Priests I Have Known

Priests I Have Known: Monsignor Lex Johnson

Language matters, and it matters most at times of farewell.

In an eulogy at Sydney’s St Mary’s Cathedral

Bishop Pat Power of Canberra -Goulburn, a class mate of Lex’s quoted from an email message received on the day of his death from one of the people whose lives Lex had  touched.

I first got to know Lex in 1979 when I came from the country to work in the city. I was 19 and on my own. I came from a violent and unstable family. Lex was the only person to whom I disclosed the truth of my home life.’  The email concludes with the words: ‘ I will miss my very human friend and the only credible father figure I have ever accepted and respected in my life. I have had the pleasure and the privilege to be allowed to love Lex and to be loved in return.

Equally at home among the battlers of Mount Druitt and in the midst of the eccentricity and energy of Kings Cross, or even the formality of St Mary’s Cathedral where he was Dean for six years, Lex Johnson was a remarkable pastor, an inveterate collector of friends, a tireless networker and a man thoroughly at home with himself.

In 1984, Pope John Paul 11 visited Sydney while Lex was Dean of the Cathedral. With the Polish Pope living in his own house, Lex’s natural gifts of relaxed hospitality were given full rein. He was in his element.

About those same years, the diocesan authorities decided to  rebuild the dilapidated Cathedral House and replace with a modern design combining in the same complex a new school building for the Christian Brothers High School. It was a massive project taking two years. Wearing his hard hat, Lex uncovered a new talent – construction supervisor. 

Living in the splendid presbytery and cathedral house ten years later, my colleagues and I would celebrate his careful attention to detail with a prayer of deep gratitude.

At the time of his death a Sydney journalist, Pat Burgess, remembered his friend Fr Lex Johnson: ‘Before he even speaks you feel no matter what happened , no matter what you have told him, he would not be rattled.’

In many ways’, added Bishop Pat Power, ‘he was a man for all seasons – a great example of bringing Christ to people in all situations’.

During the requiem Mass at his much loved St Mary’s Cathedral, Sydney was hit with a violent and torrential downpour of rain. The planned cemetery internment was postponed to the following day. Lex’s body was taken to the beautifully decorated Cathedral crypt overnight. The crypt contained the graves of the pioneer priests John Therry and John McEncroe and six Archbishops of Sydney.

His friends remarked that the unquenchable spirit of this man for all seasons would be smiling, as he rested in this place he loved so much – even though it was a brief 24 hours.

In a vigil Mass the night before the funeral, Bishop Peter Ingham would touch on his generosity:

‘ Do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers for thereby some have entertained angels unawares,.

Monsignor Lex Johnson died at the age of 61 of a heart attack,  only two weeks after taking up the post of parish priest of St Therese Mascot.