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Michael Arthur Scott (1910–1990)

by P. A. Howell

This article was published:

Michael Scott, by Mark Strizic, 1968

Michael Scott, by Mark Strizic, 1968

State Library of Victoria, 49184105

Michael Arthur Macdonald Scott (1910-1990), priest and educator, was born on 11 August 1910 in Sydney, fourth of seven children of New South Wales-born parents Arthur Ernest Scott, medical practitioner, and his wife Mary Catherine, née Rankin.  After secondary schooling at St Ignatius’ College, Riverview, Michael entered the novitiate of the Society of Jesus at Greenwich, aged 17.  In 1930 he travelled to Ireland and studied mathematical science at University College, Dublin (B.Sc., 1933; M.Sc., 1934).  Between 1930 and 1941 he dwelt in three remarkable buildings:  Rathfarnham Castle in Dublin; the Jesuit college at Innsbruck, Austria, while he read philosophy at Royal Imperial Leopold Francis University (1935-38); and Heythrop Hall, Oxfordshire, England, where he studied theology and prepared for his ordination to the priesthood on 30 July 1940.  He gained pastoral experience at the Jesuit Church of the Immaculate Conception, Farm Street, London, during the Blitz, returning to Riverview late in 1941.  In 1947 he became the founding headmaster of Campion Hall, a preparatory school for Riverview at Point Piper, which was to close in 1954.

With help from a businessman, Richard Morley, Scott founded the Blake prize for religious art in 1949.  The competition, named for the British poet, artist and mystic William Blake (1757-1827), was first held in 1951 and soon attracted hundreds of entries annually.  Scott, who was a judge six times, served on the prize committee until 1961.  That year he clashed with Robert Hughes, art critic for Nation, over the interpretation of religious art and the capacity of abstract art to communicate ideas.  In a reflection, 'The Vocation of the Artist' (Twentieth Century, December 1967), he stressed the obligation of artists to help others 'to know and love the beauty and goodness of God'.

Scott had been appointed rector of the University of Adelaide’s Aquinas College in 1953.  Obtaining government funding, he oversaw the construction of squash courts and new residential wings, arranged for the purchase of adjacent properties, and adorned the premises with sculptures by Voitre Marek and other artworks, including the Stations of the Cross by Leonard French.  He formed a choir, promoted student debates, theatrical productions and rowing, and proved an outstanding rugby union football coach.  He gave regular radio broadcasts, inaugurated Catholic missions to the university and established excellent relations with the other residential colleges.  An ecumenist, he engaged in dialogue with the lecturers at South Australia’s Lutheran and Anglican theological colleges.

Dismayed by the quality of local postwar church-building, which imitated traditional styles as cheaply as possible, in 1957 Scott secured a Carnegie Corporation grant to spend seven months studying new trends in religious architecture in Europe and the Americas.  He was impressed by the 'breathtaking' use of bright colours and abstract patterns in murals and windows, and by churches that, rather than having long narrow naves and transepts, were broad and roomy, round, triangular, fan-shaped or hexagonal, to bring people together in close contact around the altar.  Visiting five hundred churches, he took four thousand colour slides and, on his return, used the best sixty to illustrate lectures he gave in three hundred places throughout the nation.  They enthused architects, journalists, clergy and congregations of most denominations, and fired a revolution in Australian church design.

A founding member (1959) of the Australian College of Education, he was elected chairman of its South Australian chapter.  In 1962 he transferred to the rectorship of Newman College, University of Melbourne.  He served (1967-68) as a trustee of the National Gallery of Victoria.

In 1968 Scott surprised many by obtaining release from his Jesuit and priestly vows.  He returned to Dublin and on 18 March 1969 at Bruges, Belgium, in ceremonies in the town hall and the Jesuit Church, he married Mary Josephine Lavin, a noted Irish short-story writer and a widow.  A friend and correspondent since 1934, she had dedicated two books to him.  In 1969-79 he was academic dean of the School of Irish Studies, a charitable foundation that helped European and North American undergraduates to study in Ireland for a semester or two.

Scott had a fine sense of humour and 'formidable charm', and could mix in any company.  He devoted his later years to family history and to caring for Mary.  He never ceased to mourn his youngest brother, Anthony, who had been killed in action in 1941.  Survived by his wife, he died on 29 December 1990 in Dublin and was buried in St Mary’s cemetery, Navan.  Newman College holds a portrait of him, painted in 1967 by Clifton Pugh.

Select Bibliography

  • R. Crumlin, The Blake Prize for Religious Art (1984)
  • Australian Women’s Weekly, 16 December 1959, p 33
  • Bulletin, 15 February 1961, p 16
  • Adelaide Review, no 124, February 1994, p 34
  • Scott files (St Ignatius’ College archives, Riverview, Sydney, and University College, Dublin).

Related Entries in NCB Sites

Citation details

P. A. Howell, 'Scott, Michael Arthur (1910–1990)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 2012, accessed online 14 June 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

Michael Scott, by Mark Strizic, 1968

Michael Scott, by Mark Strizic, 1968

State Library of Victoria, 49184105

Life Summary [details]


11 August, 1910
Sydney, New South Wales, Australia


29 December, 1990 (aged 80)
Dublin, Ireland

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.