 2010. Today, it provides comprehensive support services to vulnerable girls as well as boys.

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