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Following his father’s footsteps

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Father to Father: Marist Father John Begg with his father Charles’ war medals.

FR John Begg was six when his father died after being wounded in war, and he was later to give part of his own life in service of others in the same part of the world.

Fr John was the first to find his 36-year-old father dead.

It was April 29, 1946, and 68 years later Fr John remembers it vividly.

“I went into Mum and Dad’s room – I was about six – and saw Dad there without Mum,” he said.

“I went to get Mum who was sleeping out on the lounge. I can remember saying, ‘Mummy, I think Daddy’s dead’.”

His mother had moved out of the bed and on to the lounge because his father was tossing and turning so much, most likely because of nightmares from the war.

The death of Charles (Charlie), a young man from Scotland, left his wife Frances, a country girl from Warwick, Queensland, to raise their three children on her own.

John was the eldest, and he had a younger sister, Ann, and a younger brother, Brian, who died three years ago of cancer.

Fr John, a Marist Father doing supply work in parishes around Brisbane archdiocese, carried the memory of his father when he celebrated Mass at Our Lady of Lourdes Church, Sunnybank, on Anzac Day, wearing a specially made colour strip representing Charlie’s four war medals.

Charles Begg was in the 36th AIF Battalion from September 10, 1942, until April 11, 1946, serving in New Guinea and Morotai.

He died on April 29, 1946, three weeks after he’d returned to his family from military hospital.

Fr John said his dad went to New Guinea in 1942, and he remembers he was repatriated back twice after being wounded.

The young soldier was discharged on April 11, 1946.

The death of his father was traumatic for the six-year-old John but he says now that “it didn’t really hit me until years later. I didn’t realise the effect of growing up without a dad”.

For helping the family deal with that loss down through the years in practical ways, Fr John is deeply grateful to Legacy.

“I had my golden jubilee of priesthood last year, (and) I had made a point of specially inviting members of Legacy to my ordination in 1963 and (again) to my jubilee Mass at Mater Dei Church, in St John’s Wood The Gap parish, because Legacy is always so supportive of families who have lost dads in the war,” he said.

Even more than Legacy, though, it is the Marists who have been part of Fr John’s life from the beginning.

What happened before his father’s war service, at the time of his death and since marks Fr John permanently as a Marist man.

He grew up in Ashgrove and the family was part of the St John’s Wood parish where the Marist Fathers had served since 1927.

After finishing at St Finbarr’s Primary School, he went to Marist College Ashgrove and finished his last two years of high school with the Marist Fathers at St John’s College, Woodlawn, near Lismore in northern NSW.

“(So), I grew up in St John’s Wood parish, which was Marist. I was surrounded by Marists all my life,” he said.

“Some of my mates are Marist Brothers today and some of my mates are Marist Fathers today – all from the St John’s Wood parish.”

Young John, like his mates, had well and truly absorbed the Marist charism, and the support of the Marist Fathers in the days, months and years after his dad’s death had deepened their appeal when he was thinking of becoming a priest.

“My widowed mother had a great devotion to Our Lady and it was just providential that we grew up three hundred metres from the Marist monastery at Glenlyon House (Ashgrove) …,” Fr John said.

“As a young man, it was their friendliness and the way they helped my Mum during those early difficult years (that impressed).

“Then the more I had to do with them I picked up their love and devotion to Mary, and that appealed to me very much.

“Being an altar server I got to know all the priests and it just appealed to me that it was something I’d like to do.”

But, after answering the call to priesthood, his time at the seminary was to change the way he would follow.

When Brisbane Archbishop James Duhig had invited the Marist Fathers of New Zealand to send priests to Brisbane and a community was established at Glenlyon House, their main ministry was “home missions”.

“They travelled all through Queensland doing parish missions,” Fr John said.

“When I went to the seminary and tried it out I had in mind that I would go on to do parish missions (like the priests I’d known in St John’s Wood).”

His thinking changed when he met some of the Marists missionaries who would come home on holidays from the Pacific islands.

“They’d always come to the seminary and share their experiences,” Fr John said.

“It was only halfway through my seminary studies that I thought I might like missionary work in the Pacific.

“(Entering the seminary) I had no intention of teaching in college, and I had never thought of Oceania.”

Missionary work did not happen for him straight away but, after his ordination in Sydney in 1963, he held that thought for a few years while he was teaching at St John’s College, Woodlawn.

He applied to go to the Pacific, to the Marist Fathers’ Oceania Province, as a missionary and in 1970 was appointed to the Bougainville region.

He remained there for 20 years.

It was an experience of living in the part of the world where his father had been a soldier.

He talked a little about that experience in his homily during the Anzac Day Mass at Sunnybank.

“There’s a tremendous amount of mountain visits in our work in Bougainville and Papua New Guinea, and our troops fought in Bougainville,” he said.

Fr John said in Bougainville he would walk trails that took him across creeks, through thick rainforests “and up mountain-goat country”.

As he found it tough going he would think of how much worse it would have been for the soldiers.

“It just brought out to me the brutality of war,” he said.

Reflecting on war and his life as a Marist in Bougainville he recalls how there were priests there from various countries, living and working together.

“It fascinated me that we had American, French and German Marists there who fought against each other in the war,” he said.

“Most of them were halfway through their seminary studies when the war started, and they were sent off to war.

“It fascinated me that they had fought against each other and finished up in Bougainville working together as missionaries.”

Fr John said the five priests often talked about the paradox and their experiences.

He said being a missionary in Bougainville was physically difficult.

“I just thank God I was up there as a young man,” he said.

“There’s no way I’d cope now – because of the humidity – 24 hours a day – the environment and the travel, the trips you’d have to make visiting the people.”

Fr John said the physical aspect was the greatest challenge of his Bougainville experience.

“In Bougainville we lost a lot of priests and sisters through malaria,” he said.

“I picked it up three or four times and it knocks it out of you. It affects you terribly but it’s almost inevitable that when you head up there that you’ll contract it.”

The trials, however, were balanced by rich rewards. For Fr John there were no rewards greater than “the happiness that people showed when we went and visited them in their villages”.

“The hospitality was just so natural and so overwhelming,” he said.

He said the priests would stay a couple of days, and celebrate Mass, baptisms, marriages and other sacraments.

“That was something they looked forward to, and we looked forward to it too,” he said.

After 20 years in Bougainville Fr John had great admiration for the first priests who came to the regions as missionaries in the 1800s.

“Some of them only lived for a month but then died of malaria,” he said.

“They had to learn a local language. The people didn’t know who they were, and here they were teaching them about Christ.

“I had enormous admiration for them and the men who went to all the other islands.”

Fr John thinks of St Peter Chanel, a fellow Marist who went to Futuna, in the middle of the Pacific.

“He had difficulty learning the language, and he ministered for four years and was martyred,” he said.

He said he often pondered what those early missionaries endured and remember that he and others with him were reaping the benefits of their good work.

“When I went there in 1970 the faith was well established,” he said.

Since leaving Bougainville in 1989, Fr John has carried his missionary experience into his ministry in Marist parishes in Sydney, Gladstone and Brisbane, and now as a supply priest in Brisbane archdiocese.

Having recently finished a six years as chaplain to the Sisters of St Joseph at Nundah and reflecting on more than 50 years of priesthood, Fr John’s great hope is that more young men will realise the rewards that await them and heed the call.

Written by: Emilie Ng

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