A reflection on St Vincent’s Redfern since 1976

Praying the psalms in the chapel of the old convent building amidst the shouts of desperation emanating from the drunken chaos of the lives of people in the darkness below is a memory that stays with me to this day. This was the world of poverty and tragedy which Mum Shirl invited me to share. I was then a naïve 21 year old Marist Brother. This was a world I knew nothing about. It was at once frightening and welcoming, depressing yet energising. While Mum Shirl was around I felt safe, as though things could be brought under control – one could literally take shelter behind her. Her powerful presence was akin to the power of Jesus calming the storm, yet at times she could be the storm itself, and no one was safe from her blunt challenge to plumb the depths of our real motivation for being with her people. She could cut to the quick with a word, then wrap you up in arms of unconditional love, something I experienced or witnessed on many occasions.

It was in these circumstances that I came to meet Ted who was away when I first went to Redfern. Ted was seen by many “religious” at the time as a prophet – one who by his living with the poor and dispossessed qualified him to challenge us with integrity not with merely rhetoric. So it was that many religious came to Redfern for an “emersion experience”. My “emersion” experience was to continue on and off to the present.

My earliest memories of Ted are images of the simple room he lived in on the top floor of the presbytery. Not long after when the presbytery became uninhabitable he was sleeping in the sacristy. I

After some time away from Redfern I returned on Christmas Eve of 1982. I had just left the Marist Brothers and I was feeling very alone and lost, but I knew that a welcome awaited me at Redfern. I knew that Redfern was a place for the lost and alone and confused. I also felt that this was the only faith community that I would feel comfortable in at the time – it still is, when I get off my bum and get there.

A memory of Ted that typifies his passion and compassion was an occasion on which I, with another, accompanied him to the house of a landlord in Redfern who was giving someone a hard time. Ted went to him, not to ask, but to demand that the landlord mend his ways. I don’t remember the outcome, but I’ll never forget Ted’s righteous rage for the poor.

I have always been amazed by the unique relationship that Ted had with Mum Shirl. For as bombastic and forthright as she could be at times, she would still call Ted “my Father”, yet I sense that Ted viewed her as “his Mother”. He in his role as priest, and especially as Eucharistic minister, satisfied her deep spiritual hunger, while she in her being grounded Ted in his spirituality, and in some way validated his presence amongst her people. Perhaps this latter reflection applies more to me. I often find myself asking aboriginal people I meet if they knew Mum Shirl. This somehow gives me an introduction to them, a “ticket” into a world and relationship dynamic with which I am still so unfamiliar.

I have strong memories of weekday masses at Redfern when just a few people would gather. On winter nights Mum Shirl would sometimes come in exhausted and depressed. She came to drink at the Eucharistic table, and she would pray to “her” saint – St Martin de Porres. In these experiences she drew the strength she needed to go on, and Ted was part of this process of renewal.

Ted’s extraordinary ability to welcome all and to take all in his stride during mass was sight to behold. Redfern was totally unpredictable, and the spontaneity was refreshing, if not at times really in your face and disturbing. Will we ever forget Normie West calling out “play it again Sam!” when Peter Kearney had finished singing “Where is your Song, My Lord” – a song which to be known by many of us as “Normie’s Song”. How many versions of the “Old Rugged Cross” have we heard!? How many gut wrenching testimonies of shattered lives have we heard!? How many beautiful baptisms have we witnessed!? How many aboriginal people has Ted buried!? By how many beautiful people, black and white have we been touched!? Some of us have even met our partners at or through our experience of Redfern. I was lucky enough to meet Kerry through Anne Hudson. Those Sunday cuppas after mass are a good way to meet people. Kerry and I will ever cherish our wedding celebration in the newly painted church. All this and so much more form the tapestry of memories I have of Redfern.

I want to thank Ted for the very special person he has been to me, awaking in me an interpretation of life and of the scriptures that perhaps without his influence may have remained closed to me. Ted, you challenge, you inspire, you educate, you love and you are truly a friend to and ambassador for the oppressed and marginalised people of this world.

I don’t know if my reflections above bear any resemblance to the truth as you see it. You and Mum Shirl have had a profound influence on my life. I guess for me, together you have been like a dynamic duo, yet you have gone on as a dynamic uno.

Thanks for everything Ted.

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