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A brilliant mind


Fr Ian Howells SJ - Born: February 14 1931 | Died: April 23 2022

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Father Ian Howells was rector of Aquinas College in Adelaide from 1974 to 1978. He was also chaplain to the St Luke’s Guild and the University of Adelaide where he tutored in mathematics.

Although the embodiment of the academic Jesuit, coming from a highly academic family and entering the Society of Jesus with a doctorate from one of the most prestigious universities in the world, Fr Howells wore his learning lightly.

There is an anecdote from the beginning of his juniorate which typifies this. It is said that he demurely presented, with the other newly-vowed, before the young teacher who was to instruct the juniors in the rudiments of mathematics. When he asked who had any post-school mathematics, Fr Howell’s hand was the only one raised. When asked to what level, he diffidently replied, ‘A PhD at Cambridge’.

While highly knowledgeable, he was modest in the extreme and, by nature, shy. A very spiritual and introverted person, he would, however, be always welcoming. Sadly, his absent-mindedness progressed to dementia in the last years of his life.

Fr Howells devoted the whole of his priestly life to the tertiary apostolate, lecturing and researching in mathematics at the Universities of Melbourne and Queensland as well as Adelaide. As a university Catholic chaplain he was very much at home working as part of an ecumenical chaplaincy team, especially in Brisbane.

He resided in three Jesuit university colleges (Newman, Aquinas and St Leo’s). Most of the last 39 years of his life were spent in Brisbane, where he was a much revered member of a remarkable group of senior Jesuits, all of whom he outlived. His combination of intellectual brilliance and strong faith was salutary for his academic colleagues, while his holiness and humility were unmistakable.

Worthy of note is the comprehensive study of belief and unbelief in Australia that Ian undertook with Fathers John Begley SJ and Adrian Lyons SJ at the behest of the Provincial, Fr Peter Steele SJ. The results were published in October 1990 under the title Faith in Australia: a study of belief in God, and unbelief. This was a two-volume workbook for community, personal and pastoral use by Australian Jesuits and their co-workers.

Emeritus Bishop Greg O’Kelly SJ said Fr Howells, known as ‘Doc’ in the Society, had a brilliant mind that was reflective of his family connections; his mother’s brother was Sir John Eccles, Nobel Prize winner in neurology, Australian of the Year and first Australian to be admitted to the Pontifical Academy of Science.

Bishop O’Kelly said Fr Howells wore his gifts lightly and with humour and simplicity.

“There was much affection for him, in the Society and among those to whom he ministered,” he said.

Condolences have come from far and wide for Fr Howells, including from local couple Vicki and Michael White who knew him from Teams of Our Lady.

‘Ian was a dear friend to our family…,’ they wrote.

‘We have missed him so much since his move to the nursing home. I can truly say he has been one of the most modest and holy people I have ever met.’


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