Australian Dictionary of Biography

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John Anthony Keaney (1914–1992)

by Max Vodola

This article was published:

John Anthony Keaney (1914–1992), Catholic priest and archivist, was born on 15 September 1914 at Flemington, Melbourne, second of three sons of Victorian-born parents Matthew Loughlin Keaney, oilskin polisher, and his wife Eileen, née O’Dea. With his twin brother Matthew, who also became a priest, Jack was educated by the Sisters of Mercy at St Brendan’s School, Flemington, and the Jesuits at St Patrick’s College, East Melbourne. He trained (1935–37) as a teacher with the Education Department then taught in various country state schools including Quambatook East and Spring Plains. On 22 March 1941 he enlisted in the Citizen Military Forces and in January 1942 began full-time duty, joining the 14th Battalion (later combined with the 32nd). Having transferred to the Australian Imperial Force in January 1943, he served with his unit in Papua and New Guinea from July that year to March 1944. Back in Australia, he was discharged on 24 March in order to pursue theological studies.

Keaney entered Corpus Christi College, Werribee, where he became head prefect. Ordained by Archbishop Daniel Mannix in 1951, he served in the parish of Alexandra until his appointment as an inspector of schools (1955–68) in the Catholic Education Office. He was also a member of the State government’s Council of Public Education. While visiting schools and assisting in the training of teachers, he developed a fascination for the history of Catholic education.

In 1968 Keaney was appointed a parish priest at St Mary’s Star of the Sea, West Melbourne. In the same year Archbishop James Knox invited him to be the inaugural chairman of the Melbourne Diocesan Historical Commission. More than a historical society, the commission was to be an official arm of diocesan governance and administration, with responsibility for collection and preservation of material relating to Catholic history. At its first meeting on 25 April, the commission outlined an ambitious vision that included the future appointment of a diocesan archivist, finding a permanent building for the collection, and establishing a foundation to secure ongoing funding. Keaney also advocated contact with civic bodies, such as the State Library of Victoria, the Royal Historical Society of Victoria, and local universities, in order to encourage research and publications. In 1971, with Tom Linane, he founded the commission’s journal, Footprints. His own research on the early history of Catholic education in Victoria appeared in subsequent editions.

Keaney and members of the commission worked enthusiastically to collect material and in 1976 opened the James Alipius Goold Museum and Diocesan Archives in Brunswick Street, Fitzroy. The museum was named after Melbourne’s first Catholic bishop, whose early diaries had been rediscovered in the cellar at St Patrick’s Cathedral Presbytery. Keaney would often make a hurried visit to a parish, school, or convent, in order to rescue historical material and artefacts destined for the tip or the incinerator. The commission’s extensive holdings are testament to his dedication to the collection and preservation of historical archives.

From 1975 Keaney served in the parishes of South Caulfield and Newport, at St Patrick’s Cathedral, and in North Caulfield. In retirement, he attended the Goold Museum daily, assisting researchers and proudly showing the collection to parish groups and schools. He died on 29 January 1992 at Kew, Melbourne, and was buried in Melbourne general cemetery.

Research edited by Samuel Furphy

Select Bibliography

  • Advocate (Melbourne, Vic.). ‘Hidden History.’ 2 May 1968, 6
  • ‘Historical Commission for Archdiocese.’ 2 May 1968, 7
  • Hazell, Tom. ‘Fr John Keaney and the Diocesan Historical Commission.’ Footprints 8, no. 2 (June 1991): 6
  • Keaney, Matt. ‘Homily at Funeral Mass for Father Keaney.’ Footprints 9, no. 1 (March 1992): 2–7
  • McCarthy, William. ‘Homily at Vigil Mass for Father Keaney.’ Footprints 9, no. 1 (March 1992), 8–11
  • National Archives of Australia. B883, VX131166, Keaney John Anthony.

Citation details

Max Vodola, 'Keaney, John Anthony (1914–1992)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published online 2016, accessed online 30 May 2024.

This article was published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 19, (ANU Press), 2021

View the front pages for Volume 19

© Copyright Australian Dictionary of Biography, 2006-2024

Life Summary [details]


15 September, 1914
Flemington, Melbourne, Victoria, Australia


29 January, 1992 (aged 77)
Kew, Melbourne, Victoria, Australia

Religious Influence

Includes the religion in which subjects were raised, have chosen themselves, attendance at religious schools and/or religious funeral rites; Atheism and Agnosticism have been included.