The recent death of Fr Robert John Thomas Maguire PE AM RFD—better known simply as ‘Fr Bob’—has saddened many in the Church and broader community.

Fr Bob died on Wednesday, 19 April 2023 at Cabrini Hospital, Malvern, at 88 years of age, after several months of ill health. For more than 62 years, he had served the people of God with warmth and humour, and a deep pastoral commitment to those who struggle on the margins.

Born Robert John Maguire on 14 September 1934 in Thornbury, in Melbourne’s inner-north, he was the youngest son of Scottish immigrants James and Annie Maguire, after older sisters Eileen and Kathleen, and brother James (Jim).

In his early life, he experienced the kind of domestic turbulence and poverty that he would later so steadfastly devote himself to alleviating. His father struggled with alcoholism and a violent temper, which was often directed at his wife, but also sometimes at Bob and his siblings. Money was always short, and the rent often hard to find, so the family moved often. Bob recalled wearing his brother’s old services overcoat to school to hide the holes in his clothes, and he often went without socks. Both his parents died young, leaving him an orphan at 15. By then he was already well acquainted with grief, though, having lost his sister Kathleen to tuberculosis when he was 11.

The young Bob attended Our Lady of Lourdes Catholic Primary School in Armadale, serving in the parish as an altar boy. His growing faith was significantly influenced by the courage and devotion of his mother, whom he later described as ‘a model of Christian piety’.

In 1948, the RSL awarded Bob a scholarship to attend Christian Brothers College, St Kilda, and it was there that he first heard a call to the priesthood. In 1953, at the age of 18, he entered the seminary at Corpus Christi College, Werribee, where he discovered the Catholic social activism of figures such as Abbé Pierre and Dorothy Day, and where he served the community as a beekeeper, later describing these years as ‘one of the finest periods of my life’.

Ordained to the priesthood at St Patrick’s Cathedral on 24 July 1960, at the age of 25, he went on to serve as an assistant priest at Belgrave, Heidelberg, Ashburton, Braybrook, Kew East, Ivanhoe and Seymour. In 1965, he joined the Australian Army Reserve, and from 1970 to 1973 (during his time in Seymour), he served as Chaplain for the Catholic Military Vicariate of Australia and as commanding officer of the Character Training Unit for young officers, attaining the rank of lieutenant colonel.

Father Bob Maguire early 1960s
Fr Bob Maguire in the early 1960s.

In 1973, Fr Bob was appointed as parish priest at St Peter and Paul’s Parish, South Melbourne, where he would remain until he was appointed Pastor Emeritus on his retirement in 2012.

Over his four decades in South Melbourne, Fr Bob became known for his pastoral sensitivity and deep commitment to those in the community who were struggling. In the mid-1980s, he was instrumental in establishing Open Family Australia, which sought to provide aid to street children in Melbourne—work for which he was made a Member of the Order of Australia in 1989. In 2003, he launched the Father Bob Maguire Foundation, a grassroots organisation dedicated to providing food relief, social inclusion and educational support services ‘so that no one is left behind’. In 2001, Fr Bob was awarded the Centenary Medal for long service to the congregation of Sts Peter and Paul’s Church and the local community, and in 2011, he was named Victorian of the Year. He was a lifelong and passionate supporter of the Collingwood Football Club.

Fr Bob remained active in his retirement, continuing as Chairman of the Fr Bob Maguire Foundation and engaging in public advocacy on behalf of the disadvantaged.

He regularly appeared in the media, most notably with Melbourne satirist and documentary-maker John Safran, who in recent days has spoken of Fr Bob’s kindness to those whom others might find difficult or challenging. ‘More than being kind in broad brushstrokes, he was kind in small ways,’ Safran has said, noting that Fr Bob had taught him ‘not to cut off people who are hard work’.

With his irreverent sense of humour and reputation as ‘the larrikin priest’, Fr Bob accumulated a large following on Twitter, regularly drawing attention to the struggles of the poor and marginalised—those he often referred to as ‘the unloved and the unlovely’.

In a statement posted on the Fr Bob Maguire Foundation website last week, members of his family said he ‘will be sorely missed for his energy and good humour. His physical and mental health had been deteriorating for some time but his preference was always to help others rather than consider his own situation.

‘Fr Bob was not just a much loved family member but was loved by all Australians for what he stood for,’ the statement says. ‘He has fought bravely for the underprivileged and homeless all his life.

Despite his high profile in the media, he was always on the job, especially for the disadvantaged families and individuals for whom he had great love and compassion … These were his real passion.

Archbishop Peter A Comensoli also released a statement, saying that he was saddened by the news of Fr Bob’s death.

‘Bob has been a faithful priest of the Catholic Church in Melbourne since his Ordination in 1960, and a fierce friend of the downhearted, the broken and the lost throughout his whole life,’ he said.

‘Without a doubt, he was the “larrikin priest”, who had a great love for Jesus—who also lived with the outcast and the unloved.’

Fr Joe Caddy, Vicar General of the Archdiocese of Melbourne, expressed deep gratitude for Fr Bob’s ‘untiring service to the Church of Melbourne, especially through his prophetic presence and love for the poor.

Fr Bob was held in deep admiration for the many gifts he so generously shared throughout his long and dedicated service to God’s people, especially the dispossessed, the homeless, street kids and those battling on the margins.

He also thanked the staff at Justin Villa and the Priests’ Retirement Foundation ‘for the care they took of Fr Bob in recent times’.

Details of the funeral arrangements will be announced when they become available.

Banner image: photo reproduced with the permission of the Fr Bob Maguire Foundation.