Two Catholic worlds collide as church disagreement deepens
Hot spot … Ralph Townsend, a long-term Aboriginal parishioner of St Vincent’s in Redfern. Photo: Edwina Pickles
The fight, ostensibly, is over a baptismal font and some words in chalk on a wall, but the latest in a series of rows at St Vincent’s Catholic Church in Redfern shows the conflict runs much deeper.
A recent clash between the parish priest, a conservative Catholic from Brazil, and a group of long-standing parishioners is really a battle between traditional Catholicism and the more vernacular version practised in Redfern for years.
A group of St Vincent’s church-goers has accused Father Clesio Mendes, a 41-year-old Perth-trained priest, of disrespecting local Aborigines by scrubbing a line of hand-scrawled poetry from the wall of the church.
They also say he has removed a baptismal font sacred to the memory of the late Father Ted Kennedy, the beloved former parish priest whose shoes his successors have struggled to fill.
The font was brought to the church by Father Ted, who is revered as a compassionate priest who was unafraid of church authorities.
Len De Lorenzo, who has attended St Vincent’s for about 30 years, said the font had been removed by Father Clesio, prompting one concerned parishioner to send a petition to the Archbishop of Sydney, Cardinal George Pell, asking for it to be reinstated.
A few days later Father Clesio and his assistant priest, Miguel Zavarese, scrubbed from an external wall of the church a line of poetry that had been there for years, which refers to an "Aboriginal Christ".
But Father Clesio, who describes as "good" his relations with the local Aborigines, says he cleaned the writing off the wall "because it was critical of the church".
"For me this is like a graffiti," he said. "Besides, who did those words was white people."
As for the font, he says he wants to remodel it so it is suitable for baptisms, which it is not at present.
Father Clesio said he was just trying to uphold the teachings of the church in the face of some parishioners who openly disrespected Catholic traditions.
He cited the example of a woman who shared her consecrated Communion wafer with an unconfirmed child, something forbidden in the church.
"They try to do anything to get rid of me because I try to practise the proper Catholic way," Father Clesio said.
Ralph Townsend, 52, an Aboriginal parishioner of about 18 years, said the "proper Catholic way" made many Aboriginal locals nervous. "When Father Ted was there, he ran the church to make the Aboriginal people feel comfortable," Mr Townsend said.
"[Mendes] acts like it’s his church, not the people’s church. We just want to have a normal priest who is understanding towards Aboriginal people."
It was also picked up by CathNews as Redfern parish disagreement reflects church divide, featuring an unattributed image from this web site of the front of the church, and a fairly predictable bunch of soapbox offerings from the usual gang of suspects.
Len (quoted in the SMH story) sought to enlighten the commentators by submitting the poem from which the contentious words on the wall came. His contribution has not yet been published, and his request for an explanation has so far been ignored.