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Bishop John Gerry, a generous soul gone but not forgotten

Bishop John Gerry

Farewell: Bishop John Gerry. Photo: Alan Edgecomb.

ONE of Brisbane’s most popular leaders and the “architect” of an archdiocesan social welfare arm, Bishop John Gerry, will be laid to rest on the 67th anniversary of his priesthood.

Tributes have flowed for the retired Brisbane auxiliary bishop, who died on December 13 at Holy Spirit Northside Hospital, aged 90.

Hundreds of mourners are expected to attend his funeral at St Stephen’s Cathedral, Brisbane, tomorrow, December 21, the date he was ordained in 1950.

Bishop Gerry had been a bishop for 42 years, serving Brisbane between 1975 and 2003.

A man with a deep sense of God’s goodness to the world, he told the congregation attending his 40th anniversary as a bishop in 2015 to “remain a people of hope”.

“I, and we, can say God has been good to us; the Lord has looked after us,” Bishop Gerry said.

“No matter what transpires we remain a people of hope.”

Bishop John Gerry preaching homily at St Stephen's Cathedral, Brisbane

Full of hope: Bishop John Gerry, who died on December 13, preaches at a Mass in St Stephen’s Cathedral for his 40th anniversary as a bishop. At that time he urged members of the congregation to “remain a people of hope”. Photo: Alan Edgecomb.

Archbishop Mark Coleridge said the Brisbane archdiocese had been “richly blessed” by Bishop Gerry’s extensive service to the Church.

“We offer our prayers and sympathy to Bishop John’s family and friends and to the many to whom he ministered so well for so long,” Archbishop Coleridge said.

Born on June 1, 1927, Bishop Gerry was one of nine children from Brisbane.

In 1946, the Australian bishops sent a 19-year-old John Gerry to study in the seminary at the Propaganda Fide College in Rome.

In an interview with The Catholic Leader in 2015, he said his studies in the eternal city “made me aware of the whole world” and gave him a front-row seat to the unfolding of the Second Vatican Council.

After his ordination to the priesthood in 1950, he returned to Brisbane serving in the parishes of Coolangatta, Burleigh Heads, St Stephen’s Cathedral, Stafford and Herston, before being appointed as auxiliary Bishop of Brisbane on June 5, 1975.

He was ordained a bishop by Brisbane Archbishop Francis Rush on July 29, 1975, at St Stephen’s Cathedral. Bishop Gerry recalled entering the cathedral with “wobbling knees” but heard a voice beckoning him to stand firm for a new mission.

“It was something palpable, I can remember it still, and I floated into the cathedral,” Bishop Gerry said in his homily for his 40th anniversary as a priest.

One of Bishop Gerry’s closest colleagues, former episcopal office secretary Christine Hickey, worked for him between 2000 and 2014.

Ms Hickey last saw Bishop Gerry in May ahead of his 90th birthday ºat his favourite Italian restaurant, Il Viale in Graceville, which he liked to call “Paolo’s” after the owner.

She said he was an unforgettable, popular man, who would be missed by hundreds but “more than ever” by his younger sister Therese.

“She was a marvellous support to him,” Ms Hickey said.

Bishop Gerry was a shepherd for thousands as a parish priest, but his impact at Stafford parish was the most significant.

Even when he was ordained a bishop, Stafford parishioners would call into his office and ask to talk to “Fr Gerry”.

“The people never forgot him,” Ms Hickey said.

Bishop John Gerry

Unforgettable: Bishop John Gerry.

Retired Brisbane priest Fr Clem Hodge followed in Bishop Gerry’s footsteps, inheriting the Stafford parish in 1975.

Fr Hodge said Bishop Gerry had started various initiatives including a parish council, family groups and a parish credit union, and he welcomed the Sisters of the Holy Family of Nazareth who taught in the neighbouring school.

“He came to Stafford when it was a growing parish with many young families,” Fr Hodge said. “He was respected among the priests and people as a great pastor.

“Forty years later his memory is still strong in the Queen of Apostles Parish.”

During his episcopate, Bishop Gerry was appointed the vicar for social welfare, and chairman of Australian Catholic Relief – now called Caritas Australia.

His increasing support for social welfare and a desire to serve the poor on a national scale led him to develop blueprints for what is now known as Centacare.

Wilma Bowman worked closely with Bishop Gerry in the Catholic Social Response office during the 1980s and ’90s.

Commissioned by Archbishop Rush, Catholic Social Response was “to be the ears, eyes, voice and conscience of social welfare in the archdiocese”.

Mrs Bowman developed a growing interest in the disabilities sector and, with Bishop Gerry at the helm, set up the first church-led service for people with disabilities.

Together they rallied to provide employment, accommodation and respite care for people with disabilities, which were controversial moves for the time.

“Employment wasn’t even considered for people with disabilities,” Mrs Bowman said.

“There were some concerns in the Church about whether they should be doing this.

“Bishop Gerry represented the legal side and the inspirational side.

“There is a lot more acceptance of people with a disability because of Bishop Gerry.”

Mrs Bowman said Bishop Gerry always made time for her and Catholic Social Response co-ordinator Brian Kennedy.

“He was both an inspiration and supportive at all times,” she said.

Centacare executive director Peter Selwood said Bishop Gerry built the foundations of the organisation, which serves more than 150,000 in Brisbane.

“In fact he is the architect of Centacare,” Mr Selwood said. “His designs, based on quality person-centred care, highly committed carers and the active involvement of the Church, provide the framework that has allowed us to become one of the largest and most dynamic social services providers in the country.

“The care we provided to tens of thousands of people will always be Bishop John’s legacy.”

Bishop John Gerry and parishioners inside St Stephen's Cathedral

Close to the people: Bishop Gerry catches up with some of the faithful at St Stephen’s Cathedral, Brisbane. Photos: Alan Edgecomb

Read the full tribute to Bishop John Gerry and see more photos from his history in the Brisbane archdiocese in The Catholic Leader’s December 24 edition, available in parishes across Queensland. Copies will also be available at St Stephen’s Cathedral for Bishop Gerry’s funeral.

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