Father Peter Brannelly

Father Peter Brannelly was born in 1963 and grew up in Brisbane.  He served at the Jubilee Parish for 11 years until he left to become the Dean of the Cathedral of St Stephen in August, 2017.  When he arrived at Rosalie in 2006, he was tasked with amalgamating the six parishes of Herston, Ashgrove, Newmarket, Bardon, Rosalie, Red Hill.  The Rosalie church is soon to celebrate its Centenary.  This is Father Peter’s story:  

“My parents met at the Irish Club.  From what I’ve heard, it was a whirlwind romance and six months later they were married in Brisbane.  So, I’m the first-born and then followed by two sisters and a brother.  Like all good Catholic families, growing up you’re surrounded by, religious priests, brothers, nuns.  We were a “run of the mill” Catholic family where faith was important, like Mass was something that we went to as a family.

“At some stage you sort of have to ask the question, have I got a vocation, have I not and like most teenagers I tried my best to dodge and weave around it.  When I left school, I walked into town, one interview, got a job in the bank.  It didn’t take long, about three days before I realised banking wasn’t for me.  I survived in the bank for seven or eight months and there was a whole group of us back then, about 30 or 40, 30 boys in the class, we all got jobs in the bank and none of us liked it.  Three of us were going to hitchhike around Australia.  So, we all resigned but we never quite did it.  So, I thought this is probably a good chance to go to the seminary and work out one way or the other whether I had a vocation or not.  So, in 1982 I went to Banyo.  There were 14 in the class and seven years later, I got ordained.  And you think seven years is a long time but actually it goes very fast and, in many ways too, I regret that I didn’t make the most of the seminary.  As a young kid, you don’t appreciate the fact that, you’re given the environment and the scaffolding to not just ask some of the fundamental questions of life but also given the resources and the space to answer them.  So, seven years later I was ordained at St Bernard’s Upper Mount Gravatt because St Stephen’s Cathedral was closed for renovation.  I was appointed then as the assistant at Daisy Hill.

“Daisy Hill was a young parish, lots of young families, new homes.  Part of that urban sprawl that was really taking over all of that part of Brisbane.  I had just turned 25 so I was just energetic and it was all new and exciting.  I was a young priest surrounded by young families.  It was just a great time.  I was involved in the primary school, which was a big primary school, six or seven hundred kids.  Daisy Hill, St Edward the Confessor, the presbytery wasn’t designed for the three of us so part of the agreement was that the Archdiocese would pay for an extension which took about six months to build and so for the first six months I was living in sort of in a quasi-broom closet.  Daisy Hill itself, they had famously built a log cabin church from trees on the property and just before I got there, it had burnt down, probably arson but we didn’t want to find out.  So, they’d just built a new church and, it was just a thriving alive parish. 

“Then I was sent to Sunnybank.  Tom Hegerty, the Parish Priest, he’d only ever been in one parish all his life.  He was born in Moorooka, went to the seminary at 14, was ordained, appointed back to Moorooka as the Curate and then was made Parish Priest of Sunnybank when Sunnybank was separated from Moorooka.  So he’d been there 40 years at that stage.  And Tom in his prime was tough and gruff, and opinionated, very intelligent, well-read but he was tough on the people and very tough on his curates.  So, the Archbishop called and said – “I want you to go to Sunnybank” – and I gave all the reasons over the phone why I shouldn’t and then after, you know, a while of arguing, not arguing, sort of putting up reasons why, he said – “Do it as a favour for me, mate!”  And he knew that that was the end of the conversation and you were going to Sunnybank. 

“When I was about 30 I thought that if I’m not careful, I’m gonna get a big parish and I thought I don’t want a big parish at this stage.  So, I thought, if you’re going to do something different, now’s the time to do it.  I had been over in the States visiting Father Ray O’Leary, a Toowoomba priest who went over and worked in Florida.  He’s also Peter Meneely’s uncle.  So once over there, I happened to go down to the cricket in Barbados.  This is back in late 80s, early 90s and the old Barbados Cricket Ground and there were about 15 white faces and, including me at this match and the 14 of those white faces were on the other side of the stadium.  I could never get across that side.  So, I was this little white face in this sea of West Indians and fortunately, Australia was losing because they were all happy to have this Australian in their midst and I remember telling Dan Ryan, my Parish priest at Daisy Hill – “I’m going on holidays, I don’t want anyone to know where I’m going.  We get four weeks, this is private, out of courtesy I’m telling you.  I’m going over to Florida to see Ray O’Leary.”  And so, Dan Ryan was at a Deanery meeting and Tom Hegerty came up to him and said – “Your boy, where is he?”  And Dan goes – “Ah.”  Tom goes – “He’s on holidays, isn’t he?”  And Dan goes – “Oh he might be.”  “He’s overseas isn’t he?”  “Oh, he could be.”  He said – “Don’t lie to me Dan, I saw him last night at the Fourth Test at Barbados.”  So only Hegs was awake at that hour and he must have spotted me, this white face.

