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James Frederick (Fred) McKay (1907–2000)

by Judith M. McKay

This article was published online in 2024

James Frederick McKay, no date

James Frederick McKay, no date

Supplied by McKay family

James Frederick (Fred) McKay (1907–2000), clergyman, church leader, and superintendent of the Australian Inland Mission of the Presbyterian Church of Australia (AIM), was born on 15 April 1907 at Walkerston, Queensland, third of nine surviving children of Irish-born John McKay, farmer, and his Queensland-born wife Juliana Pauline, née Krieger. Devout churchgoers, the McKays would become prominent in the Presbyterian Church of Queensland, with three sons entering the ministry. Fred grew up at Palmyra, the family’s sugar-cane and dairy farm. His compass was set at the age of six when, as he lay gravely ill with peritonitis, his mother dedicated him to the ministry if he could be saved; he bore a sense of destiny. After attending Walkerston State School, he boarded (1922–27) at Thornburgh College, Charters Towers where he became school captain in 1927. From 1928, as a resident of Emmanuel College, he studied at the University of Queensland (BA, 1931), as well as externally at the Melbourne College of Divinity (BD, 1932), and received a Blue for swimming.

In 1933 McKay was posted to the Presbyterian Home Mission charge of Southport, Queensland, but intended to continue his theological studies in Edinburgh. Those plans were shelved following a visit by Rev. John Flynn, superintendent of the AIM and founder of its fledgling Aerial Medical Service (later Royal Flying Doctor Service of Australia), who persuaded the young cleric to join his team. After his ordination in December 1935, McKay spent five years as AIM patrol padre for western Queensland, pursuing its founding mission to provide practical and spiritual support to remote settler communities. His parish of 173,746 square miles (450,000 square kilometres) extended from the Gulf country to Innamincka in north-eastern South Australia, which he traversed in a one-ton truck equipped with a Traeger portable pedal radio. His warm, sympathetic nature, physical resilience, and practical skills equipped him ideally for the task. He oversaw the construction of new hospitals at Birdsville and Dunbar (Cape York); established hospital annexes for Aboriginal in-patients; and helped initiate a flying doctor base at Normanton and extend the service’s radio network. On 13 December 1938 at Ithaca Presbyterian Church, Brisbane, he married Margaret Mary McLeod (Meg) Robertson, a Queensland-born nurse who was to collaborate in his work.

During World War II McKay served in the Citizen Military Forces (1940–41), then in the Royal Australian Air Force (1941–45), rising to chaplain, 2nd class (wing commander). Posted to the Royal Air Force Middle East Command from 1943 to 1945, with fellow chaplains Robert (Bob) Davies and John McNamara he was responsible for the pastoral care of Australians serving in units in the Mediterranean theatre. The multi-denomination team travelled widely, and extended their ministry to the men’s families back home, using the British airgraph service to send correspondence to Australia. Affectionately and ironically known as ‘The Terrible Three,’ their flexible, ecumenical approach became a model for RAAF front-line chaplaincy and for McKay’s future work. Returning to Brisbane in 1946, he studied at the University of Queensland (MA, 1947) under the Commonwealth Reconstruction Training Scheme. In 1947 he became minister of Toowong Presbyterian Church, and in 1950–51 also lectured part time in Old Testament studies at Emmanuel College.

Following Flynn’s death in 1951, McKay was appointed the AIM’s second superintendent, based in Sydney, a post he held for twenty-two years. While building on Flynn’s foundations, he responded to changing social and economic conditions in the inland, including large-scale mining in the north-west. He opened eight new hospitals, rebuilt or extended others; and established new patrols, and community and aged care facilities. Under his guidance, the AIM extended its outreach to include educational and social work, and services directed to the needs of Aboriginal people, including itinerant nursing services in the Kimberley and a pre-school in Halls Creek, Western Australia. Concerned particularly for the education of outback children, he established hostels at regional centres to give children from remote outposts access to secondary schooling. He founded St Philip's College, Alice Springs, which opened in 1965, first as a residential facility and later as a co-educational boarding school. As he wrote in 1967, the AIM ‘lived and worked dangerously’ ([McKay] 1967, 12), ever optimistic that funds would always be found.

McKay revered Flynn and ensured that he would be honoured by suitable memorials. The first, in 1953, was what McKay referred to as a bushman’s grave, at Flynn’s chosen site, Mount Gillen, Northern Territory. It was surmounted by a stone from among the Devil’s Marbles (Karlu Karlu) near Barrow Creek, and constructed at a time when few non-Aboriginal Australians understood the stone’s cultural significance. There followed the John Flynn Memorial Church (1956), Alice Springs, for which McKay not only briefed the architect, Arthur Philpot, but oversaw building operations, even at times taking on labouring. It was one of his proudest achievements. At this time he forged a friendship with (Sir) Robert Menzies who shared his vision of ‘robust, practical Christianity’ (AIMFS, [1958], 14) and admired his ability to get things done. In May 1978, as Menzies’s personal chaplain, he gave the eulogy at the former prime minister’s state funeral, delivered in his typical ‘“fireside yarning” style’ (McPheat 2000, 7).

A skilled propagandist, McKay edited the AIM magazine Frontier News, and from 1946 commissioned and scripted ten documentary films promoting the mission’s work. In 1951 he had inherited Flynn’s position as associate councillor of the (Royal) Flying Doctor Service, becoming its elder statesman in an association he maintained for the rest of his life.

