The sorry story is told in their letters, some of which are reproduced below.
The first collection of letters was addressed to Cardinal Pell and Mgr John Usher (Chancellor) of the Sydney Archdiocese.
We write once again in reference to the relationship between the Parish Priest, Fr Clesio Mendes, and the community at St Vincent’s Church in Redfern.
The experience of the community during the Holy Week Triduum was profoundly disturbing and distressing.
On Holy Thursday at the time of the washing of feet Fr Clesio indicated he would include two members of the congregation, one a white man whom he named, and the other an Aboriginal man addressed as ‘you’ as he pointed at him. This man has been a vital member of the community for many years, regularly participating as a musician.
During the homily and at the end of Mass the parish priest admonished, upbraided and threatened the community with consequences if a paschal meal was held after Mass, a ritual performed over the past 30 years and more, and in keeping with the ritual in other communities. This meal was termed ‘party’ by him yet was in keeping with the Last Supper of unleavened bread, lamb, and grapes.
On Good Friday the consequences were apparent in the following ceremonies:-
- In the morning a celebration about which the general community had not been informed was held in the church and was attended by members of the NeoCatechumenal Way.
- In the 3 pm celebrations no opportunity for community participation in the reading of the Passion was allowed; the priest read it entirely alone.
- At the Easter Vigil when a parishioner insistently expressed a strong desire to be a reader Fr Mendes threatened to refuse to celebrate the vigil with the words “you are in sin”.
- After the final hymn when the priests had left the altar, a reflection of Meister Eckhart on Mary Magdalen was read. The parish priest and seminarians returned, noisily closing doors and clearing away in a manner that was both rude and disturbing.
To sum up, members of the community felt deprived and were clearly disappointed at how the Easter Triduum was celebrated this year and request that some significant moves be made to rectify the situation at Redfern. The on-going difficulties need to be addressed and resolved in the immediate future.
I am writing in reference to what happened at St Vincent’s church Redfern at Easter.
I went back home after Holy Thursday and Good Friday feeling so horribly depressed that I was tempted to go to another church for the Easter Vigil. But the St Vincent’s community is my community. It supported me, prayed for me and sustained me spiritually when I was sick. Also, for a number of years, I have led a Christian Meditation group there on Friday and felt the depth of prayer.
The community has compassion not only for each other, but for anyone who needs it. Yet, the Parish priest, Father Clesio Mendes, threatened to cancel the Easter Vigil, the most liturgically profound time of the year – thus threatening an entire community to do without its religious celebration. And this was because a lay person wanted to do a reading! An elderly man wanted to participate in the liturgy. But he was told he was ‘in sin’! Are we living in the dark ages?
I very much wanted to do a reading after communion from Meister Eckhart’s sermon 56 on Mary Magdalen encountering Jesus at the tomb. I have done this for the last few years. But when I went to see Father Clesio in the sacristy to ask his permission, he just told me I could not. So, as people asked me to read it after mass I did then, but the microphone was turned off and I had to speak over a lot of noise made by the parish priest and seminarians.
Hardly any participation to the Holy Week was allowed. For example, the priest read the Passion on Good Friday entirely by himself.
Your Eminence, our community has been wounded.
Dear Cardinal Pell,
On the verge of the Easter Vigil celebrations at St Vincent’s Redfern, at which I was present, the Parish Priest, Fr Clesio Mendes announced to some members of the congregation that the Easter Vigil Mass would not take place; that there would be no ceremonies that evening and that the congregation should go home.
Fr Mendes proceeded to repeat this announcement in quieter tones to some other people in the congregation who were obviously so bewildered by the half-heard message that they needed to hear it again. Naturally there was considerable tension created by these proceedings.
In the event, the threat to forfeit the congregation its right to both attend and participate in the Easter Vigil ceremonies was abated and the Parish priest appeased when a senior member of the congregation agreed not to do a reading within the liturgy, as had been intended by the community. This is the same man, whom the Parish Priest had, that evening, openly and within public hearing, declared to be a “sinner”. The whole distressing exercise then, visited on the congregation on the occasion of the pinnacle celebration of Easter week, was because the Parish Priest wished to expunge all participation in the ceremony by a member of the congregation with whom he is in bitter ongoing disagreement.
