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franciscan - January 2004

© The Society of Saint Francis, 2003

Australia-New Zealand Province: SSF ‘Down Under’

by Christopher John SSF


‘On earth we have no abiding city’ - and in the Australia / New Zealand Province of the Society of St Francis we have no abiding friary. We have had friaries burn down around us. We have had our friaries moved across streets. At times we have moved because we could no longer staff the house and its ministry. Often we have ourselves simply moved on when others could take over the ministry we established.


Our history in the South Pacific goes back to the mid 1950s. Friars were despatched from England on great missionary journeys to Papua New Guinea, Australia, New Zealand and the Solomon Islands. With gruelling timetables they preached, conducted missions, holy week programmes and retreats. They met vocational enquirers to all three orders and encouraged Companions. Names such as Charles, Geoffrey, Donald, Michael and Brian are well remembered by those who were influenced by the friars in those early days. Although they suffered neither imprisonment, beating, nor shipwreck their itineraries would have exhausted an apostle.


The first friary was established in Australia in 1964 when brothers moved into a ramshackle, rat infested old farmhouse. This they decided was only to be a temporary measure until something more suitable was found. It was found, they moved in and it burnt down - with no loss of life but total loss of such possessions as Franciscans manage ‘not to own.’ So they moved back to the old farmhouse and over a number of years a variety of ministries flourished there such as residential care, farming, pottery, and a base for missions throughout Australia - as well as it being the training centre for novices.


Other houses and ministries came and went, the brothers at one stage nearly completely leaving Brisbane, save for two. Since then the friars have become re-established in a city church which had been thriving at one time but had more recently become isolated, both geographically and ecclesiastically. There the brothers ‘run’ the parish in SSF's own unique style and also provide a place of hospitality and refuge for those on the fringes.


Elsewhere in Australia brothers are active in Newcastle Diocese where the closest thing to an established, unmoveable house can be found at the Hermitage of St Bernardine where a few brothers live in mud brick buildings. Hundreds of volunteers made hundreds of thousands of mud bricks to build not only the brothers' hermitage but a much larger complex of buildings for the Community of St Clare sisters. Having made just a few of those mud bricks myself I know how much sweat and backache goes into them. As a house of contemplative living the hermitage is established in a place of great natural beauty and where the walls of the buildings themselves speak of prayer.


Across the Tasman Sea there have been friars living in New Zealand since 1969. The beginning of the Auckland house sounds a bit like a joke: there was an Australian, a Solomon Islander, an Englishman and an American (no Irishman though) who had never lived together before and who had the challenge of making community life in a ‘foreign’ culture. Perhaps it was a sign that SSF had become international or at least multinational with  friars who could be ‘sent on mission’ and dropped into a new country.


That first friary was at the Auckland City Mission but we didn't remain there for long. The strangest move perhaps was the time the building itself was moved across the road and around the corner. It's disconcerting to walk out the front door and find everything outside has changed. More recently the brothers were establishing and managing the Auckland Diocesan retreat and conference centre. Their latest move took them from Auckland Diocese to Hamilton in the neighbouring Waikato Diocese where they are living as Anglican partners in an ecumenical social welfare venture and providing a residential, stable and praying core.


The province also has a presence in Asia and supports the Korean Franciscan Brotherhood through a covenant and the loan of myself as their mentor.


It is characteristic of the Australia / New Zealand province that its houses have been something like laboratories for exploring issues of cultural identity. The differences between Australians and New Zealanders are enough to start with - but the province's houses have also included Solomon Islanders, Malaysians, Papua New Guineans, Koreans, Canadians, Sri Lankans - not to mention the Americans and British. I doubt there has ever been a mono-cultural friary in the province.


This challenges many of our presumptions as to what ‘ethnic identity’ is. An example is provided by a well-known story in our oral tradition. Two brothers at the hermitage (both of them born in the ‘other’ hemisphere) were talking together to the effect that ‘you don't see any ethnic people in Stroud village’. The other brother present with them (born in South-East Asia) replied, ‘Would you two ethnic Englishmen like a nice cup of tea?’ What exactly is ‘ethnic’? What is ‘other’? If ‘ethnic’ means ‘coloured’ - then what colour?


This raises the issue of what our identity as Franciscans is. Is it the common denominator? The thing that is left once we strip away the national identities? It's not that simple since our Franciscan identities are something incarnated in our cultures and experiences. For example a New Zealander's assumptions about poverty, community, peace, and other Franciscan traits, will be very different from a Solomon Islander’s.


The brothers began in Brisbane with nothing after the fire which destroyed their buildings. But Catholic Franciscan friars helped them out, even lending their habits. The brothers arrived in New Zealand just before Christmas and were welcomed to Christmas dinner at the Catholic Franciscan friary. These days our links with other Franciscans take many different forms - combined retreats, study, prayer, sharing in each other's celebrations - and just simply dropping in for coffee and chat. All Franciscan communities here are newcomers. We are equals in a society which is largely secular and rejects religious activity. We don't have the weight of history of western Christian divisions in these lands - except in as far as we've brought it in as part of our cultural baggage.


Finally, and this may sound like boasting but it isn't (New Zealanders are far too modest to