It is with great sadness that I inform the College community of the passing of Dr John Bernard Burnheim, who served as the Rector of St John’s College for ten years from 1958 to 1968.
Our College historian, Dr Peter Cunich writes:
“Students from the late 1950s and 1960s will remember Dr Burnheim as a dynamic thinker who modernised St John’s College, influencing both its attitude and its buildings.”
Dr Burnheim is held in high regard by many of our alumni, and I hope that they will be able to attend a “celebration of Dr Burnheim’s life on Friday, November 17, 2023, at 11 am, in the Cullen Room, Holme Building, Science Road, University of Sydney.”
The College extends its deepest condolences to his wife, Professor Emeritus Harris, and their daughters and grandchildren in this time of loss.
Below, you will find a biography of Dr Burnheim’s extraordinary achievements prepared by our College historian, Dr Peter Cunich.
May he rest in peace.
Dr Mark Schembri
The College community has been saddened to learn of the death on 26 October 2023 of Dr John Burnheim, a former Rector of St John’s (1958-68) and a long-time member of the Department of Philosophy at the University of Sydney. Students from the late-1950s and 1960s will remember Dr Burnheim as a dynamic thinker who modernised St John’s in both its attitude and its buildings.
Dr Burnheim grew up in the suburb of Balgowlah and attended Christian Brothers College in Manly before entering St Columba’s College at Springwood to start training for the priesthood in 1943, later completing his studies at St Patrick’s College, Manly, where he was in the same class as Cardinals Edward Clancy and Edward Cassidy. He was ordained by Cardinal Gilroy in 1949. After a short period as a curate at Maroubra, he proceeded to St Patrick’s College, Maynooth, near Dublin, in 1951 to further his studies in philosophy. After gaining his MA in 1953, Burnheim was allowed to continue his studies in Europe at the Catholic University of Louvain in Belgium, where he completed his PhD in record time and with ‘grande distinction’ on the subject of Gottlob Frege’s notoriously difficult theory of logic. He returned to Sydney in 1954 and was assigned to teach philosophy at his old seminary at Springwood, where he remained until 1958.
St John’s College had been under the control of the Vincentian Fathers since 1915, but after the death of Fr John Thompson in 1958, Cardinal Gilroy encouraged the Council to select a diocesan priest as the new Rector. Dr Burnheim impressed the Fellows with his scholarly demeanour so, even though still very young at the time (31 years old), he was elected Rector towards the end of 1958. The College at that time was facing a serious financial crisis because of its small size and outdated facilities, so Dr Burnheim set to work with the Fellows to raise money to pay off the College’s debts and seek the further finance needed to construct a new wing with assistance from the Australian Universities Commission.
The Menzies Wing was opened in 1961 and then the old building was completely renovated in the mid-1960s. Finally, the Polding Wing was completed in 1967, increasing the size of the College from eighty to 180 students. This was a major achievement at a time when the Catholic church was also building many new schools to cater for the rapid rise in population, leaving very few resources for its university apostolate.
Prime Minister Robert Menzies and Rector Burnheim at the opening of the Menzies wing on 14 May 1961.
The 1960s were a time of rapid social and intellectual change in Australia, with students at St John’s becoming more integrated into the wider society and more open to the new ideas circulating in society. Dr Burnheim was the person who encouraged this process at St John’s. It was his intention to make the College a ‘living Catholic presence’ in the University, so he set out to participate fully in the activities of the University, something that had never been the case with previous rectors. He extended the tutorial system in the College and in the hope of improving the academic performance of Johnsmen, and at the same time struggled to ameliorate the worst excesses of the Fresher System. He became a judge in the Blake Prize for religious art and took up a part-time teaching post in the Philosophy Department.
This was also the time of the Second Vatican Council, which he sought to explain to the students at St John’s. His sermons in the College Chapel touched on various contentious moral issues of the day, from pre-marital sex and contraception to abortion. His theological views brought him into conflict with church superiors. One of the most difficult issues that he had to deal with in the mid to late-1960s was the College’s policy that forbade women from visiting student rooms. St John’s was the last Catholic college in Australia to loosen its rules in this area, and Dr Burnheim found himself caught between ultra-conservative forces on the Council and a more liberal student body that wanted to enjoy the sorts of freedoms that students in other colleges had already been allowed.
Dr Burnheim decided to resign the rectorship of St John’s in 1968, feeling that ten years was enough for both himself and the College, and wanting to take up a full-time teaching post at the University. He was already undergoing a crisis in his faith at that time, and in late 1969 announced that he was leaving the priesthood. He later married Margaret Harris, who had been a tutor at Sancta Sophia College, and they had two daughters together. Dr Burnheim returned to St John’s College last year for the unveiling of a paving stone engraved with his name in the Fellows’ Walk. The College extends its sincerest condolences to Professor Emeritus Harris and her daughters and grandchildren at this hour of loss.
(L-R) Vice-Rector Adrian Diethelm, Dr John Burnheim, Professor Emeritus Margaret Harris, Rector Dr Mark Schembri,
his son William Schembri and Council Chair John Coorey at the Fellows’ Walk ceremony in 2022.