John Molony obituary: A life serving the church, history and football

John Molony obituary: A life serving the church, history and football

A Catholic priest, historian, president of an Aussie Rules football club and devoted family man are only some of the markers of the 91 years of Emeritus Professor John Molony who died in Canberra on Sunday, September 16.

John Neylon Molony was born on April 15, 1927 in Melbourne. Identified early by the Church as a future leader, he was sent to the Propaganda Fide College in Rome to study for the priesthood. He was ordained in Rome in 1950 and remained there to receive a doctorate in canon law. Before returning to Australia he spent a year in the US in Boston where he worked on canonical matters.

Author, priest and historian John Molony.

Author, priest and historian John Molony. Credit:Ben MacMahon

With a degree in canon law, it was assumed he would become a bishop, even an archbishop in the Church in Australia. But he saw the authoritarian nature of the Church crush the spirit of others who lost their faith or became drunkards. Not wanting to lose his faith, he left the priesthood and was ostracised by the Church. Later he was given dispensation to marry in the Church and in 1965 he and Denise were married. The dispensation included the condition that he move well away from where he had served as a priest.

Hoping to find work as a labourer, he travelled with Denise to Broken Hill. Recognising he was uniquely qualified to respond to a job advertisement for someone who could translate medieval Latin and type, the couple set out for Canberra. There, in 1964, Professor Molony’s academic career with the ANU began as a Research Assistant in Medieval History in the School of Social Science. Recruited to the History Department by Manning Clark, he became head of the Department of History and held the Manning Clark Chair of Australian History from 1982 until his retirement from the University in 1990.


Then he was appointed to the Keith Cameron Professorship of Australian History at University College Dublin. It was suggested at the time his real purpose was to convert the Irish to Australian Football. By then, Professor Molony, who as a young man had played football for St Patrick’s College, Ballarat, had presided over the ANU's early days in the ACTAFL and moved to the Belconnen club when it was formed in 1971. He was chairman of the club during its amalgamation with West Canberra from 1986-88 and became president after the partnership disintegrated in 1989. Despite his abiding loyalty to the Carlton Football Club, he harboured the dream of the ACT having a team in the national competition.

Other positions he held include: president of the ANU Staff Association, the ACT branch of the Australian Labor Party and the ACT Indo-China Refugee Association.

With his late wife, Denise, friends and relatives, he helped to resettle the first influx of refugees from the Vietnam conflict in the late 1970s.

From 1993-96 he was Foundation Research Professor in History at the Australian Catholic University in Canberra. His numerous books include: ‘I Am Ned Kelly’, ‘Eureka’, 'The Penguin history of Australia' and 'Australia: our heritage'. He believed ‘The Native-Born: The First White Australians’, would be seen as his most significant original contribution to the writing of Australian history.

He also wrote on religious themes. His books, ‘The Roman Mould of the Australian Catholic Church’, ‘and The Emergence of Political Catholicism in Italy: Partito Popolare, 1919-1926’, remain two of his most highly regarded contributions to Church history.

At his funeral, former Auxiliary Catholic Bishop of Canberra and Goulburn Pat Power said John Molony had always remained totally loyal to the Church in his family life and in his civic and professional life.

Head of the ANU School of History Professor Frank Bongiorno said Professor Molony was one of Australia's finest historians. He was the author of numerous important books on Australian and European history, and remained until the end a great friend to the School of History, the Australian Dictionary of Biography and the ANU. He had remained active as a scholar in his nineties.

Professor Molony is survived by his sons, Damien and Michael, daughters Leah and Justine, and sister Margaret.

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