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Visionary education leader

Obituaries

Fr John Neill OP OAM - Born: May 15 1932 | Died: August 21 2021

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John Neill was born in Sydney, the eldest of three children and the only son.

After his father suffered a heart attack at 48 John left school and worked at Bebarfalds Quality Furniture to help support his struggling family.

In his 20s he 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 Adelaide, as a teacher at Blackfriars Priory College which he described as ‘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.

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, he took part in a renewal program for clergy at the University of Notre Dame in Indiana, United States.

He spent four months living on campus, an experience which reinforced a long-held dream of an Australian version of the university.

Fr Neill went on to become an instrumental figure in the formation of the University of Notre Dame Australia 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.

A Memorial Mass was held for Fr Neill at St Laurence’s Church last month. Blackfriars old scholar and current chair of the school board, David O’Loughlin, said in his eulogy that there seemed to be “no ambition too unworthy to try” for
Fr Neill.

“New buildings, new campsite, more students, our first refugee students from Vietnam, the first DFE (Department of Further Education) subjects…new courses and pathways, including the invaluable Transition Program, new arts programs, technical programs for workplace readiness, and music and drama flourished for those who had talent,” Mr O’Loughlin said.

“Such was the school’s reputation that even the ABC’s Aunty Jack visited the school to film a scene on his motorbike at the school tuck shop.

“We certainly didn’t appreciate the volume of building work under Fr Neill’s leadership would serve the school so well, for so long.

“In fact, it would be well over 30 years before another major building would be constructed.”

Also speaking at the Memorial Mass was Bishop Greg O’Kelly SJ who described Fr Neill as a kind and gentle man.

“I know and remember John as a dear man,” Bishop O’Kelly said.

“I am not at all surprised at the lovely expressions of affection for him that have come out when the news of his death arose. He was one of nature’s gentlemen. A man of the people and a person who had no false pretentions about himself. But a leader who did inspire a loyalty and affection and kindness in others.”

Bishop O’Kelly spoke of Fr Neill’s tireless work in helping to establish what went on to become the University of Notre Dame Australia.

“He also had this idea … he kept pushing the idea of a Catholic university,” Bishop O’Kelly said.

“John just kept at it, and kept at it, and the wonderful credit to him is the evolution and foundation of Notre Dame University. And the encouragement he gave probably set up the context where the ACU (Australian Catholic University) was able to come into being.

“He did so much in different ways – through persistence, through gentleness and through a conviction that this was the right way to go.”

Blackfriars’ principal Simon Cobiac, who was appointed as a teacher by Fr Neill in 1978, remembered him 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.”

Outside of work, Fr Neill loved art, culture, books and films and spending time with his family.

He is survived by his sister, Carole Wilson.

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