Before we arrived in Leonora, Father Brennan was the Catholic priest, and he was something of character. People still talked about him long after he was gone. He was replaced by Father Keith Spain
Every second day Beria raked and swept out the chookhouse, and scrubbed and filled their water bowls with a solution of Condy’s crystals. It was my job to turn the tap on and off at her command. Once, she didn’t hear Father Spain calling, but with the front door open and the wireless blaring he knew she was home. He wandered through to the back of the house and was standing in the doorway just as Beria stood up and hit her head on a piece of protruding water pipe. ‘Oh shit!’ she yelled. ‘You rotten mongrel bastard of a thing.’
Rubbing her head, and checking her fingers for blood to see if she had broken the skin, she saw Father Spain, who said before she could apologise: ‘It’s alright, Rocky. I’ve heard all those words before.’
Father Spain always wore a black Roman cassock with thirty-three buttons down the front – one for each year of Christ’s life. He was a popular figure in the town and spent his days visiting in the parishes. Even Steve liked him and always bought him a beer when he joined the men for a drink at the State Hotel. He was the first priest we knew in Gwalia and he often came to the house to see Beria. It was Father Spain, on the advice of the Sisters, who arranged for Nita to go as a boarder to Dominican Ladies’ College. It mattered little that Beria was not a Catholic, he was suspicious of Steve’s behaviour in the house. She always made him a cup of tea. ‘Have you got any of your boiled fruitcake, Rocky?’ he asked in reply. The mutual respect turned to friendship and he insisted she call him Keith. According to the church Beria was living in sin but Father Spain never allowed it to taint their association. When they started talking I was sent to my room. ‘Off you go, Ronnie. Little pigs have got big ears.’ Complaining of being thirsty cut no ice with Beria. She knew me like the back of her hand: ‘Are you? Well don’t worry, you won’t die. You can have a drink of water when Father Spain goes. You stay in your bedroom and read your book, and stop interrupting us while we’re talking.’
Things changed after Father Spain went, and we were not included in the Catholic community. The next two priests, Fathers Moffatt and Tobin, never once came to our house, and I was ignored. Beria had no time or regard for either priest, and barely exchanged a word with them. In his youth, my father went to Mass in Italy, but he was not interested in attending church with me or Nita. Roman Catholicism in the goldfields was the prerogative of women and children who believed implicitly in sin, and heaven and hell.
Father Moffatt’s hands trembled. He was a complex personality whose rapport with his parishioners was strained. When the mine manger, Reg Barden, made his annual appearance at Christmas Mass, Father Moffatt used his sermon to condemn part-time Catholics who appeared only rarely in the congregation. The jibe was pointed and Mr Barden was incensed. His sister was a fully professed Dominican nun and he helped financially support the sisters in Leonora.
Father Tobin used his a sermon to rail at the young women in the congregation, accusing them of treating the Mass as a competitive fashion parade.
One priest’s reputation as a Casanova was common currency in the goldfields. Beria’s friend insisted the neighbours‘ children were locked out as soon as he arrived at a particular house, while the rest of the town tried to work out why his car was parked there at all hours of the day and night. Another priest enjoyed a drink and spent a deal of time in the hotel. He was known by the men – some of whom were hardened drinkers – as someone who could ‘hold his liquor’ and who didn’t live his life by the standards he imposed on his parishioners. The policeman said: ‘He was a bit of a scallywag, and something of a hypocrite. When I asked him if he was going to join-in at the dance he said, “I can’t be seen dancing with a woman”! I had to stop myself from saying, “I don’t know why. You’re bedding half of them!”
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