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Fr Tony Casey remembered as a gentle pastor

Final tribute: Lismore Bishop Gregory Homeming incenses Fr Tony Casey’s coffin at a funeral Mass for Fr Casey at St Augustine’s Church, Coffs Harbour, on January 16.

FORMER Coffs Harbour parish priest Fr Anthony John Casey, who died at the age of 90, was remembered as a gentle pastor and diligent worker at a Requiem Mass held at St Augustine’s Church. 

Fr Casey died on January 8 in Ballina.

Lismore Bishop Gregory Homeming and many priests of the diocese concelebrated the Mass on January 16. 

In his homily, Kingscliff parish priest Fr Paul McDonald praised Fr Casey’s life’s work and service to the Coffs Harbour parish community. 

He said Fr Casey’s legacy was evident in the communities whose faith he nourished through his love and commitment to the Eucharistic charism for much of his 65 years of priesthood.

“From his personal prayer life and the celebration of the Mass, he was able to go out to love and serve the Lord in the community,” Fr McDonald said in his homily.

“He went quietly about his work as a diligent, selfless and gentle pastor.

“He knew all his people and was always available to provide for their spiritual needs.”

Fr Casey was born south of Lismore in New South Wales on March 8, 1929.

Known as Tony, he was the third-eldest of 10 children born to Bill and Ada Casey. 

He remained close to his family throughout his life. 

Young Tony grew up during the Great Depression and then the Second World War. 

Times were tough, and the family worked very hard on the land. 

In the 1930s they moved to Coffs Harbour to join his mother’s family, the Gaudrons, growing bananas. 

He was educated at Urunga, Dorrigo, Bellingen and St John’s College, Woodlawn, before moving on to his theology studies at Springwood and Manly.

As a seven-year-old, Tony’s journey to school in Urunga involved a four-kilometre walk along a bullock track, a ride on North Coast Mail and a another trek across a swamp to get to his “classroom”, which was a shelter shed with only three walls. 

Between 1936 and 1939, he attended St John’s Primary School in Dorrigo as a boarder and spent two years at St Mary’s Primary School in Bellingen where his father had built a home. 

At the age of eight, young Anthony told his parents he wanted to be a priest after meeting then-Bowraville parish priest Fr Colan.

Hearing Fr Colan’s work with Aboriginal people and vulnerable families inspired Fr Casey to pursue his vocation as a diocesean priest. 

During the Second World War, the banana industry struggled because many of the workers joined the armed forces, so Tony helped his father chipping bananas by day and studied at night by kerosene lamp. 

He completed his secondary education at Woodlawn, where he studied the Latin that he would need for his subsequent studies for the priesthood at St Columba’s College, Springwood, before going to St Patrick’s College, Manly. 

Spending holidays with his brother Bernard, chipping bananas and chopping timber out the back of Bellingen, he was also an avid beekeeper. 

He had about 50 hives in Bellingen as well as hives at the Manly seminary. 

He often put honey on the tables for the priests and students. 

Then-Lismore Bishop Joseph Farrelly ordained Fr Casey on July 25, 1954, at St Carthage’s Cathedral in Lismore. 

He celebrated his first Mass at Bellingen the next day with his youngest brother Paul as altar server. 

Following his ordination, Fr Casey worked in many parishes across the Lismore diocese including Port Macquarie, Lismore, Dorrigo, Maclean, Cowper, Macksville, Tweed Heads, Kempsey and Coffs Harbour.

Fr Casey was an astute and capable administrator, appointed as Coffs Harbour parish priest in 1971 by Lismore Bishop John Satterthwaite, at a time when the parish and town, now a city, needed the gifts of such a man to lead it through a period of major growth and development.

Fr Casey was never shy of a challenge, nor lacking in any competitive spirit, whether in his sporting interests of fishing, golf or squash, or his parish work and administration, such as rebuilding the school system and setting up aged care in Coffs Harbour.

When he announced his ambitious plan to establish John Paul College in Coffs Harbour, Bishop Satterthwaite suggested that it couldn’t be done. 

This fuelled Fr Casey’s determination to bring the plan to successful fruition. 

He headed deputations to various government bodies for funding and approval of the project, which involved establishing a new thoroughfare (now Hogbin Drive), the construction of two bridges as well as building the college. 

Paddy Hargraves donated the land on which the high school was built, and Paddy Littler and John Plunkett were of invaluable assistance to Fr Casey throughout the process.  

Fr Casey was a familiar sight, in his wellington boots, on many a Saturday morning, driving the tractor and organising a team of volunteers in preparing the ovals and grounds and laying turf.

At the official opening in 1983, he arranged for apostolic nuncio Archbishop Luigi Barbarito, then-representative of Pope John Paul II  (after whom the college was named), to attend and bless the college. 

In 1986-87, St Anthony’s Chapel and a multi-purpose hall were also completed.

In addition to this, Fr Casey was responsible for building stage two of St Augustine’s School and Mary Help of Christians School in Sawtell, and acquired the land and did the planning for St Francis Xavier School, Woolgoolga, which was built after he left.

He was also conscious of the needs of the frail and elderly and the need to provide for their care. 

To this end, he extended the Ozanam Villa complex, built St Augustine’s Nursing Home, St Joseph’s Hostel, Villa Monica and Casey Court self-care units.

As parish historian Rosie Doherty said in her book, published in 2006 for the centenary of the parish of Coffs Harbour, “Father Casey had achieved so much in the parish of Coffs Harbour”.

“He was very much loved and respected, not only for his dedication in fulfilling his mission in the establishment of good Catholic education and his commitment to aged care, but also for his pastoral care of the people,” she wrote.

He worked hard for the people of Coffs Harbour parish. 

John Paul College came into existence because he was prepared to take up the challenge and see it through. 

Fr Tony’s hard work came at a cost to his health, and in March 1993, on doctor’s orders, he had to take time off to recover. 

Unfortunately, he was never well enough to resume his duties as parish priest.  

From then on, he continued to contribute where and when he could, helping in parishes when priests were away and sharing his knowledge and experience in education as Diocesan Priorities Committee chair.

In retirement, no one could ever visit him without hearing him reminisce about Coffs Harbour – the place and the people he loved.

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