Father Bob’s passing leaves big shoes to fill

Apr 27, 2023
*FILE* Father Bob Maguire poses for a photo on the grounds of his South Melbourne parish in Melbourne, Monday, September 7, 2009. Father Bob Maguire has died in Melbourne at the age of 88. (AAP Image/Julian Smith)

It’s hard to imagine there would be too many residents in the COPP (City of Port Phillip) who hadn’t met Father Bob Maguire over his 52-year tenure at the South Melbourne, St Peter and Paul parish.

I was privileged to have a working relationship with Fr Bob as a local journalist for the Port Phillip area on Leader Newspapers and as I reflect on his passing, what a hilarious relationship it was.

It was one also filled with pathos and love as I watched him lose some of the street kids and lost souls close to him, over a 2-3 year period, and its impact on his spirit. He was flat.

Mostly he was a funny bastard so it was not usual to see him grieving. But we did.

I rang former four-time Mayor, Dick Gross, on the news of Fr Bob’s death at 88, because I knew they had experienced an idiosyncratic, charismatic and joyful friendship.

On the surface it may have appeared unlikely.

A secular Jew and a Catholic Priest. But they were great mates. They talked about religion, the role of Jesus, the architecture of great Cathedrals and their mutual love of their dogs.

And Fr Bob never discriminated.

He lived and espoused the religious values he upheld in the church’s teachings every day.

But let’s get back to Dick’s memories for a moment.

In everything I’ve read since Fr Bob has passed away, no one has summed it up more eloquently as Dick Gross when he said:

“The leadership of the Catholic Church couldn’t stand him; Fr Bob captivated the world but they couldn’t get over their enmity towards him and wouldn’t work with him.

“And we all know how that played out.

“As we look back, where was the greater Christianity?”

Every weekend Fr Bob would go to the local footy, netball, or cricket and support the kids playing in South Melbourne.

“He was deeply embedded in the community and it must have been wonderful for those young players to see their Priest come and watch their games and really inspire them,” Gross said.

“He was so supportive and such a part of the community; being born in Prahran and attending CBC when it was a very rough school in those days, and then being given the Parish in South Melbourne, when he was 25″.

“He was a St Kilda institution.”

Gross says Fr Bob had the power of personality along with the power of personal intervention to change the world.

“He often put himself in harm’s way when he worked with the street kids.

“He nurtured his great friend Costa, who lived at the back of the Parish and was homeless.

“When they died, he was always devastated.

“The work he did is incredibly taxing and someone had to bury them when they died and Fr Bob did that but it wasn’t easy, it took its toll.”

Costa came and went from the parish and he always brought Fr Bob something from the street.

A few days before he died, he found a beautiful butterfly on the pavement. And bought it home for Fr Bob.

The day photographer Jason Sammon and I arrived, to do a photo essay with Fr Bob, he was sitting holding the butterfly in his hand.

“A present from Costa,” he said, admiring its vibrant colours.

Fr Bob loved to lend a hand to anything that he was requested of him.

He agreed to launch one of Dick Gross’ books, when he wrote Death by Ellergy in 2011, which explores different aspects of dying.

At the launch Fr Bob said, “It will help me prepare for death, Gross is an undercover religiologist”.

He said to those gathered: “Don’t be afraid of this book.

“We are not arguing about the concept but the delivery and the vocabulary, and you should be able to have this discussion.”

Also in 2011, the Catholic Church, under the formidable hand of then Archbishop Denis Hart, pushed Fr Bob to retire. He was 77.

Yet, the Mornington Priest, Fr Kevin Mogg, was still administering to his flock, at 79 years old.

Fr Bob said the Archbishop was waving a white flag saying Maguire resign, “but I’m not ready to go yet”.

“We are in the middle of something here and have got a good thing going in South Melbourne,” he said.

I suspect Fr Bob would have never been ready to go as such, but let’s hope Dick Gross’ book helped him when the final moments came, from one atheist to a man of God, their friendship spanned, decades of work and discussion together in the City of Port Phillip.

And the final words go to Gross; “He was a great man.”

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