This morning I walked past the headquarters of the Father Bob Maguire Foundation in Victoria Avenue, Albert Park. He also lived there following his enforced retirement in 2012. Home and work. There was no separation.
He was a presence on Vic Ave, always coming and going, happy to have a chat. Generous with a blessing, too.
Flowers and messages gathered in the doorway. While I paused to remember him, I was joined by B who told me how much Father Bob had helped him, as he had so many others, as a troubled teenager. Those whom Father Bob had helped in turn supported him.
The news of his death spread with the wildfire of social media, a medium of which he was master. He understood how people suffered with loneliness. He spoke directly to people and created a strong sense of belonging, even on social media, where he had 126k followers on twitter.
His way of speaking was unique. As Arnold Zable wrote: “Father Bob speaks elliptically. He sees the world in symbols; he views life as a sequence of parables.1“
The shop front on Victoria Avenue contrasts with the massive Gothic bluestone church of St Peter and Paul church where Father Bob was Parish Priest from 1973 to 2012.
Fifty years ago, South Melbourne was a vastly different place. Park Towers had only been completed in 1969. ‘Slum clearance’ schemes had only recently been abandoned. The community was affected by the ‘pall’ (Father Bob’s words) of the collapse of the Westgate Bridge. By 1981, South Melbourne was losing population. Many properties were vacant.
Father Bob’s larger than life personality filled that church and spilled out of it into the suburb. He dedicated his ministry to supporting people who needed help. He was absolutely emphatic and passionate about the Church’s role in the community. In a video recorded one Easter a few years ago, he said words that I recall as: “When they rolled away the stone, there was no one there.
See! (a favourite expression of his)
He (Jesus) was out and about. Helping people. And that is what the mission of the church should be.”
As a newcomer to South Melbourne and Australia in 1987, I was aware of the activity at St Peter and Paul. I learned about the work of the Parish through frequently seeing Henry Nissen on the streets of South Melbourne. Nissen worked with Father Bob at the Emerald Hill Mission. He was a former boxer who completely dedicated himself to supporting young people on the streets who were getting into trouble with the police, having issues with drugs or family violence.
The work was intense. Welfare work at that time was much less formal than it is now.
Father Bob revelled in being provocative and outspoken. He was born to have a microphone in his hand.
Injustice, present or historical, fired him up. The story of Allan Whittaker, waterside worker, often told here on Port Places, was one such tale. He spoke of his mother, a seamstress, who had arrived at Station Pier from Scotland and the challenges she had faced.
In more recent years, the Foundation has continued to support people with food and company on the very edge of Montague on Boundary St. Father Bob was insistent on being inclusive and welcoming and this is reflected in the way the Foundation has offered meals in Port Melbourne.
‘All our meals are held in parks and other off road spaces where diners can enjoy their time in a treed and green environment. Our food van service is more like a picnic than a soup van. At our meals, volunteers serve food from tables and greet diners while they choose the kind of meal they want from a smorgasbord of healthy options. Diners sit at tables that we have set up in the park with ample elbow room so they can share a relaxed meal with others and socialise.” All are welcome.
When writing his book about Henry Nissen, Arnold Zable visited one of these community meals where Father Bob was present.
He quotes Father Bob as saying “It’s all about place”.
He lifts the stick from his arm and points is upwards. “Heaven is not another place. It’s this place clearly seen.”2
Father Bob Maguire 1934 to 19 April 2023
1 & 2 Quoted in Arnold Zable’s The Fighter A True Story (Text 2016)