Catholic Theological College mourns the passing Rev Professor Austin Cooper OMI AM. Fr Austin died on the morning of Sunday 2 July 2023, after a brief hospitalisation. His Oblate confreres and many friends were close to him in his final days, and he remained lucid and communicative until his final hours. He was 92 years old.
The name of Austin Cooper is synonymous with Catholic Theological College and, as we mark this year the 50th anniversary of the College as a member of ecumenical University of Divinity, we acknowledge the indispensable role Fr Austin has played in the life of the College.
After studies with the Missionary Oblate of Mary Immaculate (OMI) in Australia and Ireland, postgraduate work in history at the Catholic University of America in Washington, and doctoral studies in history with Monash University, Fr Austin was appointed founding Rector of the new St Mary’s Oblate Seminary in Mulgrave Victoria in 1963. He also served as Australian Provincial of the OMIs from 1976 to 1983.
In his capacity as Rector, he was invited by Archbishop Knox to participate in a committee to establish a new theologcial college in Melbourne, combining the students and lecturers of several diocesan and religious seminaries. Fr Austin was elected Master of the newly established Catholic Theological College and served in that position from 1972 to 1976. He was instrumental in the design of the College’s curriculum and its affiliation with the Melbourne College of Divinity (MCD) in 1973. He served two further terms as Master in 1992-1994 and 1998-2002. He was a champion of the ecumenical character of Christian thought and practice, and served as Vice-President of the MCD (1974-1976) and first Catholic President of the MCD (1976-1978).
Fr Austin’s academic leadership in the College has been consistent and innovative. He was founding Chair of the College’s Academic Board and has served as Head of the Church History Department in several terms. He was Professor of Church History and Christian Spirituality, and active in teaching and supervision until recently. He collaborated eagerly with faculty of other colleges of the University in courses in church history. He was appointed a Senior Fellow of the College in 2005. In 2004 he was made a Member in the General Division of the Order of Australia in recognition of his contribution to theological education.
Fr Austin was widely-known and highly-regarded as an exceptional teacher. His lecturing style was warm, intellectually engaging and spiritually inspiring. His humour, generosity and good judgement have supported students and colleagues alike. He has taught units in Australian and English church history, ancient and modern spiritual writers, the Oxford Movement and John Henry Newman, the texts of Hildegaard of Bingen. He has also supervised a great number of research candidates in their Master’s and Doctoral theses, and was unfailing in his encouragement, close reading of drafts and judicious advice. Over many years, he led international study tours to sites of European Christian heritage, and in the footsteps of his great friend, John Henry Newman. Like Newman, Austin could speak to the head, heart and spirit of those he taught and guided. He loved teaching, and it seems appropriate that he was teaching an intensive course on John Henry Newman only days before his death.
Fr Austin’s publications include A Little by Ourselves: Oblates of Mary Immaculate Australia 1894-1994 (1994), The Cloud: Reflections on Selected Texts (1989), John Henry Newman: A Developing Spirituality (2011), Julian of Norwich (2014), and several articles.
Speaking recently in tribute of Fr Austin, CTC Master Fr Kevin Lenehan spoke of him as ‘ a man of the church, a man of the academy, and a man of deepest humanity.’ His guiding vision was of the human person, created in the image of God and called into union as God’s son or daughter, called to be the bearer of truth, goodness and beauty in the world.
The CTC community offers deepest condolences to the Oblate family and to Fr Austin’s many friends. He will be greatly missed and gratefully remembered.
So long thy love hath blessed me, sure it still
Will lead me on.
J. H. Newman