FATHER Eric Alleaume’s road to becoming a priest was a bit like being drawn into a kind of “Bermuda Triangle”.
After his family emigrated from Mauritius when he was almost three years old, Fr Eric grew up in Melbourne where his destiny was sealed.
“I grew up in Springvale North, in the parish of St John Vianney’s, which was an Oblate-run parish, which is probably about 3km south of the Oblate seminary, which was on Jacksons Road, which is about 5km from Mazenod College, which was an Oblate secondary school,” he said.
“And it’s like the Bermuda Triangle; I kind of lived in that triangle,” he laughs as he thinks about it.
Fr Eric, of the Missionary Oblates of Mary Immaculate, is parish priest at Cannon Hill in Brisbane and lives in the Oblates’ community at Iona College.
Becoming a priest wasn’t such a foreign idea for him because of his upbringing.
“(I came from) a very strong Catholic faith family, and Dad’s oldest brother – my uncle – was a diocesan priest in Mauritius so you’re growing up with that as a natural part of who you are and what your family is,” Fr Eric said.
“And then, of course, the Oblates in (our) parish (in Melbourne), the Oblates in the school, the Oblates in the seminary were always part of our normal life, and seeing these guys as they’re just normal, human blokes – that that kind of priest is very human, very basic – was very influential.”
Although young Eric was influenced it was not enough to stop him dreaming of other possibilities.
“I suppose as a young kid I wanted to be a pilot and then I ended up having to wear glasses, so that threw that out the door,” he said.
“And then I got caught up into electronics, and just loved that and, eventually when I finished high school, I ended up doing a year at RMIT doing electrical engineering.
“That was about the same time as the local parish priest, (Oblate Father) John Hannah, was asking, ‘What are doing with your life? C’mon, you’ve got to do something better …’
“And that was the question, I think, that clinched it because there was that sense of, I think, trying to turn a hobby into a career wasn’t really working.
“So, in the end he said, ‘Oh, have a go … Look at the seminary …’
“So I wrote a letter, ended up doing novitiate the year after and was ordained in 1991.”
Fr Eric turned 21 during his novitiate, his first year with the Oblates.
Apart from the challenge from Fr Hannah, he was also drawn by the spirit of the order.
“I suppose it was the whole thing of the Oblates being a missionary congregation and at the time when I was at school at Mazenod in Victoria we had seven priests on staff and they were all fairly young,” Fr Eric said.
“But at the same time (the Oblates) were looking at taking on the mission in Indonesia but unfortunately we paid a price …
“I think five of the younger men went to Indonesia, and I suppose it was the adventure of the missionary (that appealed to me) but then the fact that here was a congregation that was doing well but not so well that they could afford to (send so many), because in the end we had to make sacrifices in schools and so on.
“But here was a missionary congregation that took the risk to send men to Indonesia and I felt, well, if they can do that … And I just thought the whole image of being a missionary was very attractive, so I took the challenge from that point of view.
“In the end, I did go to visit the missions in Indonesia but that was as a teacher, because after I was ordained I was stationed at Iona College here in Brisbane in mid-’91 after ordination.”
That’s when he realised that teaching Year 10 boys religion “is probably more missionary territory than trying to learn Indonesian and bring Catholicism to Indonesia in Java”.
Coming to that realisation, he was inspired by the Oblates he’d known as a young man himself.
“That was the thing – they were guys who they’d be out in the quadrangle when you’re having morning tea and lunch, they’d be down at the oval kicking the footy with you, you’d see the college rector walking around picking up rubbish and putting it in the bin …,” Fr Eric said.
“They were just real men; there was no sense of that, you know, priests were holier than thou, or very different.
“The Oblate thing is always ‘with the people’, and these guys were living it.
“And I think that’s been the example that I’ve followed all the way – it’s trying to live out that whole thing of being real and being one with the people.”
So if young Eric was ever going to grow up to be a priest, it was always going to be with the Oblates.
“That was the Bermuda Triangle thing; there was kind of no choice, you got sucked in …,” he laughs.
Part of what’s sustained him with the Oblates is the spirit and charism of the order and its founder St Eugene De Mazenod.
“A lot of it is the ‘realness’ of St Eugene De Mazenod as a saint,” Fr Eric said.