“Anyway, so I thought, if I was going to take three years off, and I knew I was only gonna get three years.  I had enquired to the Society of St James to work in Latin America but they wanted a six-year commitment.  I thought, every Australian knows the five cities of the West Indies through cricket and I just went for the middle, Antigua.  I wrote off to the Bishop there – do you want a priest in good standing for three years.  And Donald Reece who was the Bishop wrote back and said – Yes, no problem.  So, they called for applications for Grovely as Parish Priest and I didn’t apply so, on the day the Personnel Board met they realised I hadn’t applied.  John Dobson as head of the Personnel Board phoned up and said – you haven’t applied and I said – No.  He said – we’re expecting you to apply.  And I said – Ah, John, I just no, I just can’t, I don’t, I just can’t.  Anyway, we hung up and immediately I phoned up the Archbishop Wynberg to make an appointment, unbeknown to me that the Archbishop was beside John Dobson and the meeting was being taking place at Wynberg and it used to take, you know, four weeks to get a meeting with the Archbishop so I rang up and said – Look I’d like to arrange a meeting with the Archbishop and he said – 6.30 tomorrow morning.  So, in I went the next morning and, of course they were all thinking that, you know, I must have a girlfriend, ready to leave priesthood.  So, I said – Look, your Grace, before I get a big parish, I’d just like to have a different experience, another experience.  So, all I’m asking for is, could I get three years leave to do something different.  And he said – Like what?  And I said – I’d like to go for three years to the Diocese of St John’s Basseterre, Antigua, to work in the West Indies.  He said – that’s it?  I said – Yep and before anyone could figure anything else, I was gone. 

“So, I went to Antigua.  Donald Reese was the Bishop, a big Jamaican, a great liturgist, great movement, looked like Michael Holding.  Anyway, I was in Antigua for the first couple of months and I hated it.  But I couldn’t go back, so I knew I had to stick it out here for three years.  But then Joe Bates up at Tortola in the Virgin Islands dropped dead.  So, his death opened a vacancy so the Bishop said – would you go to Tortola?  And I said – my Lord, I’ll go anywhere there’s a golf course.  He said – of course there’s a golf course.  So up I went to Tortola.  No golf course.  But it was still a colony, or an overseas territory.  There’s only 15,000 people there, of which 1500 might have been Catholic.  Because of off-shore companies, it had brought wealth and raised the wealth of a small fraction of the 15,000.  So the 1500 Catholics had come from Down Island, Dominica, Trinidad, Grenada, Guyana.  So, we were all from somewhere else.  So, when I got there and St Williams in Roadtown was a corrugated iron and Besser brick church that had been added to and my accommodation was two rooms above it.  And, at first, when I got there, there was a young SVD priest, Charles Smith, he was an identical twin and they were, he was like, it was sort of Baptist dialogue thing, all amen, amen.  It was completely foreign to me.  And I was thinking – Boy are they going to get a different experience next week, when Father Charles goes and it’s just me.  But it was a great experience.   “We had a packed little church, full of West Indians and it was full of colour, movement, noise.  You know, the roosters were crowing outside, the fans were wobbling.  They all got dressed up in their Sunday best.  The average age of the parishioners was 20.  We had youth groups on a Saturday afternoon, 80 sixteen-year-olds there because if you weren’t there, where else were you?  There were no shopping malls or KFC or anything like that so, it was just a great experience.  There’s a privilege with being welcomed into another culture.  I was also inquisitive.  Life’s all about timing.  I was the right age, right time, right everything.  So, I did my first three years there and then when they said – you’re going to build our new church and I said – no I’m not.  And, anyway, we started raising money.  We used to have like, if you feed them they will come.  We used to have different things, international lunch and then – hurry hurry come for curry.  Some nights, all the different islands would prepare different curries from their traditions.  And you know, at some of these functions we fed a quarter of the island.  It was just huge stuff.  So, we raised money that way.   

