By Rebecca DiGirolamo
The Army chaplain is as relevant today to Australian troops peace-keeping in Afghanistan as he was to the diggers of World War I, says RSL South Australia State president Tim Hanna.
“For as far as I can see into the future, there will be a need for chaplains,” he said last month.
Mr Hanna said soldiers were known to return to their faith or renew their faith when faced with the difficult circumstances of combat.
“You can imagine the horrors that would have entailed when we lost more than 60,000 men and women in World War I,” he said. “While the numbers have not been so high in Afghanistan and Iraq, the chaplain’s role in ensuring we honour those killed continues to be a key part of what they do.”
As the Adelaide Archdiocese prepares to mark Remembrance Day on November 11, The Southern Cross has been made aware that at least 11 Adelaide priests have served as chaplains amongst Australian and British troops in active war or peace-keeping and emergency missions overseas from 1940 to present.
Many more Adelaide priests have acted as part-time chaplains in Australia and continue their service for the Australian Army, Army Reserve, the Royal Australian Air Force, and the Royal Australian Navy.
Monsignor John Swann OAM said the Adelaide Archdiocese had a strong history of clergy supporting the Australian Defence Forces. He said local clergy were among the soldiers serving in World War II and Afghanistan. He said priests had been injured, shot at, and awarded for their services.
Mgr Swann said Fr Michael Dunne, who was ordained in Dublin for the Adelaide diocese in 1940 but could not travel to Australia due to War World II, served the British Army as chaplain in North Africa, Sicily, Italy, France and West Germany. He was wounded eight times, including after a parachute jump over Holland.
“In an incident on the West Coast of France he saved the life of a companion as a German soldier went to shoot him,” said Mgr Swann.
“Fr Michael shot the soldier in the knee, grabbed his rifle and bashed it against a tree,” he said. “He then tended to his mate and then bandaged the German’s knee. In his broken German he told the soldier he was sorry.”
Northern Light Parish Priest and Third Health Support Battalion Army chaplain
Fr Mark Sexton said the role of the chaplain, known as ‘padre’ in the Australian Army, was “very important”. He was chaplain for six months in 2011 at the multi-national base Tarin Kot, in Afghanistan. There he said Mass, heard confessions, baptised an American soldier, and was present for the devastating news of a twin brother killed in action. He was at the grassroots of army base morale and his view was sought after by high-ranking commanders.
Fr Sexton said 40 per cent of Australian Defence Forces personnel identified themselves as Catholic. “It’s important to have a priest there for them to be a witness,” he said.
“The diggers just want someone to listen to them.”
He said his frontline ministry had made more relevant the importance of Anzac Day and Remembrance Day. “Remembrance Day is about all the people who have served and also their partners, their wives, their children, who really go through it all with them, and to remember what Pope John Paul II said: ‘war is always a failure’.”
A special Mass commemorating Remembrance Day will be held at 11am at St Francis Xavier’s Cathedral on November 11.
Remembrance Day is marked annually with a minute’s silence at 11am on November 11 across Australia to commemorate the more than 100,000 Australians who have died serving their country since WWI. On November 11 in 1918, the signing of the armistice, which signified the end of World War I, took place on the eleventh hour.
Chaplains in action:
Fr Giles Ferriggi (deceased) – Maltese Franciscan who served as a British Army chaplain while in Malta in 1930s and 1940s and in 1948 was an Army chaplain for the experimental Atomic Base at Maralinga and the Army Training Camp at Woodside. He was awarded the Efficiency Decoration to add to his awards of the Malta Star, 1939-1945 War Medal, Italy Star, Africa Star and General Service Medal.
Fr John Honnor (deceased) – served as senior chaplain to Army from July 1940 to January 1946. He served in the Middle East.
Fr Michael Dunne (deceased) – ordained in Dublin for the Archdiocese of Adelaide in June 1940. Because of the War he could not travel to Australia so he joined the British Army as chaplain and served in North Africa, Sicily, Italy, France and West Germany.
Fr Edward John (Eddie) Smyth (deceased) – 1941 to 1946. Chaplain to the RAAF, serving in Australia and New Guinea.
Fr William Collins (deceased) – January 1941 to 1947, appointed full-time Army chaplain.
Fr William Bustelli – September 1942 to 1946, served as full-time Army chaplain.
Fr Gavan Kennare (deceased) – Army chaplain from January 1957. In 1963 he saw the formation of two Battalions of troops at Woodside, where he was Parish Priest, with troops moving to and from Vietnam and Malaysia. In February 1972 he was appointed Senior Chaplain to the Fourth Military District. He twice visited troops in Malaysia and Vietnam.
Fr James Sayers (now retired) – Army chaplain (part-time) from 1958-1967. In 1967 he volunteered for Service in the Royal Australian Navy. He served as chaplain to the Navy Apprentice Base- HMAS NIRIMBA, Quakers Hill NSW. In 1970 he volunteered and was appointed chaplain to the HMAS SYDNEY taking troops to the Vietnam war and attended to American and Australian Naval Outfits in Vietnam. In 1971-72 Chaplain to Naval Base HMAS LEEUWIN – Western Australia.
Mgr John Butler (in Queensland) – Principal Army chaplain in 1980s in Adelaide, who was deployed to the Namibia emergency in 1989/90.
Fr Pat Woods (Elizabeth Parish Priest) – current RAAF Edinburgh reserve chaplain since 1984. Deployed four times to: Bali Assist (2002), Afghanistan (2009), and Iraq (2003 and 2006).
Fr Mark Sexton (Northern Light Parish Priest) – Army chaplain at Smithfield 3/9 Light Horse from 2006. Chaplain at the multi-national base Tarin Kot, in Afghanistan, from July to December 2011. Since March 2012, he has been Army chaplain for the Third Health Support Battalion at Keswick and in Queensland, New South Wales, Victoria and Tasmania.