As an ardent ecumenist, for several decades McKay combined his role as AIM superintendent with that of general secretary of the multi-denominational United Church in North Australia. It became a model for the union of the Presbyterian, Methodist, and Congregational churches at a national level in the 1970s. In new mining towns in the Pilbara he cooperated with other denominations to establish joint church-community centres. As moderator of the Presbyterian Church in New South Wales in 1965, and moderator-general of the Presbyterian Church of Australia (1970–73), he promoted Christian unity and tolerance, calling on the church to become more relevant to contemporary society. In December 1970 he controversially participated in an ecumenical service in Sydney Town Hall to mark the visit of Pope Paul VI. Later he had an important role in steering the Presbyterian Church into union with the Methodist and Congregational churches to form the Uniting Church in Australia. He faced considerable opposition, however, and after union was finally achieved in 1977, some congregations, especially in New South Wales, opted to continue as Presbyterians.

On retiring from the AIM in 1974, McKay served (1974–80) as associate minister at St Stephen’s Presbyterian (later Uniting) Church, Macquarie Street, Sydney. In later years he focused on AIM history, having previously persuaded the General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church of Australia to commission Scott McPheat’s John Flynn, Apostle to the Inland (1963). When, in 1972, the founder of the Presbyterian church’s central Australian Ernabella Mission, Charles Duguid, accused Flynn of racism, McKay mounted a sober defence of his former mentor by trawling the archive for evidence of Flynn’s words and actions. He also documented (1982–91) the National Library of Australia’s extensive AIM manuscript collection (MS 5574), helped to establish (1986–88) John Flynn Place, Cloncurry, and in 1995 published a biography of the pedal radio inventor, Alfred Traeger. In 1998, at the age of ninety, following a claim by traditional owners—the Kaytetye, Warlpiri, Alyawarr, and Warumungu people—for return of the stone on Flynn’s grave, McKay searched rugged country around Alice Springs to find a substitute, with the concurrence of local Arrernte people. He saw the exchange as an act of reconciliation.

For his service to outback Australia, McKay was appointed MBE (1953), OBE (1964), CMG (1972), and AC (1998). In 1991 the University of Queensland conferred on him an LLD (honoris causa). A charismatic figure, he had a sun-tanned face, expressive blue eyes, and distinctive black hair. He was a warm-hearted family man with a sense of fun, who found relaxation in reading, fishing, gardening, and corresponding with family and friends in his meticulous hand. Two portraits are held in public collections: a wartime portrait by official RAAF artist Dennis Adams at the Australian War Memorial, and a later portrait by Sydney artist Esme Bell at John Flynn Place. He died at Hawkesbury District Hospital, Windsor, on 31 March 2000, survived by Meg, and their children Margaret, Ruth, Bruce, and Elizabeth. His ashes, and later Meg’s (d. 2003), were interred in a memorial garden at St Philip’s College.

Research edited by Peter Woodley

Select Bibliography

  • Australian Inland Mission Frontier Services (AIMFS). Report for 1957–58. Sydney: Australian Inland Mission of the Presbyterian Church of Australia, [1958]
  • Bilton, John. The Royal Flying Doctor Service of Australia, Its Origin, Growth and Development. Melbourne: Royal Flying Doctor Service of Australia, Federal Council, 1961
  • Cunningham, James. ‘Fred McKay, CMG, OBE: Padre of the Inland 1907–2000.’ Sydney Morning Herald, 4 April 2000, 16
  • Davidson, Peter A. Sky Pilot: A History of Chaplaincy in the RAAF 1926–1990. Canberra: Principal Chaplains Committee—Air Force, 1990
  • [McKay, Fred]. ‘About Our Aborigines, and What Flynn of the Inland Really Said.’ Frontier News 75 (December 1972): 4–5
  • McKay, Fred. ‘Heads Will Be Counted and We Will Not Be the Same Again.’ Australian Presbyterian Life, 9 October 1971, 4–5
  • McKay, Fred. Interview by Alec Bolton, 9–13 May 1988. Transcript. National Library of Australia
  • McKay, James Frederick ‘Fred’. Interview by Gail Winkworth for the Keith Murdoch Sound Archive of Australia in the War of 1939–45, 26 May 1989. Sound recording. Australian War Memorial
  • [McKay, Fred]. ‘Where There’s a Will … There’s a Way.’ Frontier News 65 (April 1967): 12
  • McKenzie, Maisie. Fred McKay: Successor to Flynn of the Inland. Brisbane: Boolarong Publications, 1990
  • McPheat, W. Scott. ‘Eulogy.’ Frontier News 102, no. 1 (May 2000): 6–7
  • National Library of Australia. MS 8127, Papers of Reverend Fred McKay, c. 1919–2000
  • Thomson, Clyde, Brian Wheeler, and Christine Liddy. ‘Shepherd Guided Flying Doctors.’ Australian, 19 April 2000, 10

Additional Resources

Related Entries in NCB Sites

Citation details

Judith M. McKay, 'McKay, James Frederick (Fred) (1907–2000)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published online 2024, accessed online 24 July 2024.

© Copyright Australian Dictionary of Biography, 2006-2024

James Frederick McKay, no date

James Frederick McKay, no date

Supplied by McKay family

Life Summary [details]


15 April, 1907
Walkerston, Queensland, Australia


31 March, 2000 (aged 92)
Windsor, New South Wales, Australia

Cause of Death


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