Vaughan was born near Ross-on-Wye, Herefordshire, in 1834, one of 14 children. His father, lieutenant John Francis Vaughan, belonged to one of the oldest recusant families of Welsh descent in England. His mother was Elizabeth Louise Rolls, a convert. His brother was Cardinal Herbert Vaughan. All his siblings, save three, entered church ministry.
Vaughan was probably afflicted with congenital heart disease. At the age of six he was sent to a boarding school in Monmouth for three years, but his health proved to be delicate and for some years he was privately tutored at home. At age seven he was sent briefly to a local school, but his mother worried over his health and he was educated at home in a religious atmosphere. In September 1850 he was sent to the Benedictine St Gregory's College at Downside, Somerset. His mother's death in 1853 prompted serious thoughts of a religious vocation and on 12 September 1853 he took the Benedictine habit as "Brother Bede".
In 1855, at his father's request and expense, Vaughan was sent to Rome for further study under the guidance of the Italian scholar and reformer Angelo Zelli-Jacobuzzi. He remained there for four years. He was ordained priest by Cardinal Patrizi in the basilica of St John Lateran on 9 April 1859.
Vaughan had received minor orders in 1855 and after passing through the various stages he was ordained priest on 9 April 1859. He returned to Downside in August and in 1861 was appointed professor of metaphysics and moral philosophy at Belmont, Herefordshire. A year later he was elected prior of the diocesan chapter of Newport and Menevia and superior of Belmont.
He held this position for over ten years. He contributed to leading reviews and published his most important literary work, his Life of St Thomas of Aquin, on which he had spent endless pains, in 1871–2. In 1866 he met Archbishop Polding, then on a visit to England, who was much attracted to Vaughan and several times asked that he might be made his coadjutor.
It was not, however, until February 1873 that this was agreed to. Vaughan arrived at Sydney on 16 December 1873 and immediately devoted himself to two important movements: the provision of education for Catholic children and the completion of the building of St Mary's Cathedral.
Coadjutor of Archbishop Polding
From 1874 Vaughan was Rector of St John's College, University of Sydney. He lived very simply – it has been recorded that his sitting-room had no carpet – and he made few personal friends. This is not to suggest that he was in any way unpopular, rather the reverse, for in all his visitations in the country he was received with enthusiasm by both the clergy and the laity.
He became a doughty fighter in the controversies that raged during his period, and in 1876 came into conflict with the Freemasons in connexion with an address delivered on 9 October on opening the Catholic guild hall at Sydney, and published under the title Hidden Springs. He accused the Freemasons of a conspiracy to subvert religion and take over the education system. Other publications included Christ and His Kingdom (1878), and two series of Lenten lectures Arguments for Christianity (1879) and Christ's Divinity (1882).
Archbishop of Sydney
He became Archbishop of Sydney on the death of Archbishop Polding, on 16 March 1877. He then resigned the rectorship of St John's College which he had taken over in 1874, but his interest in this college never flagged. He spoke vigorously on the education question, but his words had little effect on parliament. In 1880 Henry Parkes passed an education act under which government aid to denominational education ceased at the end of 1882. Vaughan's views on this question may be found in his Pastorals and Speeches on Education, which appeared in Sydney in 1880.
He initiated moves towards the foundation of St Patrick's Seminary, Manly, construction of which started soon after his death.
Vaughan experienced resistance from the largely Irish Catholic junior hierarchy and priesthood in Australia, who supported a church based on the devotional, penitential and authoritarian model envisioned by Irish Cardinal Paul Cullen. Despite the stated policies of the Catholic Emancipation Act of 1829, the largely Irish formed Maynooth Seminary clergy were educated to understand that the refined English Catholic bishops in sectarian and atavistic terms. They also felt strongly that the form of church advocated by the Benedictines was less suited to the majority of Irish Catholic adherents than the Cullenist form.
The harsh eighteenth century Penal Laws of the British and Anglo-Irish Ascendency era Irish Parliaments and the on and off sectarian religious struggles since the Act of Supremacy had bred deep resentment between some of the Irish and English settlers. The consequences of the dissolution of monasteries during the Reformation had left Vaughan deeply committed to the primary vision of restoring monasticism in English speaking lands such as this new church in Australia.
This was not a vision the authors of the revived authoritarian devotional form of Catholicism in Ireland foresaw for the Irish Catholic diaspora in Australia, New Zealand or North America. Ireland had managed to preserve a number of pre-Reformation monastic foundations as well as found the Irish College in Rome. This was an ideological battle Vaughan fought through his episcopate, the outcome of which would not be largely determined until his successor Cardinal Patrick Francis Moran, a nephew of Paul Cullen and avid devotee of his vision, was appointed.
Death and burial
Vaughan left Sydney for the last time on 19 April 1883, intending to return to Rome. He arrived at Liverpool and died nearby at Ince Blundell Hall, the seat of his Weld-Blundell relations, on 18 August, where he was buried in the family vault. His remains were translated to Belmont in 1887 and reburied in the crypt of St Mary's Cathedral in August 1946. Vaughan left the residue of his estate, valued for probate at £61,828, to his successor.
- P. Cunich, The coadjutorship of Roger Bede Vaughan, 1873-77, Journal of the Australian Catholic Historical Society 36 (2015), 16-42; A.E. Cahill, Archbishop Vaughan and St. John's College, University of Sydney, Journal of the Australian Catholic Historical Society, 14 (1992), 36-49.
- J. Franklin, Catholics versus Masons, Journal of the Australian Catholic Historical Society 20 (1999), 1-15.
- P. Cunich, The death of Archbishop Roger Bede Vaughan, Journal of the Australian Catholic Historical Society 29 (2008), 7-22.