Notre Dame founding father remembered for vision, service to Church and education
A founding father of the University of Notre Dame, Fr John Neill OP is being remembered as a caring, compassionate, and inspiring leader in Catholic education following his peaceful passing in Sydney on Saturday, 22 August. Photo: Patrick Lee, The Catholic Weekly.
A founding father of the University and former Chaplain, Fr John Neill OP is being remembered as a caring, compassionate, and inspiring leader in Catholic education following his peaceful passing in Sydney on Saturday, 22 August.
A much-loved and respected member of the Notre Dame community, Fr Neill was a founding Trustee-Governor of the University of Notre Dame Australia in Western Australia and later Chaplain of the University’s Sydney campus.
A visionary leader who devoted his life to the service of the Church and education, Fr John was also often referred to as one of the founding fathers of Catholic universities in Australia and a leading light in Catholic education. He was 89.
Father John dreamed of a Catholic University in Australia, having been inspired as a young man by Notre Dame University in the United States.
In 1988, he joined a group of founding fathers working to establish a new Catholic university in Western Australia and his long-awaited dream was realised when Fr John became Notre Dame’s first employee with the establishment of the University’s Planning Office in 1988.
A Trustee and Governor of Notre Dame between 1996 and 2009, Fr John was awarded the Honorary Doctorate of Laws by the University.
Fr John became Parish Priest of St Benedict’s on the Sydney campus in 2005 where he was always available for not only parishioners but staff and students as he supported the Chaplaincy team.
“Fr John made such a unique and rich contribution to our University – to its very creation and growth and Fr John was one of those visionary leaders who stepped forward to create what we have today,” said Vice Chancellor, Prof Francis Campbell.
“Tributes have flooded into us from staff and students and all those who had the privilege of working with him over many years, including from Notre Dame and Portland universities in the US.
“While we are greatly saddened by the loss, we are thankful to have known Fr John and to have benefited so much from his love and commitment.”
Born in Sydney in 1932 during the Great Depression, Fr John went to school in Randwick and later worked in retail during the post-war years before deciding his vocation was in the priesthood.
He joined the Dominican Order in 1955 and was ordained a priest in 1960.
From 1963 to 1972, Fr John was a teacher at Blackfriars Priory School, Adelaide, and then headmaster from 1972 to 1988.
Fr John Neill OP with UNDA Vice Chancellor, Prof Francis Campbell. Photo: Patrick Lee, The Catholic Weekly.
During his years as headmaster, Fr John supported a committed Year 12 student in need, with tuition and school expenses. Blackfriars always remained very dear to his heart.
A passionate advocate for Catholic education in Australia Fr John 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 in Australia and as a member of the National Catholic Education Commission.
In 2001, he joined the spirituality team of the Sydney Catholic Education Office.
His extraordinary contribution to Catholic education over more than five decades was honoured by the Australian College of Education (Fellow in 1986), the Pope (Croce pro ecclesia et pontifice in 2021) and the Commonwealth of Australia (OAM in 2014).
The Catholic Archbishop of Sydney, the Most Rev 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 was for a time my religious superior. I knew him as Master of the young Dominican students in formation for the priesthood; most importantly I knew him as a fellow Dominican.”
A visionary leader who devoted his life to the service of the Church and education, Fr John Neill was also often referred to as one of the founding fathers of Catholic universities in Australia and a leading light in Catholic education. Photo: Supplied.
On 22 October last year, Fr John celebrated his 60th anniversary of his ordination as a Dominican priest.
The current Chaplain of the University in Sydney, Fr Reginald Mary Chua OP said Fr John remained deeply involved in the ongoing administration and growth of the University, sharing his wisdom and kindness freely.
“His continuing presence on campus right up to the beginning of the pandemic as a kind face in the St Benedict’s courtyard, always ready for a chat, was welcomed by students, staff and parishioners,” Fr Reginald said.
Fr John spoke of his passions and interests resting in simple pleasures – in the expression of beauty and humanity in the world, art, culture and architecture, fine books and good films, the love of family and joy of friendship, the well-being of individuals and how societies can be made better.
In celebrating his jubilee Fr John said, “I have been fortunate to work with a number of tremendously visionary and energetic people who have great ideals about the law of Christ in society and the rebirth of the Catholic Church’s involvement in the university world of Australia.
“As you look back, you can suddenly see the finger of God in the messiness of life; you can’t see it until you’ve lived long enough to be able to see things in perspective. So be patient, wherever you are, it may all make some sense eventually!”
The Institute for Ethics & Society at the University of Notre Dame Australia produced a documentary about the life and legacy of Father John Neill OP called The Quiet Man.