For a man whose life was devoted to education, Father John Neill was the first to admit he was not the best student.
Fr John Neill OP OAM
Blackfriars Priory School headmaster
Governor University of Notre Dame Australia
Born: May 15, 1932, Sydney
Died: August 21, 2021, Sydney
Watch Fr Neill’s funeral mass here >
The long-serving Blackfriars headmaster, and key figure in the establishment of the University of Notre Dame Australia, was a student at Marist Brothers College, NSW, in the 1940s, when it became clear he “wasn’t gifted in mathematics, or science”.
When his father, Robert, suffered a heart attack at age 48, and was no longer able to work, Fr Neill knew what he had to do.
“My mum (Elizabeth) … wasn’t earning enough and I wasn’t doing particularly well at school, and so I thought that what I better do is start work and bring some money into the household,” Fr Neill told a 2019 documentary about his life, The Quiet Man.
Aged just 15, Fr Neill, the oldest of three children and the only son, left school and got a job at Bebarfalds Quality Furniture – in “the rag trade”, as he called it – to help support his struggling family.
But he dreamed of a better life and, aged in his 20s, went to night school to learn Latin in the hope of becoming a Catholic priest.
That dream became a reality with his ordination as a Dominican priest on October 22, 1960.
Fr Neill’s first posting was to Adelaide – as a teacher at Blackfriars.
In The Quiet Man, Fr Neill said that posting was “in many ways … the most significant decision that was made for me in my life”.
He went on to spend 25 years at Blackfriars, 17 of those as the school’s headmaster.
During his tenure at Blackfriars, Fr Neill led significant development of the school campus and major shifts towards contemporary approaches to education and pastoral care.
Blackfriars’ Development Officer – Old Scholars and & Community Jon Harmer, who was given his start at the school by Fr Neill in 1979, remembered him as a wonderful orator and a kind man.
Mr Harmer said Fr Neill was known as “the building headmaster”, in recognition of the development completed during his tenure.
Among those building projects were the development of the Hallinan Library (1972), the Art & Design Building (1975), the Maher Building (1976), the new chapel (now the music centre, 1979), the Fitzgerald Building (1980) and the refurbishment of St Catharine’s (1985).
He also led the development of the gymnasium (1980) that still bears his name.
“Although Fr Neill was, by his own admission, not very athletic, he had an almost unbridled passion for the benefits that physical education and sport provided to the growth and development of young men,” Mr Harmer said.
“It was, therefore, not surprising that the building of the Fr John Neill Gymnasium at Blackfriars was, in some ways, the crowning glory among the many physical changes that he oversaw at Blackfriars.
“On its completion in 1980, the gymnasium, and associated amenities, was one of the most extensive facilities of its kind across the South Australian educational landscape.”
Fr Neill also appointed current principal Simon Cobiac to Blackfriars Priory School as a teacher in 1978.
Mr Cobiac remembered Fr Neill as a gentle person who led the school community through modelling the virtues of wisdom and compassion.
“Over my five years as principal, Fr John would regularly phone from Sydney inquiring about current developments at the school, past families and staff,” Mr Cobiac said.
“Fr John had an enthusiasm and passion for Blackfriars that never waned with time and his knowledge of education was current and incisive. He was an inspirational leader.”
Fr Neill also served 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.
After suffering a heart attack and subsequent open-heart surgery, Fr Neill took part in a “renewal” program for clergy at the University of Notre Dame in the US.
He spent four months living on campus at the Indiana university, which, he told The Quiet Man, “reinforced my adolescent dream of an Australian version of this”.
He went on to become an instrumental figure in the formation of the University of Notre Dame Australia.
He was director of the university’s Planning Office before the institution’s formal foundation in 1989.
From 1996-2009, he served as trustee and governor of the university and was, for many years, the chaplain of the Sydney campus.
In 2012, he received the Pro Ecclesia et Pontifice (For Church and Pope) medal, a decoration of the Holy See conferred for distinguished service to the Catholic Church.
Two years later, he was awarded the Medal of the Order of Australia (OAM) for his contribution to education and the church.
In The Quiet Man, well-known ABC presenter Geraldine Doogue described Fr Neill as “a man most Australian Catholics probably don’t know about, but they should”.
“He’s been highly influential, but not in your normal mover and shaker fashion. A man … with a big dream to create a Catholic university in Australia,” Doogue said.
Professor Hayden Ramsay, Deputy Vice-Chancellor, Coordination, at the Australian Catholic University, told the documentary: “Fr John is a true Dominican, which means he is Dominican down to his very roots. For this guy, preaching isn’t something that happens at a pulpit … the man’s life is a wonder of preaching, to young people, to old people. The man’s life simply writes the story of Catholic education over these recent decades.”
Dozens of people have paid tribute to Fr Neill on the school’s social media pages.
Blackfriars Board chair David O’Loughlin said: “An inspiration, a leader in education, a lovely man. At peace now, leaving many memories and achievements for us to celebrate.”
Old scholar Mario Romaldi posted: “A loss to all that knew him. I was privileged to have gone to Blackfriars under his Headmastership. He was an absolute gentleman and a true man of God.”
Former Blackfriars teacher Rita Purvis wrote: “He managed an almost impossible feat – total commitment to the faith alongside a broad-minded view in dealing with people. He was a giant in our community and in the broader community of educators.”
Outside of work, Fr Neill loved art, culture, books and films and spending time with his family.
Fr Neill died in Sydney on August 21, following a fall earlier in the month. He is survived by his sister, Carole Wilson.
Fr Neill’s funeral was conducted at St Benedict’s Catholic Church, Broadway (NSW) on Friday 28 August. It can be viewed at this link >
Watch The Quiet Man here…