By Peter Bugden
COLIN Apelt remembers the days when your religion could decide what you ate for breakfast.
“Catholics didn’t buy (a certain brand of breakfast cereal) because it was manufactured by (another denomination),” he said, recalling the early 1960s when he and his friends were about to try something quite different, quite ahead of their time.
To put it into perspective, while some of us may have been making day-to-day decisions about what we’d eat for breakfast based on whether our cereal was manufactured by another denomination or not, people on the other side of the world had nothing to eat and were starving to death.
Colin had a different perspective.
He was a young married man, he and his wife Margaret were starting their family, and, having graduated in civil engineering from the University of Queensland, he worked for a few years before going to Oxford University on a Rhodes Scholarship.
He was overseas for a little over four years before returning to Brisbane to take up an appointment as senior lecturer in civil engineering at UQ in 1958.
Colin and Margaret were married in 1960.
“When I came back from overseas I was really struck by the poverty around the world,” he said from the family home in Indooroopilly, Brisbane.
“There was this whole issue of poverty and starvation, and the (Australian) Freedom from Hunger Campaign was established, and I and others were very enthusiastic in supporting that and raising money.
“Rather naively, I and I’m sure others thought, ‘One big effort, and we’ll solve this problem, and then we can get on with regular life’.
“Well, it was a real kind of a downer when you realised that, no, the problem was still there after the big year.”
The young idealist went through a period of thinking “What’s the point? You can’t make much difference.”
“And then I probably read somewhere the comment that ‘It’s better to light a candle than curse the darkness’,” Colin said.
In 1962, he and a small group of like-minded people decided they had to “light a candle”.
The “candle” is still burning brightly, still small and still reaching out to the poor in various parts of the world.
It’s called Innocents Relief, a non-denominational, volunteer-staffed organisation that currently sponsors more than 500 children individually and helps thousands more through members’ donations to 45 centres in India, Sri Lanka, the Philippines, Indonesia, Peru, Tanzania, South Africa, Uganda, Kenya and Papua New Guinea.
Colin, who has been the organisation’s president for most of the 53 years – except for the few years he was overseas – recently stepped down, and was taking time to reminisce.
Recalling the beginnings of Innocents Relief, he said, “We wanted it to be ecumenical in the sense of anybody who wanted to help we wanted them to be involved, and we wanted to help wherever it was needed.”
The ecumenical focus set Innocents Relief apart.
“All of the people involved at that stage were Catholic, and that kind of attitude (of working with people of other denominations) was … pretty far out because Vatican II hadn’t even finished,” Colin said.
“We were targeting school-age children and younger, with the main focus of giving them an education as a start, because there was such a lack.
“Inevitably, because initially all of the people were Catholic, the contacts we had were mainly Catholic organisations, and that would still probably be the majority but there’s a significant section of organisations we help which are not Church-related or not Catholic Church-related.
“And the people who’ve been involved in the organisation they’ve been of all stripes and colours, from the practising Catholics to people who have no particular faith commitment but are concerned to help children.”
Colin said the group had never had fundraising targets.
“It’s a case of we do the best we can, and what support we get we’re pleased with,” he said.
“It has grown over the years and now, because I have this kind of mathematical, engineering background, I’m interested in development and totals.
“Initially, the amount of money we were able to gather and send overseas would’ve been in the hundreds of dollars.
“Well, in the financial year just ended it was just over $300,000.
“(Another) factor that I’ve looked at is the impact of inflation, and over the years, the total that we’ve transmitted is just over $4 million.
“That’s in actual dollars. If you applied just a CPI index to that it more or less doubles it so it’s just over $8 million.
“It’s a tidy sum but it’s a drop in the bucket in terms of the need.”
Colin said when Innocents Relief started “there was very little of this (kind of work) being done from Australia, and so we were just lighting a candle in the darkness, and you kind of think, ‘Gee whizz, that’s a little thing compared to the huge need’”.
“Now there are so many organisations that, from a certain point of view, you could say, ‘Why continue? Just absorb into something else’,” he said.
“But, because everything is done voluntarily, the overheads are very low.
“The annual contribution we suggest (to members) totals $165, of which $150 is transferred wholly to the overseas beneficiary and $15 is treated as membership fee.
“More than half of that eventually is sent to the beneficiaries also.”
The fact that 96 to 97 per cent of funds raised was sent to the needy “appeals very much to people”.
Innocents Relief has about 15 people active as committee members and volunteers.
Apart from his commitment to the group, Colin has had a busy life raising eight children with Margaret, building a distinguished career and becoming Head of the Civil Engineering Department at UQ, and volunteering on committees at an archdiocesan level.
He was involved at board level with Mater Hospitals from 1980, deputy chairman of the governing board from 1994-96 and chairman from 1996-2001.
From 2001-2011 he was a member of Mater Health Services Limited.
In 2004 he was awarded the Medal of the Order of Australia for his work with the Mater Hospitals and Innocents Relief.
Colin has been Catholic all his life but he said a turning point in his faith came during his wife’s illness, which led to her death in 1999.
“Most of it had been very much head stuff,” he said.
“We’re brought up with facts and rules …, but I think I really started to move into the more personal interaction during Margaret’s illness which was a time when I’d just retired.
“That gave me more time with her and, I suppose, thanking time.”
Becoming involved with the Mater was another factor.
“That put me into contact with Christianity in action and a different kind of faith environment,” he said.
“The Sisters of Mercy at the hospital really were switched on in the way that I thought it should be.
“All of those factors have led me to a position where now I’ve realised, particularly just in recent years, that my task is to convert my approach from the head believing that to really personally living it.
“After having most of my life in the first mode, it’s a challenge.”
Colin said these days the Eucharist had become even more central to his life, with him “having moved from the head stuff, thinking, ‘What is it that I should believe?’ and also from the background of feeling, ‘Well, I really should be able to understand this’.
“I think for me one of the big breakthroughs was to recognise that it’s all mystery and ‘Listen, mate, you’re not going to understand it’,” he said. “And so having moved into that, I find that at taking the Eucharist I’m more and more being able to treat that as a meeting, as an encounter.”