Bishop Ingham’s memories of Newtown

I was ordained a priest on 18 July 1964 and having completed the seminary at the
end of that year, began as assistant priest at St Joseph’s Catholic Parish, Rosebery.
After only 14 months there, I was moved to St Joseph’s Catholic Parish, Newtown,
in March 1966 to replace Fr Richard Synnott who needed to be closer to the University
of New South Wales to undertake further studies.

What a contrast for a new young priest! Newtown had an old two-storey presbytery, no television, and Monsignor John Byrne, an elderly pastor who retired to his room after evening meal and locked the door. The area was quite socio-economically different to Rosebery. Monsignor Byrne, whom I got to know well over the four years of my appointment, came to Australia from Ireland on a troop ship in 1918 and was appointed parish priest of Newtown around 1934.

He was well set in his ways, and I was but one of a long line of assistant priests appointed to St Joseph’s. In his earlier days, the monsignor established a reputation of supporting his people through these difficult years of our history (the Great Depression and World War II). Because of his age and the state of his health and eyes, he had permission to celebrate the Latin Tridentine Mass even though, after Vatican II, the liturgy was progressively changing into English. I was 25 years old and excited by what was happening in the church at Vatican II which closed in 1965 and I came up against a parish priest who wasn’t going to change anything.

I recall once suggesting we put up a hymn board to display the hymn numbers—an idea which he dismissed in one word, “Protestant!” As Monsignor always said the daily Mass in the Church, I was relegated to the Good Samaritan Convent for daily Mass. This gave me a wonderful connection with the sisters who were so supportive. On Sundays, I was always rostered on the first two Masses, Monsignor always on 9am, a Franciscan priest did the 10.30am Mass and Monsignor always did the 6pm Sunday night.

The Monsignor, with his short Latin Mass, would have the congregation out in less than half an hour, which made his Masses very popular. People told me they would put their Sunday night dinner on before leaving for Mass, so it would be ready by their return home at 6.30pm.

If on the rare occasion I had to say his Mass, I could almost hear the groan go up as the people knew they would be there longer than half an hour! Every Saturday night was the novena of Our Lady of Perpetual Succour. The assistant’s job was to conduct the novena, preach the homily and Monsignor would come to expose the Blessed Sacrament and give benediction. This had a disastrous consequence one night when for the homily, I decided to teach and explain a new Marian hymn.

You need to understand that in this church from the pulpit, you could not see the altar. Monsignor arrived, heard the singing (of the new hymn) and thinking it was time for him to start, proceeded with benediction, while I, not able to see the altar from the pulpit, was proceeding with the rest of the novena prayers. That didn’t help cordial relations.

Every Saturday night was housie in the school hall next to the presbytery for which I was also responsible. So, from Saturday afternoon confessions, to novena, housie till after 10pm, then up early for the first two Sunday Masses made for a very concentrated period each weekend.

One night after housie, I was held up and robbed at gunpoint of the takings. It took me quite a while to recover my confidence. In those days, no one spoke about counselling.

I also was chaplain to the St Vincent de Paul Conference, which had many cases to help people in need. I attended their meeting each week and found that very rewarding and accompanied members on some of their case visits. It gave me a great insight into the needs of the area.

At the main door of St Joseph’s church stood a sizeable wooden poor box on legs. I was constantly impressed by the generosity of the people of the parish putting money into that box. I believe the generosity of parishioners, who knew what it was like to be poor, would outshine that of more affluent parishes. I saw people pour all their small change into that poor box.

There were two schools – the one stream St Joseph’s Convent Primary School run by the Sisters of the Good Samaritan and the Christian Brothers St Joseph’s Newtown Year 5-6 Boys School next door to the presbytery. They catered for local children and supported poor families magnificently.

The church had an historic pipe organ which had fallen into neglect. I was friendly with Eric Boland the undertaker who volunteered to try and restore it to working order, but Monsignor vetoed it, so it never happened. The space beneath the church had been used by the Boys School for woodwork in previous years when the school went to Intermediate. It was a generous space but not in great shape for a lot of uses. In earlier days boxing was taught there.

We had a Catholic Youth Organisation, which would meet there regularly. The catechists at the Government schools were very diligent and committed. I well remember Martha Ryanhart and Jack Keating.

Liturgically the changes of Vatican II were dribbled out from the Bishops Conference as translation work was progressively completed and authorised for use. First the Epistle and Gospel were proclaimed in English (1964), then the First Eucharistic Prayer in English. Three new Eucharistic Prayers became available in English by 1968. The three-year cycle Lectionary for Sundays and two year cycle for weekdays was available by 1970.

Monsignor had good relations with local politicians who would drop in to see him. Federal Members Fred Daly and Danny Minogue knew him well. Fr George Joiner, Fr Noel Carroll and Fr Michael Byrnes grew up in the parish as did Archbishop James Carroll, Fr Kevin McGovern was a local as was Fr John Knight.

In 1968 the parish celebrated Monsignor Byrne’s golden jubilee of ordination. In 1969 the centenary of St Joseph’s Church was duly honoured. I recall discovering a booklet in the presbytery written by the archdiocesan Archivist Monsignor McGovern to mark the 50th anniversary of the church. It was a gem, full of information about the origins of the parish in a developing district.

Monsignor Byrne and I became good friends and I was able to help him despite his declining eye sight and general health. He depended on me to write the cheques and perform administrative functions. When I left for my next parish at the end of 1969, our parting was somewhat emotional.

With thanks to John Synnott of St Joseph’s, Newtown, for permission to publish this article.

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