AT three o’clock in the morning on Saturday, November 9, 2013, in his room at the newly opened Gold Coast Hospital at Southport, Fr Virgil Pender died in the midst of love.
He died in a twofold love: the love of his God expressed through the grace of the Holy Spirit given in the anointing of the sick, and in the love of his family who kept constant vigil by his bedside.
It is fitting that we are gathered here in St Mary’s, Ipswich, to honour Virgil and to celebrate his entrance into God’s eternal life – the life promised to us by Christ, and to thank God for Virgil’s priestly life among us. It was here in St Mary’s where he was baptised, received his First Holy Communion, and was ordained to the priesthood on June 29, 1951.
His ordination was a memorable occasion for his family, friends and parishioners of Ipswich.
Virgil was born November 27, 1927, to Michael Pender and Bridget Molloy. He was one of seven children. He attended St Mary’s Primary School and St Edmund’s College, Ipswich, where he was recognised as a champion athlete and rugby league player.
In 1939 when he was 12 years old, Australia was at war. No doubt each day he would hear the family discussing the news of Australian and allied troops fighting in Europe and North Africa. During the 1940s he would have witnessed the troop trains carrying thousands of soldiers travelling through Ipswich to North Queensland to combat the Japanese invasion.
During this tumultuous wartime he also farewelled his brother Paul who joined the Australian Army and fought in the battle of Milne Bay in New Guinea. Each night he would have joined his family in prayer for peace and the safe homecoming of Paul and of all the young men and women overseas.
In the meantime in the 1940s his brother Gervase was studying for the priesthood at Banyo Seminary. Gervase, who was ordained in 1949, died suddenly in 1959 at the age of 33 years. His death was a big blow to Virgil and his family. The two brothers were very close.
When Virgil entered Banyo Seminary in February 1945 Australia was still at war.
In 1952 Virgil was appointed assistant priest (in those days curate) to St Patrick’s, Gympie. The parish of Gympie stretches from Kilkivin in the west to Tin Can Bay in the east and from Embil in the south to Gunalda in the north. There are eight churches in the country districts. This meant the priests had to drive many miles each Sunday over unsealed roads to say Mass for the people in all kinds of weather.
During the week the priest would be out again to visit the Catholic families, teach catechism to the children in the state schools, and visiting the sick. It was a demanding pastoral challenge which Virgil met and conquered. There are people today in Gympie parish who still remember him.
In 1961 Archbishop James Duhig appointed Virgil parish priest of St Mel’s, Esk, in the Brisbane Valley. Here he brought his pasturing zeal to the young and the old. Within two years of his appointment in 1963 Archbishop O’Donnell blessed and opened the new brick presbytery of St Mel’s, Esk.
I was present on that occasion, and remember the Archbishop warmly congratulating the young parish priest and the parishioners on their hard work in providing a suitable home for their priest.
In 1968 Archbishop O’Donnell appointed Virgil to St Joseph’s, North Ipswich. This was a suburban parish, unlike his previous parishes where the majority of people worked on farms and cattle properties. Here his ministry was to give pastoral care to those who worked in offices, factories, railways and mines.
Virgil with his warm pastoral skills soon banded the parishioners of St Joseph’s around him with his gentle but firm leadership. He led them to create a parish with a wonderful spirit and firm faith.
In those days there was no government aid to Catholic schools to assist with school buildings and salaries, so one of his top priorities was to support the Sisters of Mercy and the parents in the local St Joseph’s school to give the children the best of Catholic education. One of the ways he did this was through his excellent administration skills. He introduced planned giving progams, and encouraged the Parents’ and Friends’ in their fundraising activities.
The Sisters of Mercy were a vibrant part of the parish. Virgil knew what a blessing it was to have the sisters in the parish, not only to give the children a Catholic education, but in their pastoral visitations of the parish homes, especially to the sick and the elderly.
He was especially proud of the St Vincent de Paul Society members of St Joseph’s conference who reached out to the poor and the needy in the community.
Virgil, as we know, was a very kind and very gentle priest. He had a quiet sense of humour, and he always had a welcoming smile. He was loved by his parishioners many of whom kept in touch with him during his retirement, through visits and correspondence. He loved the company of his parishioners, family, friends, and fellow priests.
During his life he was always interested in sport especially rugby league at all levels, local, state and international. One of the highlights of his life was to travel with the Australian Kangaroos rugby league team to England.
Virgil had a deep understanding of the spirituality of the priesthood of Jesus Christ. Some years ago I remember these words of St Paul to the Corinthians which Virgil had jotted down.
“My grace is sufficient for you, for power is made perfect in weakness. So I will boast all the more gladly of my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ may dwell in me; for whenever I am weak, then I am strong.”
On that occasion I thought to myself, here is this tall strong priest receiving strength from the words of St Paul. “For when I am weak then I am strong.”
Virgil had a deep understanding of the spirituality of the priesthood and his priestly friendship with Jesus Christ.
Recently Pope Francis spoke about the importance of the priests of the Church being gentle and compassionate and being close to and with their people in their joys and sorrows. Fr Virgil epitomised the pastor of whom the Pope speaks.
Last Saturday morning at 3am Jesus came to Virgil’s bedside, and said “Come with me good and faithful servant from time into eternity and receive the Kingdom prepared for you since the foundation of the world.”
May he rest in peace.
Fr Dan Carroll is parish priest of Darra Jindalee.
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