In a spirit of joy and gratitude, John Anthony Bohan celebrated his 100th birthday on 13 March 2022 at Mercy Place Rice Village in Geelong. He received many cards and phone calls from family and friends over his birthday weekend, including special congratulations from Her Royal Highness Queen Elizabeth II and Archbishop Peter A Comensoli. To mark the occasion, Rice Village organised a celebratory Mass to mark the occasion with Columban priest, Fr Kevin O’Neill, a dear friend of John’s from his home parish in Geelong, presiding.
At 100, John Bohan is full of life and a fount of information and stories, particularly those that relate to his early family life, his parents and grandparents. ‘My father was born in the Mallee district of Victoria and had three brothers and four sisters, and mum was born in a large house, at least seven bedrooms, next to the house where Charles Dickens was born in Commercial Road, Portsmouth, England. She had two sisters,’ he explained.
His parents met in England when his father was in the United Kingdom recovering from wounds received in France. ‘My mother and grandmother were tending to the wounded in hospital. Whatever the needs were for the men, whether it was peeling a banana or writing a letter, they did it,’ explained John.
His parents – John Timothy and Margaret Isobel (Daisy) married in St Swithun’s Catholic Church in Southsea, England, and then moved to Geelong after the WWI Armistice, where John and his younger brother, Kevin were born. John explained that he was born in the dining room of his family home at 421 Moorabool Street, located opposite Kardinia Park in South Geelong.
He was taken to St Mary's after birth on the tram – ‘there was no other way back then’ he said, to be baptised. His Aunty Mamie, his mother’s sister, who’d been living in Toowoomba, was his godmother. He can recall when he saw his godmother some 25 to 30 years later, that she was ‘so like his mother, but so different’. ‘My mother was very very pale – she had really white skin – while Aunty Mamie, having lived in Queensland for many years, was dark brown.’
John has fond memories of his family life and said his favourite childhood memory was the fact that he lived with his mother and father. He also had a special connection with his younger brother, having taken particular care of him during school, after suffering infantile paralysis.
The boys attended St Mary’s Catholic School, followed by St Mary’s Christian Brothers school in 1927 and John was an altar server at St Mary’s Basilica in Yarra Street, Geelong, for many years. In fact, when Archbishop Daniel Mannix blessed the extensions at Corpus Christi College Werribee in 1935, John was one of the altar servers. He also shared that he was part of the first intake of students at St Joseph’s Christian Brothers College in Newtown – where he was ‘student number 49’.
His first job was with Arthur Thomas and Co., however, it wasn’t long before he suspended his employment to enlist in the Citizen Military Forces on 27 December 1941, followed by the Second Australian Imperial Force on 9 February 1943. After training in Victoria, John entered the 54 Field Park Company as Sapper John Anthony Bohan and set off for Darwin. There, he was known as a Darwin Defender.
‘Sap is a little trench, so the chap who digs the holes or trenches is a sapper,’ John explained. ‘And I’m the greatest! And if somebody is going to attack you, you must be a defender. So, when Darwin was attacked – tanks full of petrol and oil were attacked on the wharves—we had to defend them. Some of the men were trying to shoot down Japanese planes out of the sky, which were trying to blow up the tanks, while other men on the ground were digging trenches. We were the little blokes on the ground – the sappers.’
John also served in the Atherton Tablelands, south of Cairns in far north Queensland and was about to be shipped to Borneo when peace was declared. He was discharged from Army on 18 December 1945 and returned to civilian life. He resumed his employment with Arthur Thomas and Co. in December of 1945 and following his apprenticeship in surveying, stayed on for 41 years. ‘I learnt quite a lot about surveying and in how to build a city at Arthur Thom’s,’ he said. ‘I had quite a hand in building this city.’
‘A person owns the land, and he wants as many houses he can get on the property, the least number of roads as possible, the least number of drains and electric poles as possible, and my job is to survey the land to his approval.
When Ford was operating, a lot of the land was owned by Housing Commission Victoria. And at the time, people wanted houses close to the factory or other industries so we designed houses close to the road, close to where the bus stop would be, close to the railway station, close to where you get to Melbourne.’
During this time, he also took up oil painting. While he’d never been taught and didn’t have an initial interest, a friend of his from Thom’s and Co, thought he’d enjoy it. ‘I was having lunch with my mother at our home and my friend Robert came in and said, “I have something for you”.
‘So, he gave me the book, placed it in my hands, and said “now you can start painting in oils”. I said, “ok”. I read and read through that book and had all these sketches, and then I coloured them in. I painted only in oil,’ he explained. Many of John’s works remain on display at St Joseph’s College in Newtown. He has three with him in his room at McAuley House, including the first one he painted, which features cows among tall eucalypts.
John never married but lived a rich and varied life in adulthood. He was an active member of the St Mary’s Parish Tennis club and enjoyed cricket, golf, and skiing at Mt Buller. He was an active member of Serra Club in Geelong promoting vocations. It was his way of ‘helping priests who are helping others,’ he said. He is well known for his support of many priests who have been stationed in Geelong over the decades including Msgr Jim Murray, Fr Richard Rafter, Fr Bill Durkin, Fr John Tresidder, Fr Ted Burns, and Fr Maurice Barry OCarm, to name a few.
When asked about the importance of faith in his life, he responded, ‘What else is there? What else is there?’
There is only one thing to do – to genuflect – to the fact that the host, God, is within that tabernacle. And then leaving the church, you genuflect to the fact that you're leaving the church with God in that tabernacle.’
Prayer still plays an important part in John's life, particularly praying for his family and for his mother, who ‘gave me my life’, he said.
End note: As the interview came to an end, John started singing Ramona by the Beatles. It was one of his father’s favourite songs, and one that he now enjoys listening to on YouTube. And though John doesn’t consider himself a singer, or even musical, it’s the author’s hope that John will continue to enjoy this spirit and zest for life, and its music, for some time yet.
This year marks the 175th anniversary of the Diocese of Melbourne. To celebrate, we're sharing stories that explore and celebrate the rich diversity of our local community of faith.
Fiona Basile03 May 2022
Melbourne Catholic30 March 2022