John Heavey was the only one of the six bishops to have been a teacher in an Augustinian school. In 1910 he began teaching in the town of New Ross at Good Counsel College, which still exists. Principally he was a language teacher of Latin and Greek. He was fifty-six years old in 1914 when Bishop Murray died and was Heavey sent from the classroom to become the bishop of far-away Far North Queensland.
Heavey was responsible for the Church in Far North Queensland during the two World Wars (1914-1918 and 1939-1945). He remained in Cairns during 1941-1942 when after the fall of Singapore there had been a very real fear of a Japanese military invasion and as many as Cairns 7,000 inhabitants were evacuated southwards.
When he led the Church of Far North Queensland during most of the first half of the twentieth century, the pioneering days were essentially over. Even so, the task facing him was huge; his area of pastoral responsibility in tropical Queensland was four times larger than all of Ireland, and had to manage the task with a maximum of twenty-two priests; this became easier with the coming of motor vehicles because a priest could then travel greater distances to offer Sunday Mass in small chapels away from the main town in his parish.
By 1931, which was to be the halfway point in his episcopacy of thirty-four years, he had a network of Catholic schools in the Vicariate that was statistically equivalent to that in Australia generally. Heavey was fortunate to have five Irish Augustinian priests who became long-time members of the Church in Far North Queensland, whereas other Irish Augustinians were sent for a period of about eight years and then returned permanently to Ireland. These five senior priests became anchors of stability and continuity for both Heavey and for the Church in far North Queensland. Heavey utilised their talents wisely, and much of the building progress happened directly under their confident and capable direction; he succeeded in his administrative role partly because he could stand on the shoulders of these clerical giants. In a true fraternal charity, Heavey and his priests worked well together, sharing the same vision and having priorities in common; each one dutifully fulfilled the role he was assigned.
Scholarly and retiring rather than gregarious, Heavey impressed most of all by his prayerfulness and his dedication to routine and duty. Even in his recreational time this was evident; he often attended the Saturday afternoon Rugby League competition fixture matches a few blocks from Bishop’s House in Cairns, but did not generally mix with the other fans. Everyone knew that he was the bishop, and respected his reserved nature while being pleased that he was there barracking along with them.
Due to an influx of Italian migrants, the Catholic population in Far North Queensland increased by 43% during fie time of Bishop Heavy’s administration. To cater for the pastoral needs of these immigrant Catholics who were unused to the English language and to Irish Catholic practices and expectations, between 1927 and 1948 Heavey recruited seven Continental Augustinians who spoke Italian: three born in Spain, two from Malta, one from Germany, and one from the United States.
What proved to a crowning acknowledgement of Heavey’s decades of leadership and the growth of the Church in Far North Queensland was the decision by the Pope in 1941 to elevate Heavey’s Vicariate of Cooktown to the full status, and simultaneously re-naming it the Diocese of Cairns, which it remains to this day. He died as the first Bishop of Cairns on 12th June 1948, and was buried there.
During Bishop Heavey’s later years the first young Australians to become Augustinian priests were raised and educated in Far North Queensland, and eight of them later became Augustinian teachers at Villanova College, and one of them its third Rector/Principal; the first of these eight priests was Fr John Leslie Seary O.S.A., who composed the Villanova sports war cry.
It was Bishop Heavey’s friendship with Archbishop Duhig of Brisbane that led to the invitation to the Augustinians to open a school in Brisbane. Villanova College then opened at Whinstanes in 1948, just five months before Bishop Heavey died. Of the four Augustinian bishops after whom the four houses of Villanova College were named, John Heavey is the only one who was alive at the time that Villanova began.