Brilliant teacher who served Spiritan order in Canada

John Geary: November 21st, 1931 - December 31st, 2014

Fr John Geary, who died on New Year's Eve in Ontario aged 83, was one of the brightest seminarians of his year.

Fellow student priests at Kimmage Manor in Dublin in the 1950s marvelled at the total recall he seemed to have of complex lectures – all apparently without taking notes.

He had joined the Holy Ghost – now Spiritan - order to become a missionary, but for him mission meant education. When he and 24 others were ordained in 1960, he was picked out for what was known as the TransCanada province, and sent there in late 1961. There he became a headmaster and leader of the Spiritan community, championing Catholic education and refugee rights.

John Geary was born in Dundalk to Thomas and Molly (née Reilly). His father’s customs and excise job saw the family move home repeatedly. Thus he attended schools in Drogheda, Thurles and Limerick, all run by Christian Brothers.

A stint in Rockwell College in Tipperary, run by Spiritans, completed his secondary education and he decided to join the order. At Kimmage Manor, "his quickness of thought and his clear span of memory stood out", according to a contemporary. When the pope's representative to Ireland for the Patrician Year celebrations, Cardinal Agaganian, visited Kimmage Manor in 1961 the newly ordained Fr Geary had the task of welcoming the entire assembly.

Geary saw schools as being at the cutting edge of evangelisation. In Toronto he taught and later became principal at Neil McNeil High School, was the founding principal of Francis Libermann High School and was superintendent of education for the Toronto Catholic district school board. Throughout he fought for the principle that Catholic education was for all, not just for those with money to pay for it.

Happiest days

“The happiest days of his life were spent standing in front of a classroom of boys ... teaching them how to read Shakespeare and discover the questions behind a

Gerard Manley Hopkins

poem. For Fr Geary, it was absolutely essential that students be able to connect learning with their faith,” said his lifelong friend Fr Gerald Fitzgerald.

He moved to Spiritan headquarters in Rome in 1990, where his work in the library was part-funded by his cousin, Tony O'Reilly, who described him in an interview with The Word magazine as "a most holy and learned man". An earlier visit in 1975 saw him entertain Canadian prime minister Pierre Trudeau with an impromptu recital by the 80 members of the Neil McNeil High School band at the Irish Embassy in Rome.

In his late 60s, he studied in Europe and North America. According to an article in Canada's Catholic Register, "The entire enterprise of learning seized Fr. Geary deep in his soul and stayed with him as both teacher and student right up to earning his PhD in English literature from the University of Toronto in 2007 at 76."

He then went on to lecture in the Spiritans’ University in Duquesne, Pittsburgh before retiring to Toronto in 2010, while still working as an archivist/historian.

He continued to tutor migrants until weeks before his death. He is survived by his sisters Mary (Ditchburn) and Margaret (Grant) and brother Dermot.