Fr Ken Howell looks back on his years associated with St Stephen’s Cathedral, harking back to his days when he was 11 years old.
FR Ken Howell has been deeply connected with the life of Brisbane’s St Stephen’s Cathedral ever since he was an 11-year-old choirboy.
Dean of the cathedral for the past seven years, he’s taken part in what he describes as “grand ceremonies” including the installation of Archbishop Mark Coleridge as Archbishop of Brisbane last May.
As cathedral pastor for 15 years, he recalls other significant events such as Archbishop Francis Rush’s funeral in 2001 – “a great moment of prayer as the people of Brisbane commended a beloved archbishop to God”.
Fr Howell has also been in the centre of turmoil, especially in the case of St Mary’s parish in South Brisbane where in 2009 he was asked to become administrator by then Archbishop of Brisbane John Bathersby.
Now a priest for nearly 30 years, he speaks of “lingering sadness” at the turn of events there.
But, as he prepared to relinquish his role as cathedral dean to become parish priest of Burleigh Heads, Fr Howell said the day-to-day faith of ordinary Catholics has impressed him above all else.
“I must acknowledge the wonderful spirit among the people – not only of St Stephen’s but also St Patrick’s in the Valley,” he said.
And, in his time at St Mary’s he was buoyed by “miracle after miracle” as the parish found its feet again.
As Fr Howell reminisced on his connections to St Stephen’s Cathedral, his love of the place was clear.
“The cathedral is a building for big major archdiocesan events like the Chrism Mass,” he said.
“But it’s also a daily worship centre that has four Masses a day with the Sacrament of Penance up to 14 hours a week.
“This is the day-to-day living of the Gospel.”
He acknowledged his love affair started when he became a foundation member of the cathedral choir in 1970.
“The choir was formed at St James College in the city where I was a Grade Seven student,” he said.
“Fellow choristers included people like Graham Quirk, now Lord Mayor (of Brisbane).
“The choir had some great times including tours to places like New Zealand.”
He left in 1977 to start studies for the priesthood at Banyo Seminary.
By now, St Stephen’s Cathedral was undergoing renovations and the young seminarian watched the work’s progress with great interest.
“Towards the end of our seminary course, we had to prepare a major thesis or paper on a particular aspect of faith and theology,” he said.
“So I wrote about the restoration of the cathedral and its links to reforms brought in by the Vatican Council.”
Eventually, Fr Howell came to work in his beloved cathedral as assistant priest in 1991 and 1992.
Among highlights during this time was his role as MC for the installation of Archbishop Bathersby.
He’d also been chorister at Archbishop Rush’s installation many years earlier.
By 1997 Fr Howell was back in the cathedral as assistant priest, becoming dean in 2005.
Then in 2009 came one of his biggest challenges when Archbishop Bathersby asked him to take over the parish of St Mary’s at South Brisbane.
“That really came out of the blue,” he said.
“But this was a request I readily accepted.
“Certainly it was a moment of great challenge in my life, especially in the early days when some of the parishioners became very upset by all that was going on.
“Situations developed which actually made it unsafe for me to go there because of the energy within the community at that time.
“I even had the police begging me not to go.
“The last thing they wanted was to have to sort out a dispute in a church which would have been most unfair for everyone involved.”
Fr Howell confessed to a “lingering sadness” over what then happened.
“The sadness that I felt about Peter Kennedy’s decision to move that community from St Mary’s was very real,” he said.
“This sadness that the community felt they could no longer stay with the Church is still with me.”
Yet in this troubled time, Fr Howell found great consolations and even “miracles”.
“Many said I was going into the ‘lion’s den’,” he said.
“Yet once I was finally able to take over the parish and met with people there, I discovered an extraordinary generosity and enthusiasm.
“Many wanted to move the parish forward.
“There was a great love of the Church shining through everyone who appeared at those first Masses in April 2009.
“It reminded me of stories I’ve heard of priests starting brand new parishes.
“There was an energy amongst people to make this work.”
Ironically, one of Fr Howell’s miracles was made possible by the dissident community.
The Brisbane City Council, in negotiations with the earlier parish council, had agreed to pay compensation for impacts on St Mary’s by roadworks associated with the Go Between Bridge.
These payments led to soundproofing and air-conditioning for the church.
The parish paid for a new roof and Fr Howell now describes St Mary’s as “one of the most striking, beautiful and well-preserved churches from the late 1890s era of our history”.
Then there was historic St Patrick’s Church in Fortitude Valley.
Fr Howell assembled a think tank of significant business people and councillors to look at ways the site could generate money to fund restoration work there.
The new roof on the church alone cost $600,000.
“I had hoped by now we would have a renovated church,” he mused.
“I think the possibilities are all there but it’s still very much a work in progress.”
Given Fr Howell’s close connection to St Stephen’s Cathedral, mixed feelings about his new role are perhaps inevitable.
Burleigh Heads with its five Mass centres and rapid growth is a vastly different parish to that of inner city Brisbane.
“I certainly have a great affinity with the cathedral – its events and life and the ministry, so this new role is really taking me into new territory,” he said.
Not totally, as several years after his ordination he spent four years in Burleigh Heads parish as assistant priest and was administrator for more than a year at one stage.
From his arrival on January 12, Fr Howell will hit the ground running with involvement in two significant projects.
He’s already visited Marymount College at Burleigh Waters to discuss expenditure on a major new project as, in line with the rest of Queensland, the school’s Year 7 population prepares to move to high school.
Then there are the plans to build a significant church in the parish, a project to which Fr Howell with his post-graduate studies in liturgy in Rome should have much input to offer.
Despite all these changes, he looks forward to serving the people of Burleigh Heads and sharing in their faith.
“As I said at my farewell function, people coming to God in prayer, day after day, week after week is what it’s really all about,” he said.
The Catholic Leader is an Australian award-winning Catholic newspaper that has been published by the Archdiocese of Brisbane since 1929. Our journalism seeks to provide a full, accurate and balanced Catholic perspective of local, national and international news while upholding the dignity of the human person.
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