Brisbane priest FR BILL O’SHEA, who grew up in Rosewood, south-west of Brisbane, was guest speaker at a social and supper held in the town on February 6 as part of the centenary celebrations of St Brigid’s Church, Rosewood. This is an edited version of his speech
I THANK Fr John Conway and the organising committee for inviting me to speak about my memories of Rosewood in years gone by. I consider it an honour to be asked.
St Brigid’s, Rosewood, became a parish in 1915. When the church was built in 1910, the town was still part of the parish of Ipswich.
The parish priest of Ipswich Fr Andrew Horan must – I have often thought – either have had delusions of grandeur, or believed that Rosewood was to become a provincial city. It is a remarkably large and impressive church for what was then, and still is, a small town.
But whatever was in his mind, we have reason to be grateful to him.
After Rosewood was separated from Ipswich, to become a parish in its own right in 1915, its first two parish priests were Timothy Keliher, who died fairly young, and Michael McKenna.
The first parish priest of Rosewood whom I remember was Fr Pat O’Rourke who was here for 25 years, from 1922 to 1947. It is with him that my memories of the Rosewood parish begin.
He was a popular, likeable Irishman, with a great love of horse racing. He enjoyed a whisky, though this never affected his pastoral duties. There was never any hint of scandal about the ministry of Patrick O’Rourke.
It was he who gave me my First Communion and introduced me, with the help of the nuns, to the ministry of altar-serving.
We altar servers had to be careful kneeling behind Fr O’Rourke at the consecration of the Mass, because at his genuflections, his big right leg would come back hard and not always in the same direction. There was always the danger of being kicked down the stairs leading up to the altar.
One of the duties of an altar boy, after he had rung the great bell – which then stood behind the church – at 6.30am, was to go up to the presbytery and make sure Fr O’Rourke was awake and ready for the 7am Mass.
This was not a pleasant duty on Rosewood winter mornings. The plaited-wire end of the bell rope was hard on little hands, and the frosty grass between the church and the old presbytery further up Matthew Street was also tough on little feet.
We learned quite early from the nuns what was expected of us. It was to go up to the presbytery after ringing the bell at 6.30am, knock on the door, and call out: “Father, it’s twenty-five to seven.” A sleepy voice would answer: “All right, all right, I’m coming.”
One morning, early in my apprenticeship as an altar boy, I returned to the church, satisfied that my job had been done, but seven o’clock arrived and no Fr O’Rourke.
One of the nuns came around to the sacristy and asked: “Did you wake the priest?” I protested: “Yes, he said he was coming.”
But I was told then that you never left the presbytery until you heard his feet hit the floor, and heard him actually moving around.
After Fr O’Rourke’s departure in 1947, Rosewood was without a parish priest for some time. The Catholic community was served by the Divine Word Missionary order of priests who had established their seminary at Marburg.
A priest who made a big impact on us kids was a larger-than-life German-American priest, Fr Shelley. We found out later that his real name was Otto Shellenburger. He was a popular figure in Rosewood, and was probably with us for only several months, but that seemed a long time when you were a kid.
A little Irish priest, Fr Sam Hunter, then came to Rosewood as a temporary administrator. It was during Fr Hunter’s time that the old Rosewood presbytery was destroyed by fire. I remember that day vividly.
It was in February, 1948. I was doing the family shopping at the old Ruhno’s store, opposite the railway station. I was chatting with Rose Imrie, a great old Rosewood identity, when someone burst in and said, “The Catholic presbytery is on fire.”
With a number of others, I raced around to Matthew Street, and stood across the road to watch the sad sight of part of Rosewood’s Catholic heritage go up in flames.
Fr Hunter was then given accommodation by the Sloane family, who owned the Rising Sun Hotel for more than one generation. The Sloanes were great supporters of the Rosewood parish.
The Sloane family also provided accommodation for Rosewood’s next permanent parish priest, another Irishman, Fr Anthony Treacy, who came in 1948.
Again I remember clearly the day of the opening of the new presbytery in 1949. Archbishop Duhig came and did the honours.
The country was in the middle of a long-lasting national coal strike. Rosewood gained national prominence at that time, because our coal miners were the first to defy the communist-led union and return to work. I remember long convoys of trucks loaded with coal from Rosewood to the port of Brisbane.
Archbishop Duhig, on the occasion of the opening of the presbytery, said the Rosewood miners had saved Australia. That was obviously an exaggeration but it gave us all a sense of importance.
My full-time association with Rosewood ended early in 1950 when I went off to Nudgee College. For the next 11 years – four years at Nudgee and seven years at Banyo Seminary – my only direct contact with Rosewood was during holiday periods from school and seminary.
It was in the early 1950s that I came to feel a call to the priesthood. Fr Treacy and my admiration for his ministry would have played a big part in the decision, though it is hard to identify any one single influence. Probably the whole parish life, as I experienced it at Rosewood, was a major factor.
I was coming to the end of my training for the priesthood, just six months away from ordination, when I shared the sadness of all of Rosewood Catholics to learn of Fr Treacy’s death on November 2, 1959. He was only 51 years of age.
I would dearly have loved him to be there when I was ordained in June 1960. That was not to be, but the gap was filled by his successor, Fr Alan Brown who proved to be a great friend and mentor to me.
He continued on as parish priest of Rosewood for another 23 years.
A summary of my experience of life in Rosewood would not be complete without acknowledgement of the Sisters of Mercy who taught me during my primary school years, in very difficult circumstances, with six different classes all squashed into one not very large room or hall.
I remember with affection and gratitude Sisters Mary Ludmilla, Mary Kilian, Cleophas and Clare, and especially the inimitable and formidable Sr Mary Magdalen, our scholarship teacher, who was associated with Rosewood for so many years.
I might disappoint those who expected me to recall some of my many confrontations with “Maggie”. Let me just say that on occasions after my ordination, when I visited her in her retirement home, we were the best of friends. And she was still as sharp as a tack.
The Sisters of Mercy played a big part, as they still do, in the life of the Rosewood parish. Our debt to them is enormous.
Like the rest of the world, Rosewood was then a different place. There were not the same counter-attractions, or the same opportunities to take advantage of them. There was not the same mobility, and we had to find and make our own fun and entertainment closer to home.
The parish, the church and the school were more central to our lives on the social as well as the religious level.
Parish balls, dances and concerts, fundraising afternoons, school sports days and picnics – there was a constant round of such events, which gave us a sense of belonging.
We were a small and close-knit community. And I have carried this experience with me throughout my life. I have always felt a close affinity to Rosewood, reinforced by my return home, at least every fortnight, to visit my mother who died in 2002.
She was worth coming a long way to see.
For me, she was Rosewood.
My brief here was to speak about my own experiences of Rosewood. This covers only a small part of the church’s 100 years of history. It is not for me to talk about the great work done by subsequent parish priests like Frs Charlie Casey and Ray Wilson, and now Fr John Conway.
Nor about the continuing pastoral work being performed so admirably by the Sisters of Mercy, or the lay teachers who administer and service a flourishing school like St Brigid’s.
In June this year I will celebrate my golden jubilee of priesthood.
These years have taken me a long way from home, to Rome, to Ireland, to Jerusalem and places in between.
But while you can take the boy out of Rosewood, you never really take Rosewood out of the boy.