Priests I Have Known

Priests I Have Known: Eugene Harley

Eugene Harley died on Anzac Day 2017. A happy co-incidence for a man who spent 26 years of his life in the Army as chaplain serving in Malaya, Borneo, Vietnam and Australia.

Service chaplains have a proud history going back to 1913. In the first World War over 400 served, many with great heroism. John Fahey a Catholic Padre from Perth, disregarding an order to stay safely on the ship, was one of the first to land at Gallipoli in 1914. Many have followed his example of courage.

Eugene Harley was no exception. On one occasion in the 1960s, when under enemy fire in  Vietnam, with the troops, he had risked his own life by refusing to leave a mortally wounded soldier to die alone. Later he was one of the first to recognise PTSD (Post Traumatic Stress Disorder) in Vietnam veterans. In later years he had to deal with his own.

There were many army anecdotes about Chaplain Harley, famed for various things including his love of a “wee dram” in good company and for his devotion to the Balmain Tigers. One story recalled that on the Malay/Thai border a jungle patrol had found an orphaned tiger cub. Lest it perish, the soldiers decided to take it back to camp and present it to the Tigers-loving Padre. A greatly surprised Eugene, reluctant to refuse the soldiers’ unexpected gift, adopted the cub until he could slip quietly across the border and find it a safe home in a Thai zoo. Another anecdote , that had grown with the telling and become variously located in Malaya, Borneo and Vietnam, was that Padre Gene had led a whole company back to base when the commanding officer had been evacuated and there was no second in command.

On leaving full-time Army service in 1985, Eugene enthusiastically embraced his new role as Parish Priest of Sacred Heart Mosman. It lasted 19 years and, in 2002, was extended to include St Joseph’s Neutral Bay. He had come to a parish, which had little confidence or cohesion, with decaying infrastructure and lacking lay leadership. With great support from Janette Davidson, his pastoral assistant, the Harley-Davidson combination created an active parish team of curates and parishioners and presented them with a different view of church. In addition, the whole Sacred Heart church precinct was rebuilt, including a new school, an extensive retirement village and a parish hall to act as the centre of Catholic community life.

During the celebrations to mark his golden jubilee, the parish organised a surprise guest – Mike Munro with the  crew of his television programme ‘This is Your life’. With his famous red book Munro took Eugene through forgotten layers of his own life and brought to the celebrations great friends from the past in both military and civilian life.

Eugene possessed a rugged amiability with a big welcoming smile. He spoke, preached and exuded solid common sense. Governor general Peter Cosgrove who served with him in Vietnam stated ‘ Eugene showed wisdom, good humour and endless compassion and typified the best of military chaplaincy. He approached his work with his sleeves rolled up ministering to the troops of all ranks with his own deft touch.’

One of his family in a eulogy at Eugene’s funeral said: he was a man who had no disguises, pretensions or sense of self-importance. A man utterly true to himself.’

He retired from the Army with the Chaplain’s equivalent rank as Brigadier.

Eugene Harley died in April 2017 at the age of 87.