Church of the Sacred Heart, Rosalie

“The Virgin Islands, it’s pristine sailing.  So, people would come down to sail seven days, because all the different islands you could sail there, half day sails so you never left the jurisdiction.  And so, people would come down from cold Chicago and cold Boston then go sailing and then think – we’d better go to Mass and they go to this church, corrugated iron, everything squashed and squeezy and movement and holding hands.  It was just friendly like that.  Americans are incredibly generous.  They’d write back a cheque.  And, the great thing about American cheques is they have their address on the top.  So, then I’d write back thanking them, usually get something else back.  But most importantly, at Christmas time, you’d write a Christmas card.  Fr Jack White the old Irish Redemptorist on the next island to me was known as the “clerical pickpocket of the Caribbean” who could separate a tourist from their money.  But his Christmas card list was worth about $25,000.00 and that was the money that got him through the whole year.  So, I got mine up to about $12 or 13 thousand that got us through.    “The West Indies was a place where you had the chance of meeting the famous.  So, one Easter, Easter Saturday morning.  The most important Mass of the year was the Easter Vigil Mass.  So, I’m in the old church and this captain of a boat comes up and says – what time is Mass?  I said – tomorrow 9 o’clock.  And he said – got any information on the church?  I gave him something, you know, he was wanting me to ask him, who his passenger was.  And eventually I asked him – who are your passengers?  And he said – John Paul Getty.  And so suddenly my whole focus from that most important Mass that night changed to Sunday morning.  And he said – if we’re a bit late, could you reserve some seats?  And I said – Yes.  So suddenly, all the energy, we bought steel pans in, we had everything like that and of course, they were late.  I was moving people – move, move, move and the front seat like that.  Anyway, because I was excited, everyone was excited.  No one knew who John Paul Getty was, but, and a couple of months later, you know, a cheque for $50,000.00 came in.  I wrote back and another cheque for $20,000.00, you know.  I was closing the church, another cheque.  And then the, someone said – I heard or read somewhere that John Paul Getty got a knighthood.  So, on the back of that I wrote off and congratulated him and another cheque.  And then he died. 

“So, my sixth year had to write back again and I got another three years.  Peter Meneely was by that stage the moderator or the Vicar General so he helped.  And then the next time, for another three years I said to Peter Meneely – I don’t know what to write and Peter said – look I’ll write it for you.  I’ll give you the draft.  So, he sent it back and I topped and tailed and sent it off and Peter was sitting there at the meeting.  You could see the letterhead and Archbishop Battersby gets the letter and he goes, oh God this is a poorly written letter, bad grammar.  Peter couldn’t say anything because he’d written it and anyway, I got my final extension.  So, we built the church and as I said, a great experience.  So, after 11 years, I let go of it and came back to Australia.    “Anyway, so I came back and, for a couple of months I was down at Burleigh with Pat Maloney.  Of course, my memories of Burleigh were, you know, coastal, it was a coastal place.  The urban sprawl in ten years just was amazing.  And how the church had changed.  You know going from a vibrant, colourful, energetic, music-filled congregation who were eager to be there and had their church shoes and church clothes and all that sort of stuff to Australian Catholicism was a bit of a culture shock for me.  And just to see them, you know, the amount of people with tattoos or you’d go to the shopping centre and see people walking through a shopping centre without any shoes.  Like, not having shoes in the West Indies was a sign of poverty, utter poverty.  So, it took me a bit of a while to readjust.  

“I was down there for a couple of months and they’d been working for years to try to amalgamate these six parishes of Herston, Ashgrove, Newmarket, Bardon, Rosalie, Red Hill and they could have been happy meeting for another 20 years talking about it.  Because most of them, I think, didn’t ever think it would take place.  So, Anthony Mellor was the Administrator here who had set up a lot of structures.  He was sent overseas to study and I was given the job to amalgamate the Parishes and that’s why I ended up here.   

“This is our third church here at Rosalie.  This is one of the older parishes of Brisbane.  Archbishop Dunne never liked making a parish priests because he lost control over them once they did become, once he did make them a parish priest.  His habit was to just make them Administrators so he could move them around.  This would have been part of that first urban sprawl out of Brisbane, and Red Hill would have been the mother church of here.  The first church foundation was laid by Dunne without a parish priest so the parish priest was Hegerty from Red Hill organised the building of it on this site.  Then William Lee, an Irishman, apparently a pretty energetic bloke, he was made Administrator and then the first Parish Priest.  So, he built the presbytery across the road which is the oldest building in the precinct.  That opened 1912, I think it is something like that.

