I rise to acknowledge and commemorate the life of Robert “Father Bob” Maguire.
Last month – on April 19 – Australia lost a giant of our community. A spiritual and humanitarian pillar, a true Aussie cobber, a maverick – and known to people as the “people’s priest”.
Father Bob, who was 88 when he passed, dedicated his entire life to doing more than his fair share to improve the lives of those around him, and the wider community.
He made it his personal mission to help those who were left behind, forgotten, or ostracised by society.
Never was Father Bob above anyone he met. He would greet everyone with a 'G'day cobber.
He was a voice for the voiceless, brought hope to those who had none; he was a man who fought every day to uphold the dignity and the rights of the downtrodden.
He was a man who literally practised what he preached, and serves as a model for human kindness and decency.
And his kindness and work was recognised through life as it has been with his passing.
From humble beginnings, Father Bob achieved much. He became a Member of the Order of Australia in 1989 for his service to homeless youth. In 2011 he was awarded Victorian of the Year.
Father Bob’s understanding of adversity wasn’t just through the people he would meet. He also had his own personal circumstances of hardship.
Father Bob grew up in poverty and in a household that experienced family violence.
At the age of 11, he lost a sibling. At 15, he became an orphan.
As a child, he would often witness his father beat his mother.
Father Bob’s first-hand experience led him to become a man who would so freely offer his support and kindness to those who needed it most.
Rather than letting his circumstances define him, he chose to respond and lead with the type and level of kindness many of us only hope to be able to achieve.
For 50 years – an incredible feat by any career circumstances – parishioners were blessed with Father Bob’s sermons as he preached the importance of goodwill, respect and community. They always featured some theatrical flair and often more than a touch of good humour.
He was not afraid to speak his mind, often breaking with rank and expectations of his colleagues when he believed his community needed him to and where his personal connection to God and his Christian values were challenged by orthodoxy.
As he spoke to his congregation, who he affectionately referred to as his “comrades” – parishioners of St. Peter & Paul's Catholic Church in South Melbourne where he served since 1973 – he encouraged all that would listen to try their best to see the good in others. Especially those who in his own words were deemed “the unloved and unlovely”.
Father Bob extended care and compassion to anyone, regardless of their religious beliefs, and encouraged others to do the same.
He performed services for those who were viewed by others as being on the wrong side of Christian values, he officiated gay marriages, and also supported the idea of female priests.
He would be the first to admit that his preferred method of delivery was unorthodox, but the spirit of compassion rang true. He shocked many, with his ability to move with the times.
Father Bob was for many – and always will be – a shining beacon of old Christian traditions. Of looking after one another, of accepting and loving everyone, and of speaking truth to power. These core values were shaped from his very beginnings, learning his love of God early from the piety of his mother, he became an alter boy in the church at the age of eight.
These beginnings grew with him into the community leader he became. Exemplifying the values of inclusion, he was as comfortable and passionate speaking at a union rally as he was at the pulpit at Sunday mass.
Father Bob was the kind of man who, even if he barely had two pennies to rub together, he’d happily give you one as long as you shared a yarn. Or … were a Collingwood supporter.
The “people’s priest” did not seek financial wealth. Money in the eyes of Father Bob was simply another tool to be used to brighten the lives of others, when used correctly.
He was full of life and vigour, but only took the spotlight in the hope to spread some of it onto those that would otherwise be left in the dark. Father Bob worked tirelessly out of the view of cameras and crowds to feed, clothe and connect with the struggling and suffering members of the community.
As Kerry O’Brien wrote reflecting on his relationship with the priest, in 2016:
“To the parishioners of South Melbourne – and indeed many nationwide – he embodies all that's good about the Catholic Church. Hands on, down-to-earth and approachable, over nearly 40 years he baptised, married and buried thousands, sometimes entire families. Perhaps more significantly, he looked out for the lost souls – the marginalised and disenfranchised, especially homeless kids, through the Open Family and the Father Bob Foundation.”
To Father Bob, the Father Bob Foundation was his way of converting his beliefs into action and encouraging the same of others who had the means to help him make a difference. Once he left the Church at the age of 77 he dedicated his life to expanding the Foundation’s work and its reach in the community: constantly at threat of closure but never failing to feed the needy and to stay on message.
Father Bob worked across the aisles of politics to ensure this work remained at the front of minds of those who had the power to provide their support on his mission to make the slightest or the biggest differences in the lives of those who would otherwise be without hope.
He had a great relationship with local representatives no matter what their political allegiances, and many former and current Members of Parliament, business leaders, and unionists alike have engaged with his work and supported his communities.
However, one might say he leaned a little further towards the progressive side of politics in his own philosophy, and he may have given this away when he said “don’t bend the elbow, vote for Albo”.
His Foundation was a source of inspiration for future community leaders, in particular the Member for Macnamara who volunteered in the Foundation Pantry from 2014, well before his entry into politics, and who attributes Father Bob as teaching the values of community connection across all walks of life, particularly those who faced the hardships of life.
The Member for Macnamara said that Father Bob’s work touched people living the margins, and the interactions they had with him and the Foundation were consistently the best part of their day.
The charity of the Father Bob Maguire Foundation continues to be a source light, support and relief for Melbournians in need. His fleet of “Hope Mobiles” and the open coffers of the “Community Pantry” fill the stomachs of Australians doing it tough – no matter their faith.
For Father Bob, it was about more than a warm meal. It was about sharing meals. He understood the value of coming together, building a community and looking out for your neighbour.
This was a man who boldly arranged a fundraiser competition offering the grand prize winner … “happiness guaranteed”.
For the third prize winners, one of five flat screen TV’s. Second prize, five nights in a glamourous Melbourne hotel.
If these prizes were for the runners-up, then the grand prize would definitely guarantee happiness to the winner.
And what was it? A week of volunteering in a soup kitchen for the Father Bob Maguire Foundation.
Father Bob said one week helping those in need would bring you far more happiness than all the other prizes combined. There was no trace of sarcasm or irony in his words.
At Father Bob’s state funeral at St Patrick’s Cathedral in Melbourne, the doors were thrown open for all those who loved him to pay tribute.
The Prime Minister described Father Bob as an “irrepressibly cheerful champion of all those battling disadvantage. A man of warm faith who faced struggles with a cheeky grin”.
But of course, it wasn’t just politicians that paid tribute. I want to recognise some everyday Australians.
Michelle of South Melbourne said: “it’s a very strange feeling when you know you’ll never see someone again. It’s worse when it’s the best human you’ll probably ever know”.
Father Bob was something to everyone and much to so many.
Father Bob was once asked how he could possibly remain kind and respectful towards people who weren’t always pleasant to him. He replied:
“You don't have to like people to love them”.
I think that is something for all of us in those words.
Father Bob, you will be sorely missed.