One of the definitions of ‘romantic’ is “imaginative, visionary, idealistic”, and in these terms, Father Peter Rees is a romantic. His fifty years of ministry have unfolded in ways he could not have imagined, but he remains committed to the ideals that led him to St Columba’s Seminary Springwood as a fifteen year-old.
Peter was inspired by a man in sandals, whom he realised later was a Franciscan visitor to his school. These days, such a young man would not be accepted for seminary formation, but Peter had been at boarding school at Newcastle’s “Star of the Sea” from a very young age and the Catholic faith was integral to the Adamstown boy’s family and school lives. He recalls his father asking him, “Are you sure?” and the answer was “Yes”.
While the ideals of his youth are still present, Peter is not one to romanticise his calling or experiences. The word ‘journey’ occurs often, and he admits, “I had some bumpy times, and I didn’t always take on board everything I was told.”
Formally and informally, education has characterised Peter’s ministry. Immediately after ordination in 1963, he was asked by Bishop Toohey if he would be prepared to teach at St Pius X College at Adamstown. He welcomed this opportunity and says simply, “It changed my life.” Peter moved from the rigour of St Patrick’s Seminary Manly to a more family-oriented atmosphere at the De La Salle College at Castle Hill to undertake teacher training. “I realised at Castle Hill that the way we see God depends very much on the experiences that we have.”
Peter taught English and Religion at St Pius for twelve years, but as he says, “You were called on to do all sorts of things – sports master, cadet officer, as well as a full teaching load and studying at night. On weekends you were called on to celebrate Mass all over the diocese. Lucky I was young and healthy!”
He attributes his love of surfing and swimming to the years spent at Manly, and still swims almost daily. “Once you can swim a kilometre, I think you can swim any distance!”
While Peter relished the richness of the life he was leading, although it probably wasn’t what he had anticipated, one consequence was that the teaching priests were inevitably somewhat removed from their peers in parishes, so “we were almost a clique. We couldn’t attend clergy conferences or even priests’ funerals.”
References to literature are sprinkled throughout Peter’s conversation, and for him, literature is a path to an understanding of culture. Despite many years of study at school, seminary and college, he undertook further study in English because, “I was going out to preach to people and I didn’t know my own culture. Ironically, no Australian literature – all the lecturers were English!”
His desire to know and understand his own culture stood him in good stead when he moved out of the classroom after sixteen years, including four at St Catherine’s College Singleton. He was offered the principalship there but turned it down in favour of focusing on the teaching of religion and developing curricula, and methods of integrating subject disciplines, with great success in terms of examination results.
His aim at school was always to see students emerge from school more excited than when they arrived, because he believes passionately that education is a lifelong journey.
Peter’s first parish appointment came sixteen years after ordination when he went to West Wallsend, now part of Sugarloaf Parish. He loved the community aspect of parish life, as he had loved school life for the same reason. Many European immigrants had settled in “Westy” as it was affectionately known and the mix of cultures brought a richness and depth that Peter appreciated. Materially the parish struggled, but Peter reflects on his early years as one of nine children and is genuinely grateful for the lessons he learned in a home that had more love than money.
“When I needed a soutane at the seminary, I couldn’t really afford one, but Mum had a seamstress make one for me. It was an ugly thing, but it taught me humility.”
He’s back in Sugarloaf now, but he took the long route back after initially moving on in 1988. At this time, 25 years since his ordination, he felt he’d like to ‘step outside the system’ and with the Bishop’s permission, arranged to take up a teaching position in the seminary in Papua New Guinea. However, before he left, he managed to fall off a roof, breaking his Achilles tendon. For six months he was on crutches but he didn’t waste any time making alternative arrangements to teach at a senior college at Marayong in western Sydney.
Having not yet learned, in the words of poet Robert Burns, that “The best-laid schemes o' mice an’ men/Gang aft agley”, Peter felt that at the end of his year at Marayong he would like to study in Jerusalem and again, he was given a green light. And again, fate – or the Holy Spirit – intervened. It was suggested to Peter that he might apply for a position with the NSW Ecumenical Council, involving preparing for the World Council of Churches gathering in Canberra. He was appointed and later moved to the Australian Council of Churches. Initially the Catholic Church was not a member of the National Council so as Peter says, “I was a Catholic priest raising thousands of dollars for the combined Churches!
“It was an amazing experience, with all these projects all around the world, and seeing the strength of the churches. It annoys me when people talk about religion dying, when there are over two billion Christians in the world – not to mention the other religions. Eighty per cent of the world’s people would think you were crazy if you didn’t see God and religion as being important to being fully human.”
This period of working, not only away from friends and family, but all over the world, had its moments of loneliness, yet it also gave Peter a much bigger perspective on life. He counts himself privileged to have met Nelson Mandela, “the most peaceful man I’ve ever met, a deeply Christian man”, and Archbishop Tutu. “I realised the world’s a lot bigger than Maitland-Newcastle.”
He brought this international perspective when he returned home to preside over the linking of West Wallsend and Glendale to form the parish of Sugarloaf. When asked at the time whether he thought the union could work, he said, “I’ve just spent ten years trying to make the world work together, I should be able to manage it with two parishes!”
Perhaps Peter’s biggest contribution to his home diocese was yet to come. In the sixteen years he has spent at Sugarloaf, he has transformed the parish through the simplest of dreams: “I wanted the people to see a young church in action.” This is a story in its own right, but briefly, Peter has formed practical partnerships with the Diocese of Nha Trang in Vietnam. During his time in Sydney, a young Vietnamese boat person, Truc, joined his staff. She and her twin sister, who had been nuns, escaped Vietnam. Truc now works for Australian Catholic University and has accompanied Director of Schools Ray Collins and groups of teachers on immersion experiences in Vietnam.
Through Truc, Peter has made many connections, perhaps most significantly with the Sisters of the Immaculate Heart of Mary (Marian Sisters). Four Sisters have taken on pastoral ministries within the parish, although Peter stresses that he invited them simply to be among the people. He has since learned that some Sisters, when they accepted the invitation of their superior Sr Imelda, did not really know where Australia was! They bring deep faith, an innate joy and youthful energy. They add to their pastoral abilities, skills in cuisine, music and dance.
The partnership with Nha Trang goes both ways, with Sugarloaf Parish contributing generously to projects such as sinking wells and supporting more than 170 students and catechetical programs over many years now. In fact 23 parishioners, including Fr Peter, travelled recently to Vietnam to witness the final profession of Sr Lucie Tinh Ha. Fr Peter is assisted in Sugarloaf by Fr Peter Hien Tran who is also Vietnamese.
Fr Peter Rees’ dream, as he approaches 75, is to remain active in the parish but no longer have responsibility for administration and simply be “the grandfather figure – the nice guy around the place”.
Recently Peter saw the Baz Luhrmann film The Great Gatsby. The building used as Jay Gatsby’s mansion was formerly St Patrick’s College Manly where Peter studied for priesthood. He remembers as a seminarian looking out from the arched windows to the bay, and the lights of homes, and feeling his isolation from the people. However, his ‘green light at the end of the dock’, his dream, was to be the good news of Jesus. He says without hesitation, “I love being a priest and I love working with the people from all over the world.”
Peter Rees is living the dream.