On Saturday night after the Easter mass, a group of parishioners followed Marnie into the Sacristy, wanting to know why you had refused her the right to minister the Eucharist. I went in with my nana Eileen who, like all of us, had been shaken, disturbed and deeply hurt by the whole incident. In typical Eileen style, I’m sure she had wanted to give you a piece of her mind. After the arguing that took place in the room, one of your offsiders said something along the lines of: “Now everyone go away. Happy Easter. Go away.” Like everyone in the room, I questioned the sincerity of his snide well wishes. However, you Gerry didn’t respond to everyone else’s comments. Instead, you singled out one of the few women that were present; you chose to lash out at me. You fixed your eyes on me, and in frustration at the night’s events, you demanded “Who are you, I’ve never even see you here before!”
I was so taken aback by your insult, and I couldn’t believe that a priest could be so hurtful, rude, and exclusive. Shame on you! And minutes later when you stared at me and smiled menacingly, while I was crying, I was shocked at your lack of humanity. It was then that I decided to answer your question in writing.
So Gerry, I’m going to tell you who I am. My name is Stephanie D, and tomorrow I turn 20. I went to Loreto Kirribilli – a good Catholic school – for 13 years. I was even a Eucharistic Minister there. I have a certificate to prove it! Now I’m studying International Studies and Law at university, and I work in a pub part time. I’m the daughter of Catherine and Len (I believe you know him well), and the sister to Dominic, Anna Lise, and Nicholas, sister-in-law to Rebecca. I’m the grand daughter of Eileen and Poldi. Niece of Elisabeth and Pierre, and cousin to Sophia and Olivier.
But I don’t think that’s really what you were getting at when you confronted me last night. I believe that you were questioning firstly my faith and, secondly, my right to be in – and to defend – this church.
So let me try and explain it to you. Well, I can’t stand up here and clearly describe my faith, as, like most people my age – or of any age really, I still have a lot of questions and some doubts, especially when it comes to the hypocrisy of the disparity between the church structure and hierarchy, and the life and messages of Christ. I know that I will never stop questioning and analysing these things. However, I also know that I admire a lot about the catholic values I was brought up with. And Gerry, I admit that it is true that you have not seen me here very much. But for the first 16 years of my life I was here almost every weekend.
I was baptised here by Ted Kennedy. I remember growing up here. There were lots of us children around back then, and I remember always feeling welcome and included. We used to fight over who could be the altar girls and boys for each mass. After mass we used to run up and blow out the candles, dipping our fingertips in the wax. Unlike now, no one whisked the candles away and locked them up immediately, and there were no carpets or white tablecloths to worry about spilling wax on. As children we felt welcome at communion time – even before our First Holy Communion Gerry! – and let me tell you that it didn’t feel sinful. The Eucharist made us feel we were a part of a community, and it wasn’t used as a tool of exclusion and authority.
I remember the sound of Ted’s powerfully soothing, and humble voice as he read the gospel. As a young child I remember on occasions seeing my parents moved to tears by his homilies. I was always aware that mum and dad had a deep respect and love for Ted. And like everyone here, our relationship with Ted went far beyond these walls. We used to go on family camping holidays, and pitch tents in his garden in both Burrawang and Araluen.
I remember Mum Shirl. I remember her gentleness to us children. And yet I also remember her fierce determination, for example when I was about 5 and mum’s handbag was snatched at church, and we spent what felt like hours driving around Redfern, with Mum Shirl getting out and talking to people along the way until she tracked it down.
My siblings, cousins and I remember being taught of the life around us by what we learnt here. People got up to speak and pray about human rights issues around the country and the world. Every week it seemed like poems were read out, musicians performed, and creativity was cherished. I remember how humbled I felt by the overwhelming spirituality of smoking ceremonies. Culture was celebrated, not feared. We were a wonderfully active and vibrant community, and it was at these times that I felt closest to God. Talking with my siblings recently, we always sensed that Redfern was a special place, and looking back we struggled to find this same connection amongst the rituals and pomp of the clean and carpeted church at school. And if it weren’t for the presence of this determined community still here today I certainly wouldn’t be able to connect with my spirituality through the brand of religion you have imposed on this church.
I was always aware of the sense of community here, a community that I feel I still belong to even though I no longer come to this church every weekend. And believe me I hear about everything that happens here. It’s a bit of a joke amongst my siblings and me that mum and dad always talk about “bloody Redfern”. Every night it seems! When mum and dad come back from Sunday mass each week and recount yet another battle that took place, believe it or not Gerry, but because I am somewhat more emotionally removed from the situation, I often – much to their annoyance – try to take the diplomatic stand and ask them to see things from your view. You could say I play the devil’s advocate.
I know I certainly don’t come to Redfern every week anymore. But I’ve maintained my own sense of faith as well as my connections with the community. I just have other things that I put my energy into – my friends, my studies, my interests, my family – and I, somewhat guiltily, don’t feel I have the resources to join with all these amazingly dedicated yet increasingly exhausted people here who come week in week out, determined to ensure that what’s left of Ted Kennedy and Mum Shirl’s St Vincent’s – it’s soul – remains.
But nevertheless, even though I may no longer be a “regular” here, St Vincent’s has shaped who I am today and who I hope to become. I have no doubt in my mind that the sense of social justice that Ted lived and breathed, and the feisty and determined people – including many confident and capable women like Mum Shirl – has influenced me. I remember at the time of our Confirmation Ted encouraged us to think beyond the names of saints for our confirmation name. We were invited to choose anything that meant something to us. Through everything I had been exposed to at Redfern, I chose “Justice” as my confirmation name. And look at me today, I mean I’m hoping to become a human rights lawyer!!!
So Gerry, I was offended when I felt that you questioned my right to be here and defend this church. Believe me when I say this place and these people have had a bigger impact on me then you can imagine. Probably a bigger impact than they’ve had on you. And it overwhelms me to think of the way this place has affected the lives of everyone else here. I mean, for most of the time I was just a child and only old enough to remember the power of Ted’s gentle voice – not even the power of his words. So I can only try to imagine how much Ted and Mum Shirl and Redfern affected everyone else here. And, Gerry, I wish you could try to imagine this too.
And if you could imagine this Gerry, maybe you would appreciate that this community are not just fighting with you for the fun of it. We are just trying to protect the legacy of Ted and Mum Shirl, and because each of our lives have been affected and shaped by this place and these people, our whole sense of identity is being threatened by your destructive and divisive actions here. That’s why we are all so passionate about it. And believe me it’s exhausting. That is why you “never even see me here”.