BRISBANE-born missionary priest Fr John O’Doherty has a life-defining connection with the sea.
Celebrating 50 years as an Oblate priest, 83-year-old Fr O’Doherty remembered how, while still at school, he was introduced to the world of sailing by one of his schoolmates.
Later it opened up the more challenging life of ocean racing.
This was part of life giving lessons which would be a great support for his future.
In his early 20s he twice sailed the Brisbane to Gladstone Yacht Race aboard the 12-metre timber schooner Bluenose, owned by prominent doctor, Sir Ellis Murphy and still owned by members of the Murphy family.
First time the yacht finished last, then two years later, in 1957, Fr O’Doherty and the crew sailed Bluenose to victory on handicap.
“One never gives up,” Fr O’Doherty said.
“Sailing was a very strong formative discipline for me.
“It taught me to handle challenges and in sailing you never know what the sea will do.
“You must trust the boat. The boat is designed to survive, not to sink.”
Later he could relate this to the Church, and his priesthood.
After leaving Brisbane there was little sailing, however as a priest, the valuable lesson of “trust the boat” has kept Fr O’Doherty’s feet firmly on deck, helping him weather the storm during decades of overseas mission work.
It was during Year 5 at St Columban’s College, Albion Heights that his interest in being a missionary was first kindled.
“I never discussed it with the parish priest or my parents, but I carried the dream of being a missionary with me all through my life,” Fr O’Doherty said.
It wasn’t until he was in his mid-20s and embarking on a career in the insurance industry in country New South Wales that he decided to act on his missionary dream.
Working for the South British Insurance Company in Casino, Fr O’Doherty attended a parish mission conducted by three Oblates of Mary Immaculate, one of whom was the director of vocations for the order, founded in France in 1816 by St Eugene de Mazenod.
“They had posters on the door about Missionary Oblates, and I went and spoke to them about what I should do,” he said.
“They told me, ‘well you will just have to try and see’.”
He began his novitiate at Sorrento, Victoria, and after taking his first vows was sent to join other young Australian Oblates studying at their seminary in South Africa.
After three years, young John returned to Australia to enter the new Oblate seminary of St Mary’s in Mulgrave, Victoria, studying at Corpus Christi College, Glen Waverley.
In 1967, at the age of 33 he was ordained at St Patrick’s Cathedral, Melbourne, then in the following year he was posted to Hillcrest parish in Adelaide and spent two years there.
Fr O’Doherty was then appointed director of novices at Mulgrave and in 1979 he became the first parish priest of Rosebud on the Mornington Peninsula.
During this time, Fr O’Doherty acted on his missionary calling by studying Bahasa Indonesia at Monash University.
He made a three-month visit to Indonesia helping the Oblate team in the mission, putting into practice what he had learned.
In 1982, Fr O’Doherty was appointed full-time to the mission, the start of a 28-year ministry in Indonesia.
Stationed in the town of Cilacap one of his tasks was the occasional visits to the prison island of Nusa Kambangan, known as “execution island” which has housed many infamous inmates over the years including members of the ruling Suharto family, and more recently, where the Bali bombers and ringleaders of the Bali Nine faced death by firing squad.
Fr O’Doherty remembers some of his most rewarding experiences as working amongst poor villages in Java.
As part of a mission team he worked with village people helping their personal development, health care and education.
“When the Oblates first went to Indonesia there was a lack of secondary education especially in the poorer areas,” he said.
“The government had been successful in providing primary education for every child, but as far as secondary, especially in the villages there was nothing much at all.”
The Oblate mission also helped poor families and womens’ groups develop income-generating programs.
The aim was to enable village people to borrow money so they could buy equipment, such as a sewing machine, as the means to begin small start-up ventures.
“It’s a great program, very simple,” Fr O’Doherty said.
The Oblate mission also taught village leaders how to develop their own programs to benefit their people.
Fr O’Doherty also worked in a large parish in the capital, Jakarta.
Entrusted to the Oblates in 1975, the parish just kept on growing and many new parishes began to spring up.
In 2013, the original parish still had 22,000 Catholics.
Once again it was time to split into two.
One with 12,000 and the original area with 10,000.
“The growth has just been phenomenal,” Fr O’Doherty said, referring to the increasing number of faithful.
“That sort of thing is most encouraging. It is life–giving to the missionary.
“Catholics are growing at a faster rate than the country’s actual growth of population.
“Generally, Indonesians are deeply religious people. They have a basic belief in God that perhaps we have lost here in Australia.”
Fr O’Doherty said he never felt threatened during his missionary years in Muslim-majority Indonesia.
This included years of turmoil during which radical Islam arose and churches were often burnt to the ground.
“We were not in an area where burnings were happening,” he said.
As well as his mission work in Indonesia, Fr O’Doherty was invited to be a team leader for the English sessions of the Oblate renewal program, held in Aix-en-Provence, France, the place where the Oblates of Mary Immaculate began in 1816.
For six years he would spend three months each year in Aix en Provence co-ordinating retreats, and directing groups of Oblate missionaries from different parts of the world.
There are more than 4000 Oblate members – priests and brothers – serving in many countries.
“The program was aimed at a renewal of the Oblate spirit – for missionaries who had been working for a long time in their mission, often alone, ” Fr O’Doherty said.
“It can happen in mission countries that they’re so busy looking after people and doing missionary work that they forget their roots – time for prayer and time for living their Oblate life – so they would spend time for renewal of their spirituality.”
Fr O’Doherty returned from Indonesia in 2011 and is now in “reduced active ministry” based at Dernancourt, Adelaide.
He has taken on various pastoral roles, including sacramental programs, school Masses, training of altar servers and other priestly work.
As he celebrates his 50-year milestone, Fr O’Doherty will return to Brisbane next month to be among family and old friends.
An open invitation is extended to join Fr Doherty as he celebrates Mass at the Iona College chapel, Wynnum West, on October 22, at 11.30 am.
Fr O’Doherty is also planning an important reunion in Brisbane – a visit to Manly Harbour to step aboard Bluenose, the boat he first sailed on in 1953.