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Flawed hero healed the wounded

18 October 2009 2,214 views No Comment

Shortly after my wife and I moved from Brisbane to Redfern in May 2005, Edmund Campion, author of ‘Rockchoppers: Growing Up Catholic in Australia’, penned a fine obituary for that feisty priest of St Vincent’s church in Redfern, Ted Kennedy.

Redfern’s Father Ted had a lot in common with the people he helped.

Stressing Kennedy’s love for the broken and beaten, the dissolute and dispossessed, the ostracized and the lonely, Campion’s essay reminded me of Father Peter Kennedy, the renegade priest from South Brisbane, who – although now debarred by the Catholic hierarchy -shares a similar commitment to maintaining a non-judgmental community with the poor, the exiled, the marginalized and the oppressed.

As a former teacher of biblical studies, I am reminded of both Father Kennedy’s by the following words from Ezekiel: “I shall gather them together from foreign countries and bring them back to their own land…. I shall look for the lost one, bring back the stray, bandage the wounded and make the weak strong.

As Campion reminds us in this brief, but powerful, biography, Father Ted Kennedy was best known for his loving partnership with Aborigines – many of whom he guided, loved and buried.

Ordained as a priest in July 1953, as well as being Catholic chaplain at Sydney University, Ted Kennedy served at churches as diverse as St Ambrose at Concord West and St Canice’s at Kings Cross. But it was not until he was appointed to St Vincent’s at Redfern that his life work really began. As Campion puts it: “Providence put him in Redfern, so his life took on a shape he could not have imagined.

As a man who sometimes imbibed too much, the unruly Kennedy had a lot in common with jailbirds, alcoholics and, in particular, Kooris.

Especially poignant is the portrait that Campion paints of Kennedy’s close relationship with Shirley Smith, an epileptic, illiterate Wiradjuri woman. Born on the Erambie mission at Cowra, she was revered for her care of those in need and universally known as “Mum Shirl. Without her loving help at Redfern, Kennedy’s story would have been substantially diminished.

In Redfern today, there is a telling memorial to Mum Shirl and Father Ted. Inside St Vincent’s church there are photographs of them both on the wall above the altar. As Campion succinctly explains, “The people who put the photographs there positioned them on the same level deliberately because the priest always acknowledged Mum Shirl’s equal role in the ministry of Redfern parish.

TED KENNEDY recounts how the priest often recalled the powerful impact of Paul Keating’s famous speech at Redfern Park in 1992. Koori’s around him “had shed tears at the prime minister’s unexpected words. And when speaking, as he repeatedly did, about Aboriginal reconciliation, Ted almost always dwelt on his memories of “seeing Aborigines in the park that day crying because they were hearing words that they thought they would never hear from a prime minister.

While it is a shame that the biography boasts no index, photos or map, the book does explore how the first Catholic Archbishop of Sydney, John Bede Polding, an English Benedictine monk, was in the main and from the first supportive of indigenous peoples. Indeed, even though Kennedy came to have an ambiguous assessment of Polding’s legacy, he always drew attention to the latter’s “honest assessment of the injustices done to Aborigines, and the need for retribution.

Kennedy’s Redfern funeral was packed to overflowing with those who loved him: Kooris and whites, atheists and God botherers, the mighty and the low. After describing him as “an untidy, grimy prophet, a Jesus figure in our midst, Judge Christopher Geraghty prayed out loud that the Lord might “raise up an army of Kennedy’s … to bandage the wounded, to bury the dead, to share the fruits of your earth, to protect the weak and welcome the stranger.

Four and a half years after Kennedy death, priests of the conservative, fundamentalist, and sectarian Neocatechumenal Way have taken control at Redfern. However, in the Sunshine State Father Peter Kennedy’s “church of St Mary’s in exile is going from strength to strength at the Brisbane Trades and Labour Council in South Brisbane.

This would surely have pleased Ted Kennedy, a truly recalcitrant priest who stood up to hierarchical authority and who spoke from the heart to the wounded and the exiled and who, throughout his stormy life, so often comforted the hungry, the afflicted and the dispossessed.

Edmund Campion, ‘TED KENNEDY: Priest of Redfern’, David Lovell Publishing, 2009,pp 212, $24.95
Sydney Morning Herald, BOOKS, October 3-4, 2009 p 32