The great St Vincent’s break-in

Graffiti in its glory…Father Frank Brennan, centre, at yesterday’s ceremony, with the surprise mural behind him. At far left is Marnie Kennedy, the sister of the late Father Ted Kennedy.

Photo: Lee Besford

David Marr
Sydney Morning Herald, July 31, 2006

IT WAS a big day at St Vincent’s Redfern yesterday, but Father Gerry Prindiville sat grim-faced through the celebrations.

He had come to Mass to find a huge mural had appeared overnight on the east wall of his church. As far as the embattled priest was concerned, this was not a miracle but a crime. “They must have broken in to do it,” he told the Herald.

“It concerns me that someone can break into my church.”

The place was jubilant. St Vincent’s Catholic church is contested ground and the old crowd – the Aborigines and the social justice mob – were out in force congratulating themselves on this wonderful jape at the expense of Cardinal George Pell’s man sent three years ago to straighten out the parish.

“We were reclaiming the church for the Aboriginal people,” explained Griffo, one of the culprits. “We had to sort of sneak in, not let the priests know what we were doing.” He insists entry was not forced. “One of the sisters came and climbed through the window.”

Planning had been going on for weeks. Once the scaffolding was wheeled into place by 1.30 on Saturday afternoon, the black and white team of painters took six hours to do the tree of hands and the animals – Griffo did the emu – and the lines from Pope John Paul II’s famous 1986 speech in Alice Springs: “For thousands of years you, the Aboriginal people, have lived in this land with a culture that endures to this day …”

The paint was dry for yesterday’s Mass celebrating the 20th anniversary of that speech and Father Frank Brennan – one of its authors – was on hand for the occasion. When he called on the Redfern congregation to stand and bless this “permanent” memorial to Aboriginal spirituality, Father Prindiville’s arms stayed tightly by his side.

The Mass was not brief. Smokers drifted in and out. Shireen Malamoo, still recovering from a bout of pneumonia, raised the roof singing Just a Closer Walk with Thee. Father Brennan preached on the loaves and fishes: “This big mob, how can they be fed? This big mob, how can they be reconciled?”

The visiting clergy were scrupulously polite, but the crowd supplied unscripted remarks about the cardinal and the priests he had sent to this freewheeling parish. “This is our church,” Griffo explained. “Father Ted gave it to us. It’s on our land. In memory of Father Ted we decided to paint the mural.”

A photograph of the late Father Ted Kennedy, parish priest here for 30 years, hangs behind the altar. So does one of the social worker Mum Shirl, which Father Prindiville removed soon after he came to Redfern in 2003. After protests, walkouts and stories in the press, it went back on the wall. The new man seems grimly aware that he lives in Father Kennedy’s shadow. He shrugs when asked how he plans to win his congregation over. Just wait it out? He nods. “The problem is that people won’t accept any sort of authority. They have been used to doing their own thing for so long.”

That’s not part of his training as a missionary of the Spanish-based Neocatechumenal Way. Father Prindiville has brought to Redfern an unfamiliar faith in the rules – down to the smallest details. And though the “Block” is just round the corner, he doubts St Vincent’s was really a black parish. “There were not many Aboriginals.”

He is considering the fate of the mural. Of course, he agrees with everything the late Pope said in his Alice Springs speech, which is now all over the end wall of his church, but that’s not the point. “I came in here and found this without any warning.”

Father Prindiville does not feel alone in the difficult decisions he has to make. “I have the support of the cardinal, so that helps me.”

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