Denis Hurley (bishop)

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The Most Reverend
Denis Eugene Hurley
Archdiocese of Durban, South Africa.
Diocese Durban
Term ended 29 May 1992
Predecessor Henri Delalle OMI
Successor Wilfrid Napier
Personal details
Born 9 November 1915
Cape Town, South Africa
Died 13 February 2004
Durban, South Africa
Buried Lady Chapel, Emmanuel Cathedral,Durban
Nationality South African
Denomination Roman Catholic

Denis Eugene Hurley (9 November 1915 – 13 February 2004) was the South African Roman Catholic Vicar Apostolic of Natal and Bishop, and later Archbishop of Durban, from 1946 until 1992.

He was born in Cape Town to Irish parents, spending his early years on Robben Island, where his father was the lighthouse keeper. Educated at St Charles College in Pietermaritzburg, Natal, he joined the Missionary Oblates of Mary Immaculate (OMI) in 1931 and in the following year was sent to Ireland for his novitiate.

In 1933, he was sent to the Angelicum University (now known as Pontifical University of Saint Thomas Aquinas) in Rome to study philosophy and theology. He received the degree Licentiate of Philosophy from the Angelicum in 1936 and started studying at the Gregorian University.

Hurley was ordained as a priest in Rome on 9 July 1939 and was awarded his license in Theology in 1940. Later he was appointed curate at Emmanuel Cathedral, Durban, where he stayed until 1943, when he was appointed Superior at Saint Joseph's Scholasticate, then based in Prestbury, Pietermaritzburg. He stayed in this position until 12 December 1946 when, aged 31, was named Vicar Apostolic of Natal and Bishop of Durban. He was the youngest Roman Catholic bishop in the world at that time.[1] He chose as his motto Ubi Spiritus, ibi libertas, which means "Where the Spirit is, there is liberty". On 11 January 1951, the Vicariate Apostolic of Natal was elevated to the Archdiocese of Durban and Hurley became Archbishop, also the youngest in the world at the time.

In the following year, Hurley became the first President of the newly established Southern African Catholic Bishops Conference, a post he held until 1961. He was again President of this body from 1981 until 1987. In 1961, he was appointed to the Central Preparatory Commission for the Second Vatican Council.

Second Vatican Council[edit]

In 1961, Hurley was appointed to the Central Preparatory Commission for the Second Vatican Council. He attributed this to Rome having out-of-date information stating he was still President of the Southern African Bishops Conference, when in fact Archbishop Owen McCann was President.[2] At the council itself, Hurley was elected to the Commission for Seminaries, Studies and Catholic Education. During the council he gave ten speeches and made four written submissions. During the Council he wrote a series of anonymous articles for the South African Catholic weekly newspaper "The Southern Cross". In 2001 he wrote a 17-part series of memories of Vatican II for "The Southern Cross". These articles provided the basis for his posthumously published memoirs of the Council, "Keeping the Dream Alive".[3]


In 1975, Hurley was elected chair of the International Commission on English in the Liturgy (ICEL), a post to which he was re-elected until 1991. Hurley frequently registered his disappointment at the reorganisation of ICEL under the auspices of the newly established Vatican office Vox Clara, as mandated by Pope John Paul II's instruction Liturgiam authenticam.

Social justice[edit]

Hurley was an outspoken opponent of apartheid, and was a driving force in a 1957 declaration by the bishops of South Africa that described apartheid as "intrinsically evil".[4] In 1984 Hurley was charged with contravening the South African police act by publishing information which the government alleged to be untrue about atrocities committed in Namibia by the South African military unit known as Koevoet. The state withdrew the charges later and settled a claim by the Archbishop for damages out of court, paying him R 25,000. Due to his commitment to social justice, the Denis Hurley Peace Institute, an associate body of the Southern African Catholic Bishops Conference, was named in his honour.[5]

The Hurley Case[edit]

