Father Bob Maguire, priest loved by the poor but not by the Catholic hierarchy

Maguire, himself brought up in dire poverty, deployed charisma and tireless activism in the cause of the ‘unloved and unlovely’

Jennifer King Wednesday 19 Apr 2023 04.08 BST

Variously described as a maverick, a “kick-arse dude in a robe” and an “anti-Catholic lowlife”, the Catholic priest Father Bob Maguire became the darling of the people – and the media – for his community work and his often acerbic statements delivered with humour, irreverence and hyperbole.

Maguire, who has died aged 88, defiantly and tirelessly advocated for the underdog using his most powerful tool: charisma. Candid and controversial, he brought a legion of new adherents to the church with his distinctive approach and unwavering commitment to feeding and housing the poor, the hungry and the homeless of Melbourne.

He also regularly butted heads with the church hierarchy, who found his forthright, populist approach to Catholicism difficult to contain and who eventually drove him from his parish after almost four decades. His enthusiastic embodiment of the principles of Vatican II, a modernised Catholicism initiated by Pope John XXIII in 1958, led him to clash with the church’s more traditional members, among them Cardinal George Pell who, according to Maguire, considered Vatican II devotees to be “cafeteria Catholics”.

“Some people have said I’m a saint; to others I’m more the devil incarnate,” he told his biographer Sue Williams in 2013.

Father Bob Maguire

At 77, having spent 38 years as priest of St Peter and Paul in South Melbourne, Maguire found himself without a parish. He had declined a request from then archbishop of Melbourne, Denis Hart, to retire at 75 but fought the church for two years before giving way. Maguire vigorously contested allegations by the church that he had mismanaged parish funds.

Without a pulpit, Maguire turned his formidable vigour to sharing his message of charity and compassion in other ways and found social media, radio, television and online forums the ideal tools. He had almost 126,000 Twitter followers (“The Larrikin priest … patron of the unloved and unlovely”), 37,000 views of his cover version of Kanye West’s Jesus Walks, and sold bobblehead dolls to raise money for the Father Bob Foundation.

In 2014, in an effort to gauge the happiness of Australians, he organised a competition offering as first prize the chance to work in one of the foundation’s soup kitchens. In May 2022 Maguire criticised the NSW premier, Dominic Perrottet, for his government’s decision to pass voluntary assisted dying laws.

Maguire with Anthony Albanese and Labor candidate for the seat of Higgins, Michelle Ananda-Rajah, and Labor MP for the seat of Macnamara, Josh Burns, in Melbourne during the 2022 federal election campaign.
Maguire with Anthony Albanese and Labor candidate for the seat of Higgins, Michelle Ananda-Rajah, and Labor MP for the seat of Macnamara, Josh Burns, in Melbourne during the 2022 federal election campaign. Photograph: Lukas Coch/AAP

Williams remembered Maguire as a wise, caring, smart and very funny man, although trying to pin him down became one of her most difficult assignments.

“It was like trying to catch a shooting star, and every time you felt you had a firm grip, you just had to close your eyes and hang on, with absolutely no idea where you’d end up,” she said.

Robert John Maguire was born in Melbourne on 14 September 1934, the fifth and youngest child of James and Annie Maguire who had emigrated from Scotland. One sister died very young, another when Maguire was 11. He grew up in abject poverty, his father a brutal drunk who would beat his mother and spend the rent money at the pub, forcing the family to move house frequently. He wore his brother’s hand-me-downs and often did not have socks. Maguire’s schoolfriends described him as a meek, conscientious and not very sociable boy.

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“I wasn’t particularly interested in trying new things or changing the world. I was too busy just trying to survive,” he told Williams.

By the time he began high school at Christian Brothers College, St Kilda, Maguire’s father and favourite sister were dead, and by 15 he was an orphan. However, through school cadets Maguire began to gain confidence and develop leadership skills and when one of his friends declared he was going to become a priest, Maguire decided he would too.

“I wanted to work towards making the world a fairer place, to help people who were up against it to get ahead. It was also serendipity. It meant I’d have a home, and food, for the next few years,” he said.

He entered Werribee’s Corpus Christi College seminary at 18, where he also discovered beekeeping and studied the work of Catholics known for their social activism such as the French resistance fighter Abbé Pierre and the American Dorothy Day. Maguire was ordained in July 1960 and spent the next 13 years serving as an assistant across seven Victorian parishes, where his casual and irreverent style occasionally raised eyebrows.

“For us kids, he was like a pied piper. He had a radical style in the way he presented himself, he could be like a stand-up comedian, holding an audience for long periods, and he had a great gift for explaining himself,” one former congregant told Williams.

In 1969, Maguire was approached to become an army chaplain and work with Vietnam war draftees at the Puckapunyal base in Victoria. He enjoyed the teamwork and order of the army and communicated well with the young soldiers, once turning the bonnet of a Jeep into an altar while in the bush.

Father Bob Maguire, parish priest at St Peter and Paul’s in South Melbourne for nearly 40 years and former co-host of Sunday Night Safran on Triple J for a decade, at the headquarters of the Father Bob Foundation in Albert Park.
Maguire established the Father Bob Foundation in 2003 to provide food relief, education, social inclusion and advocacy programs to marginalised people. Photograph: Melissa Davey/The Guardian

“You bond with your mates and you get the job done, just like Jesus and his 12 mates did,” was his message to the troops.

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