REFLECTIONS
Father Ted Kennedy
St Vincent's Redfern 1971 - 2002
 
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A compilation of reflections by Community members presented to Ted Kennedy on his retirement as parish priest of the St Vincent's Catholic Church in the inner Sydney suburb of Redfern.
 
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I first knew Ted before he came to Redfern, so I would like to begin back in Neutral Bay, sometime in the early 1970s, not long before he left to go to Redfern. My sister and her husband used to go to the Neutral Bay church and it sounded interesting. At that time I was ecclesiastically peripatetic, trying out one church after another in search of I really didnít know what. But nothing really prepared me for Neutral Bay. I had grown up in a church where the first half of the sermon was a sustained beratement on the lousy collection last week followed by a tedious rehash of the gospel. When I first went to Neutral Bay I remember feeling completely stupid as uncontrollable tears gushed out at the sheer beauty of the sermons. Tedís capacity to pull together insights from psychology, sociology, theology (especially liberation theology), history and, of course, poetry to interpret the gospels I found to be quite a heady concoction. Added to which there was art and music. Tedís voice, usually soaring a few registers above what most of us could do comfortably, but sonorous and inspiring. And the trumpet. Iíve forgotten who the trumpet player was but from the back of the church that instrument sang its sweet and strong melody. There was a sense of being fully alive, engaged, grounded. One other memory from there is the dinners. I only went to one or two but they were extraordinary events where a very modest contribution from participants, coupled with a working bee from a few, meant that an affordable feast was provided to which a guest speaker was invited. The first one I went to was one of the Aarons, then Secretary of the Communist Party of NSW, whose manifest sense of social justice opened my middle class catholic eyes to interesting connections across factions and institutions.

So then Redfern. I donít think I came to Redfern immediately but at some point I was living in Cleveland Street, Surry Hills making Redfern a place that was on my doorstop. I recall the throngs of people in the presbytery on one side and the Mercy convent on the other. Bossy and big-hearted Iggy (Sr Ignatius) and Shirley (Smith) ruled that place. For the first few years the other priests John Butcher and Fergus shared something of the same vision as Ted, but Tedís sermons remained distinctive for their challenges, depth and reflectiveness. Karen Donaldson and her brother Chris and his wife Anne were regulars. Ann Daniel was a regular for a while. Tom Hamilton was always there making himself useful in some way. Joan and Miriam, of course, and Marie Grunke who returns now again from New Zealand. So too Pat Durnan and Dennis Doherty. Somewhere in the mess that is referred to as my photographic collection, are prints of an Aboriginal wedding reception in the old convent. I vividly recall those faces, and many more, but, given that I can even forget a friendís name at the very moment when an introduction to a third party is in order, it is little wonder that many of the names of blacks and whites are lost in my grey matter! Redfern was in part a refuge for the homeless and a magnet for others wanting in some small way to make a difference. I was also a site of an increasingly articulate and disturbing theology informed by Tedís very direct and impassioned engagement with the Aboriginal people. Every mealy-mouthed churchy value that had been instilled in me since childhood was blown away. In its place was a radical, confronting, and compelling theology that connected the words and practice of Christ with Indigenous culture often mediated by artistsĒ reflections on life. Gerard Manly Hopkins as much as Les Murray were brought alive in the sermons, framed by Peter Kearneyís music Ė sometimes offset by exquisite choral music sung by Peter Hidden and others - and all in a setting where the run-down St Vincentís was centred on an altar carved and tinted by Tom Bass.

The late 1970s was a time of activism with frequent Land Rights demonstrations; of routine police brutality outside the Empress Hotel; of optimism as seen in the establishment of Murrawina for Aboriginal women and children, and the refurbishment of Everleigh Street under the Aboriginal Housing Co-Operative. Just into Botany Road was Black Theatre where Justine Saunders memorably played in the Bob Mazaís The Cake Man and where the black American, Carol, worked with the Aboriginal and Islander Dance Troupe before later helping to set up the now internationally-famous Bangarra. This moment of Aboriginal ferment within Redfern cannot be imagined without people like Chicka Dixon, Shirley Smith, Lennie, Maureen and Leila Watson, the Coes, the Bellears and others. Ted embraced it, as much for its own social justice goals as for the insights to be gained theologically.

