Australian Dictionary of Biography

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John Forrest (1820–1883)

by Mary Shanahan

This article was published:

John Forrest (1820-1883), Catholic priest and college rector, was born in November 1820, near Buttevant, County Cork, Ireland, the eldest son of Benjamin Forrest and his wife Sarah, née O'Connor. Educated at Bandon High School, at 17 he entered St Patrick's College, Maynooth, and in 1844 was sent to the Irish College in Rome where he was ordained in July 1847 and awarded a doctorate of divinity in theology from the Gregorian University.

Back in County Cork Forrest carried out parish duties. On 14 November 1850 he became a teacher in the new St Laurence O'Toole's University School, Dublin, under the presidency of Dr James Quinn. Late in 1851 Forrest applied in vain for the chair of theology at Maynooth, and after he failed to secure a lectureship at the Catholic University of Ireland in 1853 he resigned his teaching post to resume parochial duties at Bray and later at Kingstown. In 1859 Cardinal Paul Cullen recommended Forrest to Archdeacon John McEncroe as rector for St John's College, University of Sydney, and the Freeman's Journal introduced him to the colony as a 'gentleman of rare learning and a thorough Irishman'.

Forrest visited universities and colleges before leaving Europe and was installed as rector on 7 September 1860. He made his first public appearance on 8 October when he addressed the St Benedict's Young Men's Society on 'The State of Education in the Pope's Dominions'. A temporary building was rented for the college and on 2 February 1861 three students took up residence. The rector and only two students moved into the new building in Michaelmas term, 1863. The council contemplated closure but the rector and fellows accepted liability for the remaining debt. Forrest bore many expenses in carrying out his aims to provide a proper residence for Catholic university students, assist them in their studies and supply lectures on special subjects involving Catholic principles.

As public spokesman for the college Forrest was accepted as a protector of Catholic rights in the colony. Irish Catholics appreciated his attitudes and St John's soon became a meeting place for the Irish bishops of new dioceses. Forrest's sympathies were with them but Archbishop John Bede Polding, who resisted the Irish national element, seems never to have visited the college while Forrest was rector. When a new Benedictine coadjutor archbishop, Roger Bede Vaughan, arrived in 1873 only one student was resident in St John's. Forrest was prepared to work with Vaughan to raise the status of the college, but Vaughan offered to pay him £400 a year to resign. In 1875 Forrest became parish priest at Balmain. In 1878 he retired from active duties and lived in Belvedere House, Balmain; he died there on 3 August 1883.

The failure of St John's College under Forrest points not to his lack of ability but to the low standard of colonial tertiary education. College finance, too, was straitened. Despite Vaughan's contentions that Forrest had succumbed to drink, the press was loud in his praise when he died. The Herald ascribed to him 'liberal and enlightened views' with 'sympathies … as broad as his heart was kind'.

Select Bibliography

  • M. Shanahan, Out of Time, Out of Place (Canberra, 1970)
  • Downside Abbey Archives, transcripts (Sancta Sophia College, Sydney)
  • St John's College Archives (Sydney).

Citation details

Mary Shanahan, 'Forrest, John (1820–1883)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1972, accessed online 21 June 2024.

This article was published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 4, (Melbourne University Press), 1972

View the front pages for Volume 4

© Copyright Australian Dictionary of Biography, 2006-2024

Life Summary [details]


November, 1820
Buttevant, Cork, Ireland


3 August, 1883 (aged 62)
Balmain, Sydney, New South Wales, Australia

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