Australian Dictionary of Biography

  • Tip: searches only the name field
  • Tip: Use double quotes to search for a phrase

Cultural Advice

Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people should be aware that this website contains names, images, and voices of deceased persons.

In addition, some articles contain terms or views that were acceptable within mainstream Australian culture in the period in which they were written, but may no longer be considered appropriate.

These articles do not necessarily reflect the views of The Australian National University.

Older articles are being reviewed with a view to bringing them into line with contemporary values but the original text will remain available for historical context.

John Thomas McMahon (1893–1989)

by Clement Mulcahy

This article was published:

John Thomas McMahon (1893-1989), monsignor and educationist, was born on 13 December 1893 at Ennis, County Clare, Ireland, one of seven children of Thomas Joseph McMahon, grocer, and his wife Kate, née Costello. John was educated at Ennis by the Christian Brothers, at St Vincent’s College, Castleknock, Dublin, where he was a boarder and was tutored in mathematics by Eamon de Valera, and at University College, Dublin (BA, 1915; H.Dip.Ed., 1917; MA, 1920; Ph.D., 1928, National University of Ireland). In 1913-19 he also attended All Hallows College; he was ordained there on 22 June 1919. He met Archbishop Daniel Mannix in London in 1920 and became a lifelong admirer. After serving as secretary to Archbishop Patrick Clune, he sailed for Fremantle in the Osterley with the Benedictine abbot Anselm Catalan and others of the church hierarchy who were returning from ad limina visits to Rome.

Arriving in Perth on 17 February 1921, McMahon was immediately appointed to the cathedral staff and to chaplaincy duties at (Royal) Perth Hospital. He was diocesan inspector of schools (1921-41) and director of Catholic education (1941-50), and also chairman of the diocesan council of education. In the 1920s, as organiser of religious instruction, he travelled throughout the State, visiting schools at timber settlements, on the goldfields and in the wheat-belt, where the group settlement scheme offered further social and pastoral challenges. Taking the Education Department’s correspondence lessons for isolated children as a model, in 1923 he introduced ‘religion-by-post’. Residential camps, at which rural children received intensive instruction on matters of religion, followed from 1925. Popularly known as the Bushies’ Scheme, the program was generously supported by T. G. A. Molloy and the wider community. McMahon wrote several guides for teachers.

In 1926-28, at UCD and the Catholic University of America, Washington DC, McMahon undertook postgraduate studies that resulted in his doctoral thesis, published as Some Methods of Teaching Religion (1928). His association with the National Catholic School of Social Service in the Catholic University of America led him to appreciate the contribution of social workers and alerted him to the need for adequate financial assistance for students. Back in Perth, as editor (1929-32) of the archdiocesan newspaper The Record, he promoted the Bushies’ Scheme and other educational initiatives, including the ‘Boys Town’ institutions. In 1932 he became parish priest at St Columba’s, South Perth.

McMahon was closely involved with the University of Western Australia. In 1924 he had founded the Newman Society of Western Australia and, in 1925, had introduced the annual University Sunday service. A member (1934-61) of the senate, he was a staunch supporter of university life and was strongly ecumenical. From 1930 he worked to establish a residential Catholic college. St Thomas More College eventually accepted its first students in 1955. He was helped in his endeavour by his long-standing friends Sir Walter Murdoch, Dr J. L. Rossiter, Rev. Dr G. H. Wright of Trinity Congregational Church and J. H. Reynolds, warden of St George’s College. In 1961 the university conferred on him an honorary D.Litt. In 1976 St Thomas More College named its library after him. He donated the central panel of the stained-glass window in the college chapel. A foundation member (1960) of the Australian College of Education, he was elected a fellow in 1962.

McMahon had helped to organise in 1946 the celebrations marking the centenary of the missionary party that had included Ursula Frayne, Joseph Serra and Bishop Rosendo Salvado. That year Pope Pius XII had created him a domestic prelate. McMahon approved of the Vatican II changes, believing that the church ‘must be flexible and move with the times’. He was the author of some thirty books, including One Hundred Years: Five Great Church Leaders (1946), College, Campus, Cloister (1969) and Rottnest—Isle of Youth (1974), and many pamphlets. In 1970 he was appointed OBE.

After forty-seven years at St Columba’s, McMahon retired from parish work in 1979. Known as ‘Mac’, he had an engaging personality and a keen Irish wit; he was as much at ease on the greens of the Royal Perth Golf Club as he was at a gathering of clergy. He died on 19 January 1989 at Subiaco and was buried in Karrakatta cemetery.

Select Bibliography

  • F. Alexander, Campus at Crawley (1963)
  • D. F. Bourke, The History of the Catholic Church in Western Australia (1979)
  • Daily News (Perth), 17 June 1969, p 10
  • West Australian, 21 June 1979, p 7, 21 Jan 1989, p 15
  • Record (Perth), 26 Jan 1989, p 2
  • Journal of Religious Education, vol 56, no 1, 2008, p 2.

Related Entries in NCB Sites

Citation details

Clement Mulcahy, 'McMahon, John Thomas (1893–1989)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 2012, accessed online 26 May 2024.

This article was published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 18, (Melbourne University Press), 2012

View the front pages for Volume 18

© Copyright Australian Dictionary of Biography, 2006-2024

Life Summary [details]


13 December, 1893
Ennis, Clare, Ireland


19 January, 1989 (aged 95)
Subiaco, Perth, Western Australia, Australia

Cultural Heritage

Includes subject's nationality; their parents' nationality; the countries in which they spent a significant part of their childhood, and their self-identity.

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.