Getting to know Ted did not only happen at Redfern. Tedís grandparents had lived in the old gold-mining town of Araluen, between Braidwood and Moruya, and for a while the old cottage became a drying out centre for urban blacks. I recall mooching around there by day, and chatting after dinner under the starry skies or trying to allay fears of people spooked by the ghosts of the nearby cemetery, eventually falling asleep in the old barn. After this venture petered out, I returned to Araluen on various occasions with Ted and a few others. In the morning thick clouds settled into all the crevices in the valley transforming the valley into a Chinese landscape best viewed from the dunny up the hill from the house. By evening the mountains turned black green against the setting sun as the evening breeze wended its way up the valley from Moruya. The sighing casaurinas along the river bank, and the heady perfume of the peaches for which the town was by then best known, always provided the background to some minor repairs and great dinners and conversations.

It was on such occasions with Ted outside of Redfern that other qualities became clear. His invitation to be poor in spirit was never a sack cloth and ashes thing: because he would fight for social justice didnít mean he couldnít enjoy a superb bottle of wine. Or that he couldnít pick a property with potential: I recall driving around the inner west with Ted at the wheel pointing out little real estate jewels waiting to be discovered by first-time investors. Personal, specific and focussed though his attention has been to each of us, black or white, his unwavering and singular commitment has always been to the rights of Aboriginal people. To embrace Aboriginal people did not mean renouncing who he is: Tedís delving into his own Irish roots enhanced his capacity to understand, as it were, tribal allegiance. To know our own roots means that we can talk on the level with those who have never forgotten their own. When we know who we are we do not need to wear masks Ė of priest, mother, professional something-or-other Ė we can be who we are, loved and loving others simply for who they are.

Well, times moved on. As our family increased and there was always another set of little feet running around the church, Ted never seemed to be bothered or distracted by interruptions. He learnt to look up at some detail on the window or ceiling opposite the altar to focus his thoughts and attention. Having said that, it is also true that he would happily relinquish his train of thought if an Aboriginal had something to say.

Throughout the eighties and nineties, lots of changes happened at Redfern. The soup kitchen ceased, various priests and brothers married and moved on. The convent got demolished, the presbytery was boarded up, Ted moved into the old sacristy when he wasnít at Burrawang or Araluen, and the congregation saw new faces augmented by what seemed like half of Sydney at Christmas and Easter when some of the many whose lives had been touched by Ted made it to midnight mass. Ted never missed an opportunity to ensure that we would leave the church profoundly challenged by gospel brought alive by reflections on contemporary Australian and global issues. As a Redfern regular, however, I didnít limit myself to Christmas and Easter: I found just about every sermon inspirational. Indeed, often in the final years of my long-drawn out PhD, I would head to the university from Redfern to write, and many was the time I found myself thinking differently about my own research project as a result of Tedís ideas, his ways of thinking, and, of course, his discerning heart.

Ted refused to make a song and dance about mainstream catechetical activities such as preparation for First Communions, Confirmations etc. He understood these sacraments as part of the birthright of all Christians and as such available to us all no matter how comprehending or uncomprehending of their significance. So when people asked for first communions for themselves or their children, he would happily concede without further ado. For Ted, the Christian church had to show love and acceptance, not regulations and denials. I suspect each of us who goes to Redfern has felt personally the benefit of unconditional love. We are all welcome no matter how paltry or selfish. Such unconditional acceptance is profoundly liberating.

If Redfern today has a special quality it is because of Shirley Smith and Ted Kennedy. They attracted creative and conscientious people from all walks of life. They showed how an intense engagement with the here and now could illuminate and be illuminated by the gospels. They created a setting where justice and creativity ignite the spirit.

I suppose the most important feeling that returns to me as I recall the last thirty something years has been the complete sense of acceptance and love that Ted has shown us all. It was as if you, Ted, didnít see our inadequacies. A fledgling idea always takes wing and gains strength with you. Always a visionary, you have been driven by big ideas not petty manoeuvres and I have always felt that you kindly mistook the same attributes in me, seeing good where others, and I certainly, might have seen mediocrity. An active listener, you so often seem to affirm ideas, yet in the process enlarge and enrich them. For your faith in me and your abiding love, I am deeply grateful.

 


by Catherine De Lorenzo
 

 

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