A lawsuit, known as The Hurley Case, managed to secure the release of Paddy Kearney, a political opponent of the ruling National Party detained under Section 29 of the Internal Security Act. According to South African law professor Tony Mathews, the case "Hurley and Another vs the Minister of Law and Order" became "the most important civil rights ruling for several decades" and is still taught in law schools today. [6] Hurley became actively involved, turning up in black communities the day they were due to be forcibly removed. On hearing that children had died shortly after one such removal, Hurley counted their graves and recorded their names and ages. Then he released the details to the press, much to the fury of the state. In response to the weak response of South Africa's churches to apartheid, Hurley founded an ecumenical agency, Diakonia, dedicated to social justice. Hurley said his greatest struggle was convincing South African Roman Catholics that social justice was integral to their faith rather than an optional extra.[7] Hurley was nicknamed Mhlwemamba (Eyes of the Mamba) by appreciative Zulus.

Thomas More College[edit]

Hurley played a key role in supporting Chris Hurley (his brother) and Robin Savory in founding Thomas More College. His brother Chris later became the second headmaster of the school. Archbishop Hurley also wrote the school song, "God Our Maker". There is a memorial garden dedicated to him located on the school grounds.

Last years[edit]

On retiring as Archbishop of Durban in 1992, Hurley became a parish priest for ten years at Emmanuel Cathedral, Durban, where he had officiated so many year earlier as a curate. In 2002 he retired to write his memoirs. He also spent his time writing letters to The Times debating the finer points of cricket, and composing the words for new hymns.[7] The final article to be published in his lifetime was a guest editorial in the Christmas 2003 edition of "The Southern Cross", headlined "God's special gift to us".[8]


Hurley received the following honours during his lifetime:

Year Honorary Degrees Civilian Honour
1970 Doctor of Laws, Notre Dame University, Indiana  
1972   Civic Honours, City of Durban
1975   Chevalier of the Legion of Honour (Légion d'honneur) France
1978 Doctor of Laws, University of Natal, Durban  
1982 Doctor of Humane Letters, Catholic University of America, Washington, DC  
1986 Doctor of Laws, De Paul University, Chicago  
1986 Doctor of Sacred Theology, Santa Clara University, California  
1987 Doctor of Humane Letters, Georgetown University, Washington, DC  
1988 Doctor of Social Sciences, University of Cape Town, Cape Town  
1988 Doctorate, University of Leuven, Belgium  
1992   Freedom of the City of Durban
1992   Freedom of the City of Pietermaritzburg
1993 Doctorate, Catholic Theological Union, Chicago  
1996 Doctorate, Saint Paul's University, Ottawa  
1992   Order of Merit of the Italian Republic (Onorificenza de Grande Ufficiale)
1992   Order of Meritorious Service (1st Class), South Africa


  1. ^ Ecumenical Movement Mourns The Death Of Archbishop Denis Hurley
  2. ^ Archbishop Hurley's Contribution To The Second Vatican Council
  3. ^ G Simmermacher, "Archbishop Hurley and The Southern Cross"
  4. ^ [1]
  5. ^ Denis Hurley Peace Initiative Page
  6. ^ Denis Hurley: A Portrait by Friends, by Anthony M Gamley (ed). Cluster Publications (2001)
  7. ^ a b The Times (UK) Online obituary
  8. ^ Denis Hurley: "God's special gift to us", The Southern Cross, December 17, 2003


  • ed. A. Gamley, Denis Hurley A Portrait by Friends (Cluster Publications, 2001). ISBN 1-875053-29-8
  • ed. P. Denis O.P Facing the Crisis Selected Texts of Archbishop D.E. Hurley (Cluster Publications, 1997). ISBN 1-875053-08-5
  • ed. P. Kearney Memories: The memoirs of Archbishop Denis E Hurley OMI (Cluster Publications, 2006). ISBN 1-875053-53-0

External links[edit]