BILL Coombes has made it onto national television twice because of the beauty of his orchids – once was after one of Brisbane’s floods had wiped out his whole collection, about 600 plants.
The late Colin Campbell visited Bill’s backyard at Fairfield twice for ABC’s Gardening Australia, first to tell the story of his loss and then to return and show the generous response of viewers to the heart-breaking tale.
Bill received about 200 plants – bromeliads and cacti and others, as well as orchids – from gardeners across Australia to help him get started again.
“I’ve heard a lot of people say, ‘Oh, you know, they’re only possessions and you can replace them’. How do you react to that?,” Colin asked him.
“Well that’s true, you can replace them, but there’s sentiments that are attached to these possessions too and that’s something that you can’t replace,” Bill said.
There’s plenty of sentiment attached to the latest orchid added to his bush house too.
It’s one the parishioners of Dutton Park gave him at a recent morning tea Capuchin Father Joshy Parappully arranged in his honour.
Bill’s been active in the parish for about 40 years since he and his wife Patricia and their three children moved to Fairfield.
He was one of the parishioners who helped start up the community’s St Vincent de Paul Society conference in the early days, and for the past 13 years he’s been the sacristan at Fairfield’s Our Lady of Perpetual Succour Church.
Even though that was something he loved, age was catching up as he nears his 90th birthday and ill health forced him to give it away.
He had a stroke early in the year, and he’s now having difficulty with his memory and concentration.
It’s a frustration for him as he gives key details of his life, but going way back some things stand out.
“I had a very mixed-up beginning … My mother gave birth (in Blackall) to twins on the 30th of December and passed away on the 31st, and the other little twin he passed away 10 days later,” he said.
“I’m the one that lived.
“Yeah – very sad …”
He remembers the hard work he did as a young man fresh out of school in Rockhampton, working as a motor mechanic and then as a fitter and turner.
He had six years in the Air Force in Wagga Wagga, working as an instrument fitter.
That was around the time he and Pat were married in Rockhampton.
Baptised an Anglican, he became a Catholic before he married Pat.
They lived in Wagga Wagga for a short time before Bill left the Air Force and they moved to Brisbane.
Family was all-important then.
Bill and Pat have two daughters, Marilyn and Debbie, and a son, Bill, who is deaf.
When they first moved back to Queensland, they lived at Inala but moved to Fairfield so young Bill could go to the Queensland School for the Deaf, which was just up the road from where Bill senior and Pat still live.
Bill senior soon landed a job at Wormald, which was also nearby, and he worked with them until retirement.
The move to Fairfield put them in the parish of St Ita’s, Dutton Park, and Our Lady of Perpetual Succour, around the corner from where they lived, became their home church.
There they met one of Brisbane’s legendary priests Fr Bernard O’Shea, parish priest of Dutton Park for three decades from 1952 and inaugural director of the Brisbane Catholic Education Office.
“Fr Bernard O’Shea, he was a wonderful, beautiful man – I loved the man,” Bill said.
There was another parishioner, John Harney, who lived near Our Lady of Perpetual Succour, and he was in the thick of everything that happened around there.
“He took us under his wing, and anything that was going on in the church, (John made sure) I had to be involved in it,” Bill said.
“So I ended up being on St Vincent de Paul’s, and with the visits, I used to go out in the car with him, and if there was anything that had to be delivered, I had to deliver them.
“And that’s how the St Vincent de Paul started in this area.”
Bill’s been involved in the parish ever since, but for a few years when he and Pat lived on the Gold Coast.
When they returned to the parish in 2007, John must’ve given the new parish priest, the late Fr Peter Grice, the tip that Bill would be a good man to take on the role of sacristan at Our Lady of Perpetual Succour.
Bill met Fr Grice at a morning tea to welcome the new parish priest and “the next Sunday, here’s all the gear (for the sacristan) in my place at the church where I sit, and that was it …”
“I didn’t mind at all,” Bill said.
“Well, that’s my church and I’ve always loved the people that are in there.”
To him what’s special about being a sacristan is “(doing) something for Our Lord”.
“I think you’re feeling part of doing something for God physically, and spiritually too. I felt that I’m giving him something of my time, and I loved doing it,” he said.
“I just loved doing it …
“I never resented going around there once …. It was a pleasure, because that was my church …”
Hearing this Fr Joshy, who is the parish administrator, said, “And we all loved you there. That’s important.”
Bill can no longer make it to the church for Mass because of his health so Fr Joshy brings him Communion.
Fr Joshy and his fellow Capuchins also are giving back to Bill by lending a hand in the garden and with his orchids once a week.
“I had a beautiful collection (of orchids), then twice – in 1974 and then 2010 – I would’ve lost 1000 plants in the floods,” Bill said.
“I looked at them in 2010, and I thought to myself, ‘This would be the best year I’ve ever had, after 34 years…’, and then I lost the lot.”
But from the loss flowed love for Bill, and Colin Campbell picked up on that during one of his visits to Fairfield for Gardening Australia.
“Now Bill, you have one lonely little cactus, all on its own. What’s the story behind that?” Colin said.
“Yes, it’s a lovely story, Col. It’s from a little girl across the road, Amy, and her mother came over with her,” Bill said.
“She wanted to start my cacti collection, after the flood. And it will be the first I have of many, and it’s lovely that a little girl like that could think that way and I love her very much for it.”