  “Then it wasn’t too long that the first church was too small and then in 1907 they built a bigger church.  They rolled the original church across the road and they built a bigger church which stood where the pensioner units stood now.  But obviously didn’t take them too long to realise, wow, it’s still too small.  So, they built in 1917 this church and considering the First World War was still going on, it was a major effort.  In Brisbane, Duhig had just been appointed coadjutor Archbishop.  Brisbane was, and the church was just expanding.  So, you’ve got all these churches now celebrating their centenary.  And, which coincides with Duhig’s arrival.  This church was built in 1917, same architect as St Columbans at Wolston.  You see the opening, there was no Statue of the Sacred Heart at the front entrance because of the War, they couldn’t get the statue out from Italy.  This would have been one of those vibrant places of faith.  The Mercy nuns were running the school.  The Marist Brothers would soon be invited over here to the college.  Everything was being built.  The parish slowly acquired different bits of land.  People like Herbert, who didn’t want to sell the land.  I think this is true, so Duhig got an intermediary to buy it and then got it off him.  I mean this bit of land that the church now stands was owned by the Mayne family.  And to get an idea about how vibrant this place was, there’s a picture of 1,000 kids, school kids in front of the church and they were all being educated here in 1930.  So, all these houses had Mum, Dad and 10 kids.   

“It was a unique experience in the sense that most times you walk in to your church, a church, and this is your world.  But I was walking in to six churches and so there were six communities, six groups with different agendas, different histories, a lot of animosity, lot of fear.  There were questions about identity, about closing churches, about money.  So, there was a whole lot of things going on.  So, I got in and I realised that they’d been talking about amalgamation.  The other thing was that these parishes, as the old parish priests had retired, they were sort of quasi-amalgamated.  But there’s no leadership and nature abhors a vacuum.  And so, there was, a whole lot of silliness going on.  But no one was making decisions or any decisions were made that weren’t long term.  It was all self-serving.  So, it required a helluva lot of trust from the six separate communities.  It took about two months but then we decided, look, let’s just do this.  And so, I let them know that in two weeks’ time the six historic parishes will be suppressed canonically we’ll create just one parish.  It will be called “Jubilee” after the biblical, Old Testament biblical year of Jubilee, year of forgiveness and setting the slaves free, and that sort of stuff.  Then the next week the big thing was, we close all the bank accounts and of course some places like here at Rosalie and Red Hill, they had money.  Other places like Newmarket had no money.  So, Newmarket’s St Ambrose ran to this wedding with arms wide open.  Others in the arrangement weren’t too pleased, you had to sort of stare down some who wanted to spend all their money on themselves before the amalgamation took place.  And you had to stare them down and say, that’s not what I’m on about.   

“The next challenge was, in the end the following week we launched a Jubilee planned giving.  There were six offices.  We had to close them and move down to one.  And all that sort of, there was identity.  They were terrified of losing that.  So, the most important thing, then, had to change Mass times because when I got here, it needed four priests to cover the Masses and it meant that I as Parish Priest, it would take me four weeks before I saw a community again.  So, we changed the Masses around which was another time of anxiety.  But it meant that every second week, I would see my parishioners.  I made sure that things like we kept 6.30 am Mass, we did things in the school.  I recognised communication was essential so a lot of work’s put into the newsletter.  I thought it was very important that the parishioners see that I was wanting to make this thing called Jubilee work and if I was prepared to do it, they hopefully would support me.  And so, lucky to have parishioners that gave me the benefit of the doubt and that gave us the foundation for Jubilee.   “So, here at Rosalie this is all City fringe, and of course everyone in the 70s and probably early 80s, they all wanted acreage out in woop woop, and all these places were run down and derelict.  So, when I got here, the old school had sat empty and was being used for storage and line dancing.  And, my arrival just happily coincided with suddenly the rents in the city were becoming expensive, so people were looking for other places to rent.  And so, we transformed Rosalie, over a period of years into quite a vibrant place.  That’s why you can never get a car park now, because you’ve got the Emmanuel, Meals on Wheels, you’ve got the Atrium, you’ve got English classes, you’ve got three or four hundred Koreans here every Sunday.  You’ve got Centacare and when the school closed down, the Marist, the College they run that as a retreat centre.  The old basketball court we leased that out to Aquatic Achievers.  So, it’s a vibrant place but also it made us financially viable.    “So that’s how I landed in Rosalie and the big thing was in the change of the Mass times.  They used to have Mass at six o’clock at night or something like that on a Saturday and so I had to change.  Two of the big changes was to move the 7.30 am Mass at Red Hill to 10 o’clock, because they have a choir and a pipe organ, we try to make it a solemn Mass, make it fit the Liturgy.  But the thing I want to do here which no one else had done, and I could never work out why, cause when you go to the States, they have a vigil Mass but sometimes it’s quite early.  So, no one else in Brisbane had a vigil Mass at 4.30, so I did the background work.  I had cups of tea with parishioners, preparing them that this is going to happen and once again, they said – it won’t work.  But some of them did.  And so that first Sunday when we changed all the Masses, and Mass here was at 4.30, that first Saturday and all I remember, my opening words to the people that were there, and the Church was, you know, half full which was a great number to start off with.  I just said – I am so happy to see you.  And we just built on that and that 4.30 community has become a very vibrant community and then, of course, the Sunday night community as well.”    Father Peter turned around the financial state of the Parish.  He was asked how he achieved that.

