By Paul Dobbyn
JOAN McAuliffe is unambiguous about her fierce love for Red Hill’s, St Brigid’s Church.
“I love every brick in St Brigid’s,” she said, “the whole 150,000 or so of them.”
Talking with the feisty 88-year-old, you discover her love of the Catholic faith is equally strong as she mentions her devotion to Our Lady and the praying of marathon 54-day novenas for various intentions.
Which perhaps is no surprise, coming from the woman Jubilee parish priest Fr Peter Brannelly calls “the matriarch of this church”.
She’s involved behind the scenes in quite a few things around St Brigid’s.
“My family’s motto was: What you give to God you don’t put your name on,” she said.
“He knows who you are and what you’re doing. I’ve always lived by that.
“That’s why you won’t hear my name much. Actually I run a lot of things, but nobody knows I’m running them.”
Joan’s roots run deep at a location not far from where the iconic church stands, surveying the city from its hilltop perch.
Her ancestors moved from Cork in Ireland to Hale Street in 1881.
“That was my great-grandfather and his family,” she said.
“Later, my grandfather Timothy McAuliffe had a dairy in Petrie Terrace.”
Joan’s parents – Ethel and Jeremiah McAuliffe – moved into another house in Hale Street in 1920.
It was here Joan and her two sisters and a brother were born.
“I was born in the front room of the house … there was a doctor and nurse present I’m told,” she said.
Remarkably, Joan has never left this house.
She also went to the local St Brigid’s School from 1932 to 1940.
“I was no academic mind you,” she said.
“And yet I could look at a row of figures and work them out.
“It certainly didn’t stop me getting on in the world.”
Indeed it was this same world she came to travel widely – as a fashion buyer, first for Weedmans Pty Ltd and later for a major retailer still in business in Brisbane.
Joan’s proud to be able to say her travels abroad led to four audiences with Pope Paul VI.
“He was a small, very gentle man … I still remember his eyes – they were the bluest I’d ever seen on anybody then or since.
“And I’m really pleased to think he’s going to be beatified on October 19.
“Because he took over after (Saint) John the 23rd and in a way took a lot of trouble on, what with all the changes going on in the Church at the time.”
Has it been boring living in the same location for so long?
“Oh God no,” she said.
“We just loved where we lived.
“I had absolutely great parents and I had two wonderful sisters and a wonderful brother.
“So why would I want to ever leave?”
Joan then returned to the history of St Brigid’s Church and the allied topic of her strong faith.
“Red Hill was a very Irish area,” she said.
“The area’s poor Irish built the original church at a shilling or so a brick.
“Another remarkable thing is the church has only had four parish priests in a hundred years.
“Fr (John) McCarthy was the first priest in 1907; he left us in January 1926.
“I came (was born) in March that year and Fr Frank Masterson arrived in about April … he baptised me.
“Fr Masterson stayed here until 1964 and Fr (John) Clarke came.”
By Joan’s reckoning Fr Clarke, “here for 33 years”, was responsible for many of the improvements which make St Brigid’s the church it is today.
“He didn’t do anything for about three months, just sat back and observed things.
“Then he started to get around in a pair of shorts and a singlet and work like hell.
“He did jobs like boxing the steps leading up to the altar and later shovelling concrete to make them.
“Father was also the one who organised two Italians to lay tiles over the cement floor throughout the whole church, and all sorts of other jobs too like the baptismal font, another pulpit …”
Joan then returned to a discussion of her faith, noting “Our Lady is my best friend”.
“I used to watch my brother, Henry, and see that no matter what mum asked him to do he’d stop what he was doing and just do it,” she said.
So does Joan see this link between Jesus and His Mother?
“Of course … and I have lots of answered prayers to prove this,” she said.
The appointment of the current parish priest Fr Peter Brannelly after three years of her intense prayer is a case in point.
“I wrote Our Lady a letter and asked her would she ask her Divine Son to send us a priest who would be obedient to the Holy Father, live by Church laws and give good homilies,” Joan said.
“I just prayed to Our Lady of the Rosary … I just said one rosary after another to her.
“Each time I would pray the petition for 27 days; on the 28th day I would start thanksgiving for 27 days.
“All the while I was accepting that if I didn’t get my request it was God’s will.
“Then on October 5, 2006, Fr Brannelly arrived.
“Once again Our Lady had seen to it that my prayers were answered.
“We really couldn’t wish for a better priest.”