Ted Kennedy & Redfern – a brief reflection

I first came to Redfern on Trinity Sunday. I think the year was 1981. We had recently moved to Sydney, were living in West Ryde, a fair way from Redfern, and had attended Mass at various parishes near where we lived.

On this particular Sunday, having heard of Ted Kennedy and Redfern, we decided to go there. I saw a man who was older than I expected but whose voice was strong enough to fill the church. When it was time for the sermon, I sat back and remember thinking that after nearly ten years of theological training, I could practically predict what Ted was going to say. "Today is the Feast of the Holy Trinity," said Ted. He took off his glasses and dangled them from his fingers. "I think there are solid theological reasons," he continued, "for abolishing this feast". I sat bolt upright and listened for ten minutes of theological reflection that was both scholarly and earthy, that seemed to come bubbling up from the streets outside, the people who walked them and the experience of the man who had spent the best part of his life serving them. Ten years of theological training shrank into more realistic perspective.


Over the next couple of decades, I couldn’t count the number of times Ted cracked open the Scriptures to reveal layers of meaning that I had never encountered. His insight came from the being at the point of contact where the Good News was confronted by the reality of the lives of poor people. Ted it was who made me understand that people who are the edges of society, marginalised, demeaned, impoverished, excluded, hear the Gospel in ways that the rest of us do not, and cannot. We cannot gain this insight, not because we are not sincere, but because we are not poor. And "poor" can include all those who suffer deeply. Hence shutting ourselves off from actual face to face contact with "poor" people can mean shutting ourselves off from a large part of the meaning of the Gospel, the good news, the message of Christ. That was a challenging message for me, working as I did for an overseas aid organisation, and taking pride in the belief that I was doing something about poverty without ever having to encounter it. Coming to Mass at Redfern continued to be a challenge. Ted always used to say that the Gospel was about "comforting the afflicted and afflicting the comfortable". I was comfortable, and I felt afflicted more than once.

I know from speaking to others who went regularly to Redfern that I wasn’t the only one who experienced something like this. I kept coming back because I knew it was important for me to hear that message, and because I could see it little by little changing me. You couldn’t help but be changed at Redfern. On any given Sunday, the place was full of people who had lived, were living, the most extraordinary lives. Many had known Ted for decades – since his days as a University chaplain. Others were more recent arrivals. Some were aboriginal people, but the majority were not. Occasionally one or another would speak of what they were doing or what they believed or what they had experienced. It was a humbling, privileged experience to be part of such a community and, having moved away from Sydney, I miss it a lot.

During the time I was attending Redfern, I began to write songs, often with a social justice theme, and usually laced with humour. Ted was very encouraging and invited me to present some of these songs from time to time after Mass. I eventually wrote a couple about Ted and about Redfern, and I append these to this reflection. They may convey more of my feeling than the reflection itself!


A song for Ted Kennedy on the occasion of the fortieth anniversary of his ordination to the priesthood

Come all you good Catholics whose faith is unshaken

Who come here each Sunday to Redfern to Mass,

As we sit here digesting our eggs and our bacon,

Let’s thank the good Lord it has all come to pass.

For it’s now forty years since Ted’s ordination,

And those forty years have been interesting times,

So I’m singing this song as a small celebration

And I won’t let the facts interfere with the rhymes.


For teaching, for speeching for pastoral preaching

For making the Cardinal toss in his bed

There’s no priest in the nation with such dedication

To shaking foundations as our Father Ted.

In the suburb of Marrickville early one morning

Ted Kennedy first saw the light of the day.

His Dad was a doctor whose patients were poor

So he never sent bills they weren’t able to pay.

And Ted he grew up and he studied at Manly,

And raced through the course like an athlete in trim.

When they thought they had trained him, the bishop ordained him

And said, "That’s the last we’ll be hearing from him!"


When they needed a chaplain to work at the Uni

Young Ted’s name came up, they said "OK he’ll do."

Ted made it a station of life and cognation

And anticipation of Vatican II.

But when he went off for a well-earned vacation

They hijacked his work and they put up a sign:

"This chaplaincy zone is for Catholics only –

No sinners, no thinkers, no dogs and no wine!"


So Ted came to Redfern and soon turned the presbytery

Into a hostel for those with no bed

And tried to suggest to the powers that be

That the place should belong to the Kooris instead.

But how could they make such a frivolous gesture

When other demands are so urgently roused?

You can’t give things away when you might have to pay

Forty million or more for your school and your house.


So, thank God we’re here on this happy occasion,

And thank God for those who were here and are gone,

And thank God for Ted, for his heart and his head

And his words here at Redfern now forty years on.

Where else can you hear liberation theology

Preached from the pulpit and practiced as well?

Where else are there sermons that don’t make you squirm

And that don’t mention building funds, bingo or hell?



Snapshot of a Sunday celebration at St Vincent’s, Redfern in 1995.

Well, Sunday morning’s here again,

It’s half past nine or a quarter to ten

Folk from Ryde to Rozelle Bay

Are deciding how they’ll spend the day,

Where they’ll go and what they’ll do –

Drive to the mountains, go to the Zoo

Head for Bondi – that’s the ticket,

Or just stay home and watch the cricket.

Go to the Aquarium, see a shark,

Ride the big dipper at Luna Park,

Darling Harbour, Paddy’s Market –

(You can drive your car there, but you’ll never park it.)

My Sundays usually start off slow,

Because I always know where I’m going to go.

I like the day to start with a treat,

So I go to Mass at Redfern Street.


Oh, Mass at Redfern

Don’t miss, don’t miss, don’t miss Mass at Redfern!

Well, you meet all kinds of people here

They come from far and they come from near

From Normanhurst and Cammeray

Erskineville, Elizabeth Bay

Newtown, Redfern, Woolloomooloo,

Annandale and Leichhardt too.

Ted comes up from Burrawang,

Then there’s Eileen and all her gang

Denis, Rhonda, Harold, Sam –

Hey, there’s Angela pushing a pram.

Pat and Dot and Marnie K –

They all belong to RSCJ,

Gay and David, saying "peace"

To Barry, Diana and Annolies,

Pete and Maggie, Kathy, Dan,

Christopher and Lucyanne

And who’s that down there behind your backs?

I can only see his hat – oh, it’s Uncle Max!


Now, we have all kinds of celebrations,

Baptisms and confirmations,

Retreats and weddings, funerals, wakes,

And once a month there’s tea and cakes

It’s like no church you’ve been before,

With a cricket match going on outside the door

And kids all running round, being human

And Ted, quoting from Cardinal Newman

Or John Shaw Neilson or Thomas Aquinas,

Or a hundred others, plus or minus.

It’s the only Sydney Church that features

Homilies from women preachers

(In case the Archdiocese raises objections,

We don’t call them sermons, just "reflections").

We give pride of place to Koori people

And no support for St Mary’s steeples.


Well, Sunday morning’s here again,

It’s half past nine or a quarter to ten

Winter’s cold or summer’s heat,

I go to Mass in Redfern Street.

If you get there early with your Sunday missal

Ted’ll have you up to read the epistle

Or blow the whistle, or say the dismissal.

(Can we go home now, Mum?

In a moment, darling, it won’t be long

That man with the beard’s going to sing another song)

We’ve dogs and kids and real religion,

Lift up your eyes and spot the pigeon

It’s a bit of a nuisance, according to most

But I think it might be the Holy Ghost



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