Fr Ted, a ‘most extraordinary’ man with passion for the poor

Fr Ted Kennedy’s strongest message was “his understanding of the primacy of the poor in Jesus’ teachings”, says his sister, Sr Marnie Kennedy.

Fr Ted, parish priest of St Vincent’s, Redfern, for more than 30 years and dear friend of the country’s indigenous people, has died after a long illness. He was 74.

Tributes and letters have poured in to honour a champion of the poor and marginalised and defender of the indigenous people; a man who read and thought deeply and lived what he preached.

The Archbishop of Sydney, Cardinal George Pell, said that Fr Ted was a “good and courageous priest who inspired many people”.

“He was a man of strong convictions who worked hard to help those on the margins,” he said. “He will be sadly missed by his friends and former parishioners.”

Sr Marnie, a Sister of the Sacred Heart and a member of the Redfern parish community since the 70s, says her brother was a passionate advocate for justice and had a great gift for preaching.

“He offered a Christ who was so attractive and yet so strong,” she said.

“He offered a wonderful theology of the primacy of the poor, which was for everyone, not just a few. He believed that was the essence of the Gospel.”

Fr Edmund Campion told The Catholic Weekly that Fr Ted “is one of the glories of the Sydney priesthood whose name will shine in our story for many years to come”.

“He was someone who took the Gospel seriously and lived it thoroughly,” he said.

Fr Ted wrote in a letter to the Archbishop of Sydney in 1975 (Cardinal James Freeman) explaining his vision for his community at Redfern.

“Poverty of spirit is the prerequisite of all Christian life,” he wrote. “And there is no poverty of spirit without a sharing of the spirit of poor people.

“It involves feeling and touching the pulse of their lives, and sharing the weight of their anguish and putting our shoulder alongside theirs, and fighting with them for their rights.”

Ted Kennedy was raised in Sydney. He went to Christian Brothers High School at Lewisham before entering the Manly seminary. He was for some years a chaplain at Sydney University.

Sr Marnie says he was inspired by the reforms of Vatican II.

“He had a vision of a team ministry fanning out into areas like factories and other places, in an attempt to offer a yeast for a new society,” she says.

Cardinal Freeman offered him Redfern parish in which to establish his team ministry, and he moved into the presbytery in 1971 with two other priests, Frs John Butcher and Fergus Breslan.

So began Fr Ted’s friendship with the many indigenous people who lived in, or passed through, his parish.

“The first night or so he opened the doors of the presbytery and he took in about 100 to sleep there,” says Sr Marnie. “Ted slept in the back of the sacristy on a mattress for many years.”

Then came Shirley Smith (‘Mum Shirl’), who teamed up with Fr Ted to tend to the community, to visit jails and help conduct hundreds of funerals.

They were instrumental in the establishment of the Aboriginal Medical Service, Aboriginal Hostels and the Aboriginal Legal Service.

The term ‘stolen generation’ has been in currency for about 10 years. Fr Ted learnt of it much earlier when, in the 1970s, indigenous people with their newly acquired citizenship left the missions and came to Sydney to find their families.

He helped them. “He travelled the country trying to find connections,” says Sr Marnie. “He could say to people ‘I’ve met your uncle, I’ve met your cousin’ in some place in the far west.”

Fr Ted became renowned as an advocate for and friend of indigenous people, as well as a critic of those he saw as keeping their distance from the poor.

“He sometimes fired off a lot of Irish passion about justice, but he did not have a big ego,” says Sr Marnie.

Fr Ted’s vision of reconciliation was not a political, or even a religious one, but was simply a vision of friendship. And he led by example.

He was always wary of encouraging a sense of paternalism but, rather, strived to encourage self-determination, says Sr Marnie.

Some of the young people he befriended and encouraged to study went on to become leaders in society, including Australia’s only indigenous judge, the late Bob Bellear.

“Their love for him was just extraordinary,” says Sr Marnie. “They were given the sense that he had them as their first priority.”

Redfern parishioner Peter Griffin says that Fr Ted was a “most extraordinary” man.

“He was terribly orthodox, with liturgies for example, but very unconventional, too,” he said. “He had a penetrating intelligence. He was a very strong man and a tremendous friend in times of need.”

Fr Ted was suffering the effects of a stroke in 2000 when his book Who is Worthy? was published.

In 2001 he was awarded a Medal of the Order of Australia for his service to the Aboriginal community.

Fr Ted retired as parish priest in 2002.

He celebrated his golden jubilee as a priest in 2003.

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