“What also impressed me was in those days at Nudgee we had the old business of a school retreat every year.
“Alternatively in my school year we have the Redemptorists one year, Oblates the next … So I was impressed by the work they did in parish missions, and that sense of preaching, evangelisation.
“Probably I tossed up between the two of those.”
Oblates, for their “family spirit” and “sense of informality”, won the toss.
“But I promised myself that I wouldn’t go until my mother owned a house of her own,” he said.
“One night we came back from … the whole family went to do the perpetual novena at Our Lady of Perpetual Succour, and my mother came home with my sister and myself.
“My mother turned to me and said, ‘I think I can do without you’.
“Then I wasn’t terribly sure I wanted to be a priest anyhow.”
In the midst of doubts, Fr John pushed through and embraced his seminary training, eventually moving to South Africa, in the middle of apartheid, where future Oblate priests were trained.
“We broke the law until we were caught, and when we were caught we had to do something because the young men could go to jail too,” Fr John said.
Numerous African seminarians were sent to Lesotho (then known as Basutoland) “where the Oblates are very strong” but some “mixed-race” seminarians continued to live in the South African seminary.
“We had one Indian; they found him,” he said.
“But interestingly we got through with the mixed-raced people right to the end.
“And I only found out years afterwards that on occasions, people saw coloured men at the seminary and they would ring the police, who said they were coming out to inspect the seminary.
“And the rector would call the colours in and say, ‘Go for a walk’.
“So we got away with that right to the very end of apartheid.
“That was the year of Oblate Archbishop Denis Eugene Hurley, who was a great fighter against apartheid.”
South Africa was not just Fr John’s seminary destination but became the site for his ordination on July 5, 1965.
The young man, to become the first Queensland-born Oblate, had one request – to bring his mother to South Africa.
“I wanted to be ordained in South Africa mainly because I wanted to be ordained as quickly as I could, and secondly because my mother had struggled so hard to educate us, and look after us and to rear us, I wanted to have an excuse for her to have an overseas trip,” Fr John said.
Along with his mother, another special item was travelling to South Africa to be with Fr John – his Oblate cross.
The Oblate cross is a sign of an Oblate in their final vows, and by tradition, a new Oblate receives the cross of a deceased Oblate.
Fr John wanted the cross belonging to Fr Tim Long, the man who put his heart and soul into the Oblate’s first Catholic school in Australia, Iona College.
“So, after about two years as rector, he was replaced and he was on his way home to Ireland and he died of a heart attack in London,” Fr John said.
“He died six months before I took my final vows.
“I knew him because when I was going to the mission house in Eagle Junction he was there, and I knew he had a dream of building the school.
“So since I knew him, and also as there’s a tradition that the cross doesn’t go to the grave, I asked for it.
“One of our Oblates was on holidays in London; he got the cross, he brought it across to us, to Australia, and when I took my vows that same year, five of our Australian Oblates were being ordained in Durban.
“So one of the parents was coming across and they brought the cross over to me.”
While South Africa marked the beginning of his vocation as a priest, it has played little role in his 50 years as an Oblate priest.
Following his ordination, he returned by ship to Queensland and took his bags straight to the newly built, “primitive” Iona College.
Times were tough in those days, and while the Oblates nearly went bankrupt, the surrounding community helped build the school to its success today.
Fr John spent seven years at Iona College as sports master, moved to Melbourne’s Mazenod College for 11 years before becoming headmaster at Iona for five.
He was named provincial for Australia, New Zealand and Java, Indonesia, and eventually took on the Oblates’ China mission during his leadership term.
After being provincial, Fr John took a sabbatical before being headmaster in Melbourne for several years, then at 65, became parish priest of the Oblate’s Fremantle parish, in Western Australia, for eight years.
Today, he is vocations director (although he prefers to call himself a co-ordinator), a board member for Oblate-founded ministry Rosies, director of missions in Asia and Africa and on the board of the Western Australia mission.
He turned 79 in August.
“I’m four months older than the Pope, so if he can keep going …” he said.
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