Priests I Have Known

Priests I Have Known: John McSweeney

In the year 2000, four priests sat round a table in St Mary’s Cathedral, three Irish born the fourth a local.  The Irish were Bishop David Cremin, Michael O’Sullivan and John McSweeney. I was the local and the Cathedral host.

Back in 1820 Sydney was still in its infancy and a convict settlement when the first two officially appointed Catholic priests arrived from Ireland – Philip Connolly and John Joseph Therry. Connolly went to Van Diemens Land and  Therry stayed in Sydney. Our group was sitting on the site of the house where this larger than life figured  lived all those years ago.

The purpose of the meeting was to consider the possibility of producing a film of the dimension say of The Man from Snowy River, about the life of Fr John Therry. The first hurdle was the script. Who could we find to write it ? Tom Keneally, Andrew Bovell, Les Murray? Six months later the meeting reconvened with the script question unresolved. Quietly John McSweeny tabled a book entitled : John Therry – the meddling priest. While we were foostering around considering possibilities the man of action McSweeney went off and wrote the Therry story. a well researched and complete account of the man from Cork’s   turbulent life. We were flabbergasted. He would write two other books about his Irish-born priest heroes – Tom Dunleigh, the friend of the lonely and the alcoholic,  and David Cremin, auxiliary bishop of Sydney and fellow potential film producer. Finally he would leave us  a McSweeney memoir of his own colourful life entitled: Light of Other Days.

John McSweeney is one of the river of Irish priests who have come to minister in Australia since those heady days of John Therry. McSweeney would be one of the last. Like Therry he came from his beloved Cork. Together with many  young men who studied in Dublin and later worked here, McSweeney was an All Hallows man. 

This river has a long history.

A little over a century ago half the priests in this land

were Irish born – fresh faced twenty year olds from Sligo and Wexford, from Tipperary and Donegal. Often enough trained at the great missionary college of All Hallows on the outskirts of Dublin. They were affectionately referred to as the ‘FBI’ – the foreign born Irish. Sadly that rich history has come to an end.

Young Irish backpackers still come in their hundreds, often end up in ‘County Bondi’ and head for the pub. They still have their own Irish chaplain.

The priests who came in waves are names of legend, Dixon, Therry, McEncroe, McAlroy; more recently Dunlea, Dundon, O’Sullivan and McSweeney and their many brothers.

John was hard to dislike. His natural warmth and a personality always ready to listen was the foundation of a quiet but hugely effective ministry. “Is that so ??” was his gentle  invitation to listen to what you had to say and give it his careful consideration. It was his signature reply to whatever you had to offer. Simply ‘Is that so??’ At  times, of course, it could be maddening if you shared breakfast with him each morning. Yet it was his gentle manner of connecting and respecting whatever you had to often.

Never a day passed summer or winter when he didn’t swim – Mahon Pool at Maroubra, a rock pool splashed at high tide by the ocean, Shelly beach at Cronulla and Botany Bay at Brighton-Le-Sands. Swimming was perhaps a little unusual for someone born in Ireland, but John found in swimming an invigorating and life-enhancing habit.

John McSweeney died in his 69th year as a priest, and was active, thoughtful and sane to his last days. A determined advocate for holding the diocese to the vision of Vatican 11. In parish life he consulted widely and often. He conducted his Sunday liturgy in a manner that connected with real lives of the worshippers. And created and easy sense of community and mutual respect among any priests who he lived with. Two of his assistants became bishops, a proud fact that he would remind anyone polite enough to listen to him. The implication was obvious – they were formed in the school of McSweeney. ‘Is that so, Tony.’

One memory I have of him, was John standing in front of a diocesan conference of two hundred priests and bishops, complaining about the lack of clarity of the new English translation of the Mass. He read aloud one of the new prayers, believe it or not, it consisted of a sentence of eighty words without a comma.  Never timid, the man from Cork was determined to make his point. 

Early after he arrived in Sydney John volunteered to join a team of priests who would go to Japan a few years after the nuclear attack of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. The task was to support the Catholic community deeply shaken by the events of war. Those five years brought him close to one of the great ethical events of our time.

Returning to Sydney he would minister in eleven parishes – Dulwich Hill, Woollahra, Parramatta, Ashbury, Lane Cove, Daceyville, Pymble, Clifton Gardens, Villawood, Auburn and Kingsgrove. Pheww. The last three he was the priest in charge.  When he retired he continued to minister in the St Josephs Village, Auburn.

John McSweeney died at the age of 94. A symbol of a passionate, fully human, literate, minister of the gospel, who together with the other hundreds of FBI (foreign born Irish) priests who came to this country have made a inestimable contribution to the planting of the Catholic Church in this far-off land down under.

‘Is that so, Tony?’

Yes John, that is so. Thank God you and your brothers came and made Sydney your home.