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Francis Kevin (Frank) Maher (1905–1994)

by Brenda Niall

This article was published:

Frank Maher, University Of Melbourne. Protocol And Functions Office, 1985

Frank Maher, University Of Melbourne. Protocol And Functions Office, 1985

University of Melbourne Archives, 11343/​75878, 55158226

Francis Kevin Heathcote Maher (1902–1994), solicitor, reader in law, and Catholic activist, was born on 10 November 1905 at South Yarra, Victoria, elder child of Victorian-born parents James Joseph Maher, civil servant, and his second wife, Dora Gertrude, formerly Cameron, née Heathcote. His father also had three sons from his first marriage. Educated at De La Salle College, Malvern, Frank left school and worked briefly as a messenger boy at the University of Melbourne.

By 1922 Maher had enrolled at St Kevin’s College, East Melbourne, established to prepare senior students for university entrance. Two years later he matriculated with honours, and secured a senior State scholarship and a resident scholarship to Newman College, at the University of Melbourne (BA, 1927; LLB, 1932; MA, 1937). In 1926 he won the Wyselaskie scholarship in political economy. He left the university briefly in 1929 to test a religious vocation, entering the Jesuit novitiate in Sydney. Returning to complete his law degree, he taught history part time at St Kevin’s, where his pupils included B. A. Santamaria. On 1 May 1934 he was admitted as a barrister and solicitor of the Supreme Court of Victoria and soon established a partnership with V. R. Adami. Meanwhile, he read widely in European history and politics, and the history and teaching of the Catholic Church.

Maher realised that his own religious education was superficial, and early in 1931 he had formed a group of like-minded friends from school and university to discuss matters of Catholic doctrine and social justice. Known as the Campion Society, the group drew on the holdings of the Central Catholic Library but it had no clerical supervision, no set papers, just ‘talks where anyone is free to interrupt’ (Maher-Santamaria Correspondence). Its success inspired the formation of similar groups in rural Victoria and in other States. The archbishop of Melbourne, Daniel Mannix, who believed that priests should not monopolise Catholic teaching, saw the opportunities presented by the organisation of intelligent and influential laymen. In 1937 he and the other Australian bishops approved the founding of the Australian National Secretariat of Catholic Action (ANSCA) with Maher as director and Santamaria as his deputy. On 2 February 1935 Maher had married Mary Carmel (Molly) Shawcross (d. 1957) at the Newman College chapel. They would welcome countless friends to their intellectually lively home at Kew.

Based in Melbourne, Maher and Santamaria established the ANSCA to foster the promotion of Catholic social principles in everyday life by the laity. Over the next seven years they were assisted by a talented administrator, Noreen Minogue. The secretariat provided information on Catholic Action (CA), coordinated and nurtured existing Catholic organisations, and helped to establish new groups such as the Young Christian Workers and the National Catholic Rural Movement. A thinker, writer, and teacher rather than an administrator, Maher became frustrated by the increasing demands of the office. In 1946 he visited postwar Europe hoping to connect Australian CA with its European counterparts. He found that in war-damaged London intellectual life had scarcely resumed. Desperate to salvage something from the trip and repair his financial situation, he tried to secure an appointment at the University of Notre Dame, Indiana, to enable him to explore developments in the United States of America. Unsuccessful, dispirited, and out of pocket, he returned home at the end of October.

During the intervening months, Santamaria had assumed responsibility for running the ANSCA as well as the Catholic Social Studies Movement, a secret organisation he had helped form to confront the power of the Communist Party of Australia in trade unions. The new anti-communist campaign was replacing the CA adventure and Maher’s heart was always in the latter (Niall 2015, 294). He worked on research, editing, and writing projects before resigning in 1951. Despite the subsequent controversies over the Movement’s interventions in politics, and the blurring of lines between it and CA, his friendship with Santamaria remained unbroken.

Maher had been a non-resident tutor at Newman (1936–45, 1947–50, 1952), and he taught economics and history at Xavier College (1937, 1952–57). In 1950 he was appointed as a tutor in law at the university. Lectureships in law (1952, 1958) and in economics and commerce (1953–54, 1957) followed, and in 1959 he was a visiting lecturer in law at the University of Adelaide. Returning to the University of Melbourne in 1960, he was promoted to reader in 1966. That year he co-authored the seminal textbook, Cases and Materials on the Legal Process, with (Sir) David Derham and Professor Louis Waller.

A pioneering educator, Maher was a key figure in changing legal tuition from a series of formal dictated lectures to a structured program of discussion in small classes. His teaching style was Socratic, wise, and empowering. He continued to lecture and be a mentor to students until 1980. Five years later the university awarded him an honorary doctorate of laws. Survived by his two sons and three of his four daughters, he died on 22 January 1994 in St Vincent’s Hospital, Fitzroy, and was buried in Box Hill cemetery.

Research edited by Nicole McLennan

Select Bibliography

  • Jory, Colin H. The Campion Society: The Growth of Lay Catholic Action in Australia. Sydney: Harpham Press, 1986
  • Maher Family Papers. Private collection
  • Maher, Margaret. Personal communication
  • Maher-Santamaria Correspondence. Private collection
  • McInerney, Sir Murray. Memoirs. Private collection
  • Niall, Brenda. Mannix. Melbourne: Text Publishing, 2015
  • Niall, Brenda. The Riddle of Father Hackett: A Life in Ireland and Australia. Canberra: National Library of Australia, 2009
  • Personal knowledge of ADB subject

Additional Resources

Related Entries in NCB Sites

Citation details

Brenda Niall, 'Maher, Francis Kevin (Frank) (1905–1994)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published online 2018, accessed online 17 July 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

Frank Maher, University Of Melbourne. Protocol And Functions Office, 1985

Frank Maher, University Of Melbourne. Protocol And Functions Office, 1985

University of Melbourne Archives, 11343/​75878, 55158226