“I did it by not spending money.  There was money here when I got here and it would have been easy just to start spending money but unless you take the parishioners with you on this journey, it would have come to sadness.  So, the first thing I had to do was unfortunate.  There were three pastoral associates that sort of ended up here and they were doing my job.  Anyway, we had to let them go.  And then that money saved, took us out of debt, from an annual budget.  So, there was just, myself and an assistant priest and one full-time and two part-time staff.  That was it.  We had no groundsman, we had nothing, very lean.  Once again, people saw you working and people saw you not wasting money, so they’ll give you the benefit of the doubt.  The first thing we did was I decided systematically, over the next 10 years, we slowly tackle the fact that, because not many decisions, all our churches and buildings and even the schools were run down.  So, it was just a matter of slowly chipping away at it and not giving in to pressure to rush it or to jump from one thing to another.  So, we started off with Newmarket, which desperately needed work, but they never had any money so, it also required trust so we did up Newmarket.  That was the first one.   “Then we did Herston for its Golden Jubilee.  Then the big one was Ashgrove which we air-conditioned, and then Bardon and the final one was here.  Red Hill’s an ongoing saga.  So, we did it slowly, the plan being, while we never really asked for money, or made it, you know the centre of our world, people were always invited to be generous.  I mean people have left the parish houses and stuff like that.  Now in years gone by, parishes would have just sold them and used the money to buy new curtains or something silly like that, which is a dreadful, dreadful thing to do to someone’s life-long sacrifice and their generosity, I think.  So, the houses we’ve got now, you know, we’ve got head start, we’ve got, domestic violence, we’ve had refugees.  When I start this year 13 in another house, so you’re taking Indigenous kids, making sure that, as a residential thing, to get them through their last year of schooling, into University.  So, if you do creative things, people will support you.  If you do creative things, also, it makes parishioners proud of what their parish is doing.  So once again, it’s trust, the parishioners trust the leadership of the parish with their resources.  But, the other thing is that I was lucky having very good finance committees and very good parish councils and very good school principals.  They’re the ones that, you know, you talk about what I did but it’s never what I did, it’s what we did and they’re the ones that gave the guidance and either backed me or cautioned me and there’s always that advice.  The financial management you know, we’re just lucky that we’ve got places that we can rent, which bolsters our financial bottom line.   

“You get to a stage where you’ve built everything up and everything’s flowing along.  I’ll miss people, families that welcomed me in to their lives.  I’ve still things I’d like to do but I could be here for the next 20 years, playing around with the different things.  But there’s also a sense that you’re sort of treading water.  That all of the things that you set out to do, you’ve done.  There is a bit of a sense of also, like when you do 100 weddings a year, 100 funerals a year, 200 baptisms a year and all the other pressures of school and everything, you do grow tired.  But the flipside of that is, like I talked about Tom Hegerty being at Sunnybank for 40 odd years, but Tom knew his people.  After 11 or so years here, you know, I’ve buried so many, I’ve married so many, I’ve been to so many 21sts, done so many confirmations and First Communions that you do know your people and that’s a great pastoral gift.  So, you know there’s a great sense of accomplishment, a great sense of luck to be here at the right time and the right place, and a great sense of fulfilment in the journey of Jubilee for the last 11 odd years.  And not just, there’s a sense that we did it together.  So, to have, to get to this stage where the place is financially sound.  Where everything’s up-to-date and working and you’ve got a happy united community.  You can’t for much more than that.    “I remember Barney McLachlan was a priest of the Archdiocese, big gruff man, mentored Tom Hegerty actually, but he had the most beautiful voice.  And he would have been a bishop if it wasn’t for the fact that he “backed the wrong horse” as in Santamaria and the movement.  But I remember reading his will or something like that and there’s a line that he said, – “Looking back, I’ve been God’s favourite son.  I’ve got much to be grateful for and no regrets.”  And, you know like, looking back over 11 years here, I feel like God’s favourite son, to be given this opportunity and for it to have worked I’ve much to be grateful for and no regrets.”

Father Brannelly was interviewed in August 2017.