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Gleeson, John Philip Berchmans (1910–1969)

by Peter Steele

This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 14, (MUP), 1996

John Philip Berchmans Gleeson (1910-1969), Jesuit priest and educationist, was born on 4 April 1910 at Glebe, Sydney, son of native-born parents Edward Lawrence Gleeson, grazier, and his wife Mary Ann Elizabeth, née Fitzpatrick. Philip was educated at Xavier College, Kew, where he was captain (1929) and distinguished himself at sport. In 1930 he entered the Society of Jesus, at Greenwich, Sydney, and in 1932-35 studied philosophy at Loyola College, Watsonia, Melbourne. He completed a bachelor of arts degree at the University of Melbourne in 1934 (although he did not graduate until 1950), and then taught at St Ignatius' College, Riverview, Sydney, and at the new St Louis school in Perth. Four years study of theology followed at Canisius College, Pymble, Sydney. Ordained priest on 8 January 1944, he pronounced his final vows as a Jesuit on 15 August 1947.

In 1946 Gleeson went to Newman College, University of Melbourne, as dean and college tutor in philosophy. He remained there until 1949, when he travelled to Oxford to study philosophy at Campion Hall. Renal illness hampered his work, but he obtained a B.Litt. (1951). After visiting Europe, he returned to Melbourne and in 1952 became the first Australian-born headmaster of Xavier College.

In December 1953 Fr Gleeson was appointed rector of Newman College. He was happiest and most effective during his eight years there. A careful and financially stringent administrator, he made provision for maintenance, renovation, and further building at the college, including the Kenny wing. He succeeded in greatly increasing student numbers. Gleeson had a close acquaintance with individual students, and was intent on their personal flourishing, although he was almost other-worldly, often uneasy in company and upheld traditional discipline. Not all students appreciated the fact that 'his idealism was conveyed with . . . earnestness and singlemindedness', but he could not be denied respect.

Twice called to be acting provincial superior of the Jesuits in Australia, from 1962 to 1966 Gleeson was rector of Campion College, the Jesuit house of studies at Kew; he was concurrently tutor at Newman and treasurer of the Australian Jesuit province. In 1967 he went to the Provincial headquarters at Hawthorn, while continuing his tutorial work and the giving of spiritual direction. He had become ill with cancer, and he was hospitalized intermittently. Next year he seemed to be recovering so well that he accepted an offer to study once again at Oxford. He died of cancer on 24 February 1969 at Beckenham, London.

Gleeson was one who made the most of his gifts. Except when ill, he was uncommonly vigorous. He was a good driver, but a reckless speedster. Short, close-knit, prim and brisk, he had a precise mind and was quick-witted, and he worked very hard all through his adult life. His inclinations were in part polemical, but his deepest commitment was religious, and he was much in demand for religious retreats. A 'sharp, alert man of action with too much energy for long-term planning or change', he relished minimizing chaos and magnifying order.

Select Bibliography

  • G. Dening and D. Kennedy, Xavier Portraits (Melb, 1993)
  • Newman Magazine, 1985.

Citation details

Peter Steele, 'Gleeson, John Philip Berchmans (1910–1969)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/gleeson-john-philip-berchmans-10311/text18247, published first in hardcopy 1996, accessed online 15 December 2018.

This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 14, (MUP), 1996

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