I present this account because I personally found the experience to be somewhat sickening that a priest, any priest let alone a Parish Priest, could use the threat of depriving a whole congregation of participation in the Easter liturgy as a ruse to achieve his own ends. At a deeper level, I find it profoundly disturbing. I am quite sure that I am not alone in this response.
Fr Mendes, in my observation, is showing increasing signs of contempt for the spiritual needs of his congregation. As you would be well aware, the community at St Vincent’s Redfern was recently grieved at the passing of Sister Marnie Kennedy. It is now one month since (Sr) Marnie’s passing. Unfortunately there were several people who were unable to be present for either of her requiem. Now, one month on and the community would like to hold a small community conducted ceremony – a Memorium, both to remember Marnie to the community and as a way to honour the grieving of previously absent members of the community. Fr Mendes’ response to a respectful request to him to conduct such a ceremony was swift and precise “No”.
I find the behaviour of this priest to be both odious and profoundly disturbing.
Many letters have been written over the years to the Archdiocese, only to receive terse replies ignoring any issues raised. So this response, which refreshingly addresses some of the specifics in PG’s letter (immediately above) came as somewhat of a surprise.
The next letter, together with the preeceding three from community members, was sent to Archbishop Hickey of Perth where Mendes, and indeed many of our Neocat priests, are incardinated.
Dear Archbishop Hickey,
We write to formally request that you recall the parish-priest of Redfern, Fr. Clesio Mendes, to Perth where he is incardinated.
For over two years, parishioners have written to you about the inappropriate behaviour of Fr Mendes. Easter 2011 was shocking: when an elderly gentleman said before mass began that he would like to read one of the readings, Mendes in a loud voice denounced him as being “in sin”! When the accusation was protested, the parish priest publicly announced that the Saturday Easter Vigil mass was cancelled. A woman asked if he might have a mass at midnight and was told “I don’t speak to you”. The older man had the grace to back off from his request, and so the mass went ahead. Everyone heard the priest’s rudeness, snipe and defamatory remarks and felt troubled – on this feast of rejoicing! Further details are in the attached three letters from members of our community to Cardinal George Pell and Fr. John Usher.
Fr. Mendes’ behaviour shows:
• a lack of professionalism
• a lack of maturity in relating to the more vulnerable in society and / or women
• a lack of ability and willingness to recognize a culture other than his own
• A disgraceful display of abusive bullying.
We appeal to your compassion and maturity. Would you have accepted a parish priest talking to your elderly father/grandfather in this way? Would you have felt your mother would be speaking out of place if she asked the parish priest if there was a replacement mass?
A moral wrong has occurred: a man was publicly defamed; a congregation faced the threat of the Easter Saturday Vigil mass being aborted. As a matter of justice to this community, we urge you to respond to our correspondence at your earliest convenience. Silence risks to be read as either complicity or moral cowardice. Mendes’ continuing appointment reflects badly on church professionalism.
Signed on behalf of 28 members of the St. Vincent’s community named verso.
This letter elicited the following response; it, too, addresses some of the issues contained therein. More significantly, it announces to the community that Mendes is to go.
Further consequences were evident at Mass on the Sunday following the receipt of the letter from Hickey to the Redfernites.
Assistant pp Zavarese’s disposition, which had been quite affable (for a Neocat) seemed to have soured decidedly. And Mendes came out fighting with an extra long version of the same sort of homily that he delivers every Sunday, railing against those who dare to think for themselves. The fighting spirit flared up again with his now familiar introduction to the Prayers of the Faithful – keep it short, make prayers not political statements, especially nothing critical of the Church.
The first (short) prayer was not yet complete when he attempted to regain control of the proceedings. The congregation continued, refusing to be denied the opportunity to make their offerings. Mendes countered with a threat to terminate the Mass, but backed down after considerable banter and the realisation that someone had been pointing a camera at him during his performance.
Consequences are part of the routine at Redfern. Here’s another one that you may have missed – Wreckonciliation.
- What has the world come to, when two young priests, unable to peacefully dialogue with a 78 year old gentleman, call in the police?