“He was one of these real men, real people.
“There’s a kind of a back story that he was fairly difficult to have canonised as a saint because he told it exactly as it was.
“So just his inspiration and the Oblate charism, the missionary side keeps me going.
“But then it’s also that oneness with people …”
He’s also had varied experiences as a priest.
“I had seven-and-a-half years at Iona teaching, then I had seven years teaching in Western Australia at Mazenod College, in Lesmurdie, then I had a few months in a parish, and then I ended up as personal secretary to our superior general in Rome for seven-and-a-half years, came back to parish ministry in Adelaide, was in the parish in Sydney that we closed to take on Cannon Hill, and now three years here,” he said.
“So, thankfully, I’ve had a variety of experiences in ministry but I think the most important thing was, I suppose, when I taught the kids, I used to say, ‘If ever you can do a job in your life that you love and you get paid for it then you’re really lucky …’”
He said that, in priesthood, he “has actually been using every gift and talent that I have”.
“So in teaching, I taught religion and history – because they were my majors – but I taught geography, I taught maths, computing, woodwork, metalwork – so all of my interests and hobbies have still been a part of my life in the way I deal with things,” he said.
“You don’t give up everything; you just channel them in different ways and you help people in all sorts of things.”
Fr Eric’s time in Rome “was very, very different – living in an international community”.
“It’s our general administration, and it also had our international seminary, it also had a section where we had priests from around the world who were coming in to do studies in Rome,” he said.
“So you’re dealing with the languages of the congregation, effectively – English, French, Italian, Spanish – so you’re living with a very, very diverse community.
“Then there was that sense of being personal secretary to the superior general (of the order) – it’s a great position but the whole thing is it’s a big responsibility as well.
“But I remember he always used to sign his letters ‘With my promise of prayers’, and I felt, well, my job really was to do as much for him as possible so he could fulfil that.
“It was that sense that the more I did for him to make his life easier, the more he’d be able to do what he promised people he was doing.
“That was a very different kind of ministry.”
One of the things he learned was the importance of administration.
“I suppose I love systems; I love creating things that work, that you can leave behind and (they) keep going, so I was able to do that,” he said.
“I had to learn Italian; I already had French and English, and I picked up a smattering of Spanish …
“Looking at the world Church was very eye-opening – to see things that you normally think you take for granted and you think, ‘Oh, this is how it’s done …’
“But every place does it differently so to see liturgy done in so many different ways and to be able to pray and worship in different languages is quite amazing, it really is.
“So it gives you that sense that the Church is really … it’s big, it’s alive and it’s full of hope.”
Fr Eric was pleased to return to Australia and settle into parish ministry.
“It’s really the first time I spent any length of time in a parish since I was ordained and that was 25 years earlier almost,” he said.
He returned from Rome having some of his views about ministry confirmed.
“I think it (the experience) maybe consolidated things more to that sense of in the end it’s not so much about me; it’s really about what God can do through me, and that was more that sense of listening to people,” he said.
“That was part of the work in Rome, was you’re having to listen to people, to listen to all sorts of things and then to try to recognise, well, what answers can be given here – what are the answers sometimes that you don’t want to hear but you have to hear …
“And I think that’s helped with the way I deal with people as well.
“It made administration much easier to do but it certainly made ministry a lot more realistic as well.
“I think (it was) sitting in an office in Rome and then passing papers and writing letters and doing stuff in different languages, and then you actually have to get (back to the) people, the people who just want some comfort, who just want someone to listen.
“I think that’s really the best ministry that we can offer.
“If we can listen to people and genuinely let them know they’re being heard, I think that that’s what’s important.”
To any young men thinking of joining the Oblates or becoming a priest, Fr Eric’s first word of advice would be “to be yourself”.
“Try to be your best self; and be as happy as you can because as you do that then everybody else will be happy along with you,” he said.
“Happiness is contagious; hope is essential and hope is also contagious.
“Oblates really are ministers of hope, especially at this time.
“Just have the courage to give it a go; listen to people who have encouraged you along the way; listen to God; and listen to those things that are going to make you happiest in life; and recognise that all of those things can be fulfilled as a minister of God.”