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Woodbury, Austin Maloney (1899–1979)

by John Thornhill

This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 16, (MUP), 2002

Austin Maloney Woodbury (1899-1979), priest, philosopher and theologian, was born on 2 March 1899 at Lower Mangrove (Spencer), New South Wales, fifth son of native-born parents Austin Herbert Woodbury, orchardist, and his wife Margaret, née Maloney. His great-grandfather, Richard Woodbury, sentenced to transportation for seven years in 1803, had arrived in the colony in 1806 and become district constable of the Lower Hawkesbury in 1820; his descendants still farm in the area. After leaving the local public school, young Austin studied by correspondence while helping on the farm. As a boy, he showed 'a reflectiveness and concern beyond his age'.

Belonging to a devout Catholic family—four of his sisters were to join religious Orders—Woodbury entered the Society of Mary (Marist Fathers) in 1918 and completed secondary studies at the juniorate, in Sydney and at Mittagong (1919-20). From 1921 he was at Mount St Mary's Seminary, Greenmeadows, Hawkes Bay, New Zealand; he took his first vows on 2 February 1923. He studied (1926-28) in Rome at the Dominican Ponteficio Ateneo 'Angelicum' where he was influenced by Fr Reginald Garrigou-Lagrange, who was prominent in the revival of Thomistic studies. Ordained in Rome on 31 July 1927, Woodbury gained doctorates in theology and philosophy. Back in New Zealand, he taught at St Patrick's College, Wellington, then at Greenmeadows (1930-36). From 1938 to 1943 he was founding rector of Blessed Peter Chanel's Seminary, Toongabbie, New South Wales. There, in 1941, he started an Australian Illawarra Shorthorn stud, Meadowstream.

In 1945 Woodbury established the Aquinas Academy in Gloucester Street, Sydney, to fulfil his ambition of sharing philosophical and theological insights with the Catholic laity. Concentrating on the original texts of Aquinas, he showed remarkable penetration as an interpreter of Thomist metaphysical principles. His incisive and entertaining expository style made philosophy's subtleties intelligible to the uninitiated. Communicating his own enthusiasm, he inspired several of his students to obtain doctorates abroad. He made a great impact upon the narrow outlook of Sydney Catholicism. His students came from all walks of life, including the professions and the universities. By 1963 the second Vatican Council was bringing an end to the closed world of Counter-Reformation Catholicism. The analytical approach of the medieval scholastics gave way to a renewal movement seeking a more inclusive synthesis of Christian thought: the academy struggled for relevance.

Tall, impressive and authoritarian, Woodbury scorned non-philosophers. He and his associates in the academy stood aloof from the political controversies of their day. Although sensitive, he lacked the capacity to engage with those holding contrary views; he had been nicknamed 'Bismarck' as a seminarian. His belligerent essays in controversy had little impact outside Catholic circles. He retired to Hunters Hill in 1974.

Woodbury had maintained close links with the Australian Illawarra Shorthorn Society and became an acknowledged authority on the breed, regularly visiting the Royal Easter Show. In the 1950s, as well as running the Aquinas Academy, he managed Collisdun stud at St Michael's Orphanage, Baulkham Hills. Troubled by bronchial illness throughout his life, Woodbury died on 3 February 1979 at St Vincent's Hospital, Darlinghurst, and was buried in the Marist cemetery, Toongabbie; he was later reinterred beside his parents at Spencer.

Select Bibliography

  • C. J. Baxter (ed), General Musters of New South Wales, Norfolk Island and Van Diemen's Land 1811 (Syd, 1987)
  • Australasian Catholic Record, 55, 1978, p 142
  • Sydney Gazette, 20 May 1820, 29 Jan 1829
  • Sydney Morning Herald, 6 Feb 1979
  • private information.

Citation details

John Thornhill, 'Woodbury, Austin Maloney (1899–1979)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.online.anu.edu.au/biography/woodbury-austin-maloney-12066/text21645, published first in hardcopy 2002, accessed online 24 November 2017.

This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 16, (MUP), 2002

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