New regime sparks unholy row at Aboriginal church

From The Independent in London, Published: 08 September 2006
By Kathy Marks in Sydney

A thinly attended Friday morning mass has just ended at St Vincent’s Catholic church in Redfern, a deprived inner-city neighbourhood of Sydney. As the priest, Father Gerry Prindiville, hurries out, the front door opens to a colourful wave of humanity.

These are the parish’s most needy: the homeless, the mentally ill, the down-and-outs, many from Redfern’s sizeable Aboriginal community. Some used to attend mass, but now they come just for the free meals provided twice a week.

For 30 years, under Father Prindiville’s predecessor, Ted Kennedy, St Vincent’s was a refuge for broken people. Father Ted, as he was known, was passionate about social justice. He helped to set up Aboriginal housing and medical services in Redfern, where he is still revered.

But he also made himself unpopular with the Catholic hierarchy, particularly the present Archbishop of Sydney, Cardinal George Pell, an ultra- conservative. After Father Ted fell sick and died last year, Cardinal Pell replaced him with priests from the Neocatechumenal Way, a Spanish missionary movement committed to saving souls rather than changing society.

The move, which some denounced as provocative, has caused a rift between clergy and parishioners. The latter, who include a substantial number of middle-class Catholics drawn to Redfern because of Father Ted, say the “Neocats” have no interest in the area or its problems. The priests have been accused of showing disrespect to Aboriginal people and their traditions.

Now the faithful are fighting back. A few Sundays ago, Father Prindiville found a huge mural had appeared in the church overnight. Framed by indigenous totems including an emu and goanna, it reproduced a speech by Pope John Paul II in Alice Springs in 1986, in which he paid tribute to Aboriginal spirituality. The Pope told Aborigines: “Your dreaming is your own way to touching the mystery of God’s spirit in you and in creation.” Father Prindiville was furious. He called the mural vandalism.

Since then, relations have deteriorated. Father Prindiville scandalised worshippers by storming out half-way through one Sunday mass, calling it “too political”. Prayers had been offered for Vietnam War veterans, and for Aboriginal stockmen who fought for land rights. After last Sunday’s mass, a parishioner, Len De Lorenzo, stood to read a conciliatory letter. The priests walked out, with one seminarian making a two-fingered gesture.

Marnie Kennedy, Father Ted’s sister, says parishioners had tried to talk to the newcomers. “Ted used to reach out to the Aboriginal people. These priests don’t even want to meet them. They’re only interested in evangelising.”

For her, Redfern mirrors a wider struggle between liberals and conservatives in the church, with groups including the Neocats and Opus Dei used to clamp down on troublesome parishes.

For black parishioners, the mural has helped to restore the sense that St Vincent’s is theirs. Ralph Townsend said: “It lets the Neocats know we’re here, and they’re not going to kick us out of our church.”

It took weeks to plan the mural, and seven Aboriginal artists were involved. A nun let them into the church on the Saturday afternoon. Her brother, an off-duty policeman, kept watch. Scaffolding was wheeled in. Six hours later, the painting was complete.

The mural dominates the church interior. Behind the altar, are photographs of Father Ted and “Mum Shirl” Smith, an Aboriginal social worker. Father Prindiville took her picture down, but replaced it after angry protests.

The flashpoint was a wooden crucifix painted in the Aboriginal colours of red, black and gold, which local people placed on a small table by the altar. An assistant priest, Dennis Sudla, allegedly threw it across the floor, and smashed the table. Police were summoned.

Father Prindville objects to people calling out during prayers. But, Marnie Kennedy says, “that’s the kind of parish we are, it’s a place with a lot of suffering and shouting”. Some parishioners also complained about a priest, Clesio Mendes, who enacted a crucifixion rite during the Good Friday service, calling out: “Daddy, Daddy, save me!”

Cardinal Pell told The Australian newspaper that he wanted St Vincent’s to concentrate on religion rather than social work. “There’s no long-term help for anyone in Redfern simply by handing out condoms or syringes or a few bob to clean the church,” he said.

The chancellor of the archdiocese, Father John Usher, said Cardinal Pell had made it clear the Neocats would stay. Of the mural, he said: “I understand that it’s very beautiful. The difficulty is that it just happened.” Father Prindiville has declined to comment.

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