Historian has roots in the soil

Fr Brian Maher can’t say for sure where his calling to his 50-year vocation sprouted, but there’s a good chance it is deeply rooted in his passion for the natural world.

That interest initially set him on a different path, into agriculture, and Fr Maher still remembers the words that inspired his early career.

When he started at St Gregory’s College, a Marist agricultural boarding school in Campbelltown, the teacher had written the words across the blackboard “in beautiful copperplate writing, in colourful chalk”.

They read: “When man began to scratch the earth with a crooked stick, agriculture was born.”

“That’s the moment my agricultural career took off,” Fr Maher says.

The young Brian Maher, who had followed his older brother Kevin to the school, thrived in his studies both at the college and at the University of Sydney, where he also studied agriculture.

He also made a wide circle of lifelong friends among the land-based boys from all over the state at St Gregory’s and has fonder memories of those years than of his primary school years as a boarder from kindergarten at St Lawrence’s, Galong.

His father, Jack, the railway station master at Binalong, had been forced to send the boys to board at the school after his wife, Pauline, died before Fr Maher turned three.

Fr Maher did get to spend school holidays at home, though, and it was during that time that another seed of his priesthood might have been sown, thanks to the influence of a local priest.

“Mgr William Cahill was very senior in Binalong and he had a powerful effect on me as a child,” he says.

Mgr Cahill was an authoritative figure and not what you would call nurturing. In fact, young Brian was scared enough of him to hide up a tree with an air gun for hours, threatening to shoot the monsignor if he turned up to punish him after the mother of a boy he had fought with threatened to tell Mgr Cahill he had supposedly tried to choke her son.

“I was potentially a priest killer,” Fr Maher jokes. But, luckily for both of them, Mgr Cahill never showed up.

Still, Mgr Cahill “stuck in my mind” and possibly had some influence on Fr Maher’s decision to leave his job as a soil scientist with the Victorian department of agriculture and go into the priesthood.

He hated his time in the seminary. “It was like being in a prison for eight years.”

But he stuck with it through sheer “cussedness” and headed back to the Canberra and Goulburn archdiocese after finishing in the year he turned 30.

“I was very interested in the rural scene, so I didn’t go off to Sydney,” he says.

His first placement was in Cootamundra, the home town of his father’s family. And he served in various parishes, the longest stints being in Bungendore in the 1980s and Aranda until he retired due to ill health at 71.

He describes himself as an easygoing and gentle priest. He “didn’t turn on any paddies with the people” and he liked to spend time with his parishioners.

The thing he doesn’t miss, though, is the meetings. “If you want to make a priest happy, tell him the meeting is cancelled.”

As a parish priest, Fr Maher also oversaw the restoration of the church buildings in Braddon, Gundaroo and Bungendore, which fitted with his interest in local and diocesan history.

This interest was sparked by his travels on various diocesan appointments and he has now written histories for 10 parishes.

His most recent is of Boorowa, which he is hoping to publish on 16 July, the day he celebrates his golden jubilee as a priest.

Fr Maher’s standing as a historian in the diocese, including as author of the Planting the Celtic Cross: Foundations of the Catholic Archdiocese of Canberra and Goulburn (which also tapped into his interest in genealogy and his own Irish heritage), was made official under Archbishop Mark Coleridge.

Now, as sad as he is that is body has let him down and forced him to move out of his independent villa at Calvary’s Haydon retirement village in Bruce and into nursing care, Fr Maher, a Canberra Raiders supporter who “used to play a fair game of football” as a back in rugby league, is enjoying some aspects of retirement.

“As I told someone a couple of years ago, I might have to give up the Catholic faith because I’m already in heaven – I get to watch six rugby league games on TV a week.”

By Fiona Van der Plaat