By Rachel Curry
Catholic education as we know it today wouldn’t be the same without Monsignor James Francis Nestor, who passed away on 22 February, just a few months shy of his 90th birthday.
Born and raised in Ireland, Mgr Nestor was the inaugural Director of the Catholic Education Office of WA and later served as the much-loved parish priest at Holy Rosary Parish in Nedlands.
Long-time friends, Father Geoff Aldous and Rosemary Hill, shared their memories of this intelligent, gentle and humble man with The eRecord journalist, Rachel Curry.
The article below also contains excerpts of the eulogy by friend and colleague, Dr Peter Tannock.
James Francis Nestor – who also went by the names Jim, Jimmy, or simply Mons – was born on 15 October 1926 in Dunmore, County Galway, in the west of Ireland.
The fifth and last child of John and Mary Nestor, he distinguished himself at an early age through his outstanding intellect, winning a competitive scholarship to board at a Catholic secondary school.
Upon his graduation in 1945, he gained entry to the famous Irish national seminary at Maynooth, near Dublin, having long before decided to enter the priesthood.
Simultaneously commencing a degree in Celtic Studies at the National University of Ireland – from which he graduated with first class honours – he was destined for a career as a diocesan priest in the west of Ireland, before a devastating tuberculosis diagnosis in 1949 changed the course of his life.
He had to leave the seminary and spent 18 months in a chest hospital in Dublin and two years convalescing at his home in Garrafraums in the care of his mother.
Mgr Nestor’s illness could not dissuade him from his vocation and, once recovered, he returned to Dublin and entered the famous All Hallows Seminary, which prepared priests specifically for foreign missions.
His state of health had prompted thoughts of a warmer climate and, upon his ordination in 1956, he obtained sponsorship from the Archdiocese of Los Angeles in the United States.
Fortunately for the state of Western Australia, his visa application was denied by US immigration officials due to his tuberculosis background and, instead, he was sent to the Archdiocese of Perth, where he began work as a curate at Our Lady of Victories in Wembley.
The move ‘down under’ suited Mgr Nestor well. He fell in love with the Australian bush and developed an irrational devotion to Australian Rules football (especially Subiaco Football Club and the West Coast Eagles).
While he became an Australia citizen in 1986, he always kept in touch with his family in Ireland and retained a strong connection to his homeland.
His friend of more than 50 years, Fr Geoff Aldous, said he was often brought to laughter by his mate’s “Irish wit and turn of phrase”.
As for his faith, Mgr Nestor was a great man of prayer, rising early each day to pray quietly for an hour, and reflecting on the great mysteries of life and death.
“That would be the way he had an effect on me, a quite profound effect,” Fr Geoff recalled.
“He would say to me, ‘We can’t solve all problems, we just trust in the God of mystery’.”
Mgr Nestor’s foray into Catholic education came in 1960, when then-Archbishop Redmond Prendiville asked him to enrol in a Diploma of Education at the University of Western Australia.
He became the Director of Catholic Education for the Archdiocese of Perth in 1967 and held this role for 18 years, a time which saw profound change in the Church and in its school system.
The post-Vatican II changes to religious orders, the surge in the school-age population, and the extreme financial and organisational pressures on the Church brought the school system to the brink of collapse.
Some argued the Church should withdraw altogether from its school apostolate and there was great political ferment over the issue of ‘state aid’ but, ultimately, the period led to dramatic change and expansion of the Catholic school system.
Mgr Nestor’s successor, Dr Peter Tannock, said during his eulogy, the Church “needed the intellect, diplomacy, selfless honesty and class of James Nestor to understand and facilitate these changes”.
He was instrumental in establishing the Catholic Education Commission of Western Australia – and its Catholic Education Office – in 1971, the first in Australia and the prototype for others to come.
Recognising his remarkable work, the Queen awarded him the MBE in 1975 and the Pope made him a Monsignor in 1982 and awarded him the pontifical medal Pro Ecclesia Pontifice in 2009 – not that Mgr Nestor would tell anyone about such honours.
He was a man of extreme humility, Fr Geoff said, and would be the last person to push his credentials.
“He was a very interesting and well-read person but, at the same time, always very humble and gentle,” he said.
“He always had that happy smile, right up until the last time I saw him.”
In 1987, at the age of 61, Mgr Nestor began a new career when he was appointed parish priest of Holy Rosary Parish in Nedlands.
He threw himself into this role over the next 16 years, working tirelessly for his local community and attracting a strong following at his Sunday Masses due to his wonderful homilies.
“He gave all of his time and energy to the parish,” recalled Rosemary Hill, parishioner and the friend who cared for him in his retirement.
“Priests are supposed to have a Monday off but, on his Monday off, he’d go visiting people who were sick or unwell.”
Mgr Nestor would walk down to Loreto Primary School almost daily, where there is now a school house named after him, and was also very involved with the Carmelite Monastery.
Above all, Rosemary remembered her friend’s openness and welcoming nature when serving the parish community, which was not unlike that of Pope Francis.
“He never judged anybody and he never criticised anybody, but always encouraged,” she said.
“He was a good man, a good friend and a good priest, without exception.”