Image: Fr John Neill OP OAM with Blackfriars Priory School students in 2016.
For 200 years Catholic schools have been established and staffed by pioneer clergy, religious and lay educators, many of whom devoted their entire lives to Catholic education.
“Let us not forget the pioneer Catholic families and the early priests and teachers whose faith, courage and understanding enabled them to build and staff a network of schools.” (McGee, C. 2017).
This lifelong contribution to Catholic education is exemplified through the work of Fr John Neill OP OAM, who passed into eternal rest on Saturday 21 August at the age of 89.
National Catholic Education executive director Jacinta Collins said Fr John was a passionate advocate, who made a remarkable contribution to Catholic education in Australia.
“Fr John’s work as a teacher, school leader and instrumental champion of tertiary Catholic education, exemplifies the enduring contribution the clergy have made to Catholic education in Australia over 200 years.”
“In honouring Fr John, we also acknowledge his contribution as a member of the National Catholic Education Commission,” Jacinta said.
Archbishop of Sydney Anthony Fisher OP said Fr John was a man of faith, modesty and real kindness.
“He was a loyal son of St Dominic, a true pastor and a much-loved university chaplain,” he said. “Fr John made a quite extraordinary contribution to Catholic education in this country.”
The University of Notre Dame Australia’s Vice Chancellor Professor Francis Campbell praised Fr John as a visionary leader and much-loved member of the university.
“He was not only a founding father of our institution, he was widely considered to be one of the founders of Catholic universities in Australia,” Prof Campbell shared in a statement to staff and students.
“As early as the age of 17, John had a vision for a Catholic University in Australia, and after expressing his desire to become a priest, he joined the Dominican order.
“He would ultimately go on to hold a number of high-profile positions within Catholic education during over half a century worth of service.
“We are greatly saddened by the loss, but are thankful to have known Fr John and to have benefited so much from his love and commitment,” Prof Campbell said.
Australian Catholic University Vice-Chancellor and President Professor Zlatko Skrbis said Fr John impacted the lives of many staff and students at the university in its foundational years, an impact that continues to resonate today in the mission and values of ACU that he worked so passionately with others to instil at the university’s establishment in 1991.
“He brought his extensive experience in Catholic education, deeply influenced by his Dominican charism and always ensuring the foundations of ACU were firmly anchored on the heritage and traditions of the University’s predecessor colleges,” Prof Skrbis told the Catholic Weekly.
“Even after his formal association with ACU ended, Fr John maintained an active and engaged interest in the life of the University and remained a passionate advocate for the mission of ACU and the role of Catholic higher education more generally in the Australian tertiary sector,” Prof Skrbis said.
Fr John was born in Sydney in 1932 during the Great Depression and lived with his family in Sydney’s eastern suburbs, attending high school in Randwick, but also helped the family make ends meet by working a retail position in the city. He joined the Dominican Order in 1955 and was ordained priest in 1960 at 28.
Fr John spent 25 years at Blackfriars Priory School in Adelaide starting as a teacher in 1963 and then became headmaster from 1972 to 1988. He was the fifth headmaster of the school and each year the Fr John Neill Scholarship supports a Year 12 student in need, providing assistance for the tuition and school expenses.
In 1978, Fr John was elected chair of the Independent Headmasters Conference (South Australia), a significant and prestigious appointment in recognition by colleagues of his standing as an educator, and was the first Catholic to be appointed to this position.
He served for a time as chair of the South Australian Commission for Catholic Schools, as a member of the Standing Committee of the Headmasters Conference of Australia and as a member of the National Catholic Education Commission.
Between 1990 and 2000, he was prior and then master of students at St Dominic’s Priory in Melbourne. Fr John was the University of Notre Dame Australia’s (UNDA) first employee, establishing and became director of the Notre Dame Planning Office in 1988, that preceded its formal foundation in the 1989 and brought to life the first Catholic university in Australia. Fr John later served as trustee and governor of the UNDA from 1996 to 2009 and he long served as chaplain of the Sydney campus. He was also a foundation member of the company of the Australian Catholic University and served as a member of the ACU senate.
In 2001 he joined the spirituality team of the Sydney Catholic Education Office. He became Parish Priest of St Benedict’s Broadway in 2005.
In 2014, he received an Order of Australia, presented by Dame Marie Bashir, then Governor of NSW, for his contribution to education and the Catholic Church. In recognition of his extraordinary contributions Fr John was honoured by the Australian College of Education (Fellow 1986), the University of Notre Dame (Hon LL D 2006), the Pope (Croce pro ecclesia et pontifice 2012) and the Commonwealth of Australia (OAM 2014).
A Funeral Mass for Fr John Neill OP will be held at St Benedict’s Chippendale on Friday 27 August at 10:30am. Due to COVID-19 restrictions attendance at the Mass will be strictly limited, but is due to be livestreamed.
McGee C. 2017 ‘Catholic Education in Colonial New South Wales’.