Priests I Have Known

Priests I Have Known: Ted Kennedy

Ted Kennedy’s funeral was celebrated in a tent.

Where? Redfern of course.

Standing in a light drizzle outside a large marquee,
set up in the middle of Redfern’s notorious ‘Block’,
at the funeral of his lifetime friend Fr Ted Kennedy,
stood David Cremin, celebrant, bishop, friend to all, offering
greeting and welcome to those who arrived.’

These brief words describe a remarkable moment in the history of the Sydney church – the farewell to the beloved pastor of Redfern.

Those who gathered included many former priests, television crews,

musicians and artists, the alienated and the devout, former members of the High Court,  journalists, indigenous residents of the Block, together with priest and bishop colleagues of the saintly deceased pastor of Redfern. One of the guests sitting quietly under the canvas was Cardinal Ted Clancy.  Living at St Marys Cathedral a the time, I was just getting ready to go to Redfern when over the breakfast muesli Cardinal Clancy asked me would I offer him a lift to the funeral.  Never one famous for displaying great emotion, he was visibly moved at the death of Kennedy.

Ted Kennedy died in 2005. A beacon of concern for the dispossessed and a national authority on the plight of the Aborigines in our country. His funeral, which I just described, was a remarkable moment in his story and an inspiring and faith-filled celebration of  his life and ministry.

The place known as ‘The Block’ was a Sydney site with a famous indigenous history. It is a unique project for Aboriginal-run housing near the centre of Sydney, which excited enormous emotions and symbolism, and is viewed by the largely rural Indigenous as a spiritual home in Australia’s largest city.

But back to the story of Fr Ted Kennedy. In 1971, Kennedy came to St Vincent’s Redfern as parish priest where he would stay for thirty years. With two younger priests, Fergus Breslin and John Butcher, Ted was convinced that they should work as a team. This was in stark contrast to the traditional parish structures  where the parish priest made all the decisions and the ‘curates’ (the assistant priests) were the hired hands. Sitting down in the kitchen one night, as Kennedy would tell the story, the three of them began to pool their opinions about the particular part of Sydney where they were invited to minister. They came to realise that within a five mile radius of the presbytery there was one of the largest aggregation of indigenous in Australia. If this team was to minister genuinely to the community in which they lived a significant emphasis need to be directed to these people.

How best to do it, was the question.

‘Their first caller was an Aboriginal woman seeking food.’  Fr Ed Campion would say in his obituary. ‘From then on, the doors were always open to Aborigines, for food, lodging or a sympathetic ear’ .

Kennedy, Breslin and Butcher would learn on the job. Firstly meals would be offered during the day in the form of a rough soup kitchen. Then the front room of the presbytery was made available for an itinerant from northern Queensland. More and more came. Gradually the presbytery was taken over for emergency accomodation, then the Church Hall. When his two colleagues left, Kennedy moved his bed into the sacristy.  

 ‘On wet winter nights up to 100 would crowd into the presbytery to sleep wherever there was space,’ Campion’s eulogy continued. ‘Friction with the police was constant and Aborigines found champions at the presbytery. At times the atmosphere in the house could become sticky or even dangerous but the priests never, ever called the police’.

So began what Kennedy would call his love affair with Aboriginal people.

When enthusiasts were drawn to Redfern inspired by the Church’s challenge to working for social justice, and there were many, Kennedy’s caution to them ‘If you want to work with the poor you need to be able to cope with two realties – stench and violence.’

Back in the eighties, I hosted the Sydney visit of a remarkable French priest Abbe Pierre, famous for his work with the ‘ragpickers of Paris’. Pierre spoke no English – his host spoke no workable French. The French visitor asked to meet some indigenous Australians. So I drove him to Redfern where we sat at the kitchen table with Ted. Little conversation lots of body language. The problem was solved by Kennedy going down to the local pub The Empress and brought back a friend wet with the heavy rain, and slightly merry from his Friday night socialising. Henry was an aboriginal digger who had served in France during the war. He spoke fluent French – the meeting was saved. Conversation flowed.

‘Poetry is the person of faith’s native language.’ claims English writer Mark Oakley. Kennedy believed this strongly. It kept him sane and deeply engaged in the hazardous ministry he had chosen.

He loved many poets – Australian poets James McAuley, Les Murray, others from a wider tradition Yeats, Hopkins, Dylan Thomas. He befriended James McAuley before coming to Redfern when he was chaplain at  Sydney University. McAuley and his musical collaborator Richard Connolly  wrote some of Australia’s best loved hymns. Later another outstanding Sydney priest, Roger Pryke, included many of these hymns  in a production of the Living Parish hymnbook which would become a standard in parishes and schools for decades. While at Sydney University he encouraged  songwriter Peter Kearney whose music spoke to a new generation of  young teachers and parish liturgists.

But it was Redfern church which became his most enduring legacy. It became the centre of many progressive catholics who Kennedy would gather from all over Sydney to worship there of a Sunday.

After two major strokes Kennedy died in 2005. Dylan Thomas would write ‘old age should rage and burn at close of day.’

Fr Ted Kennedy’s rage about the hand dealt to the poor and the dispossessed would continue –  as it would in the story of the Aboriginal history of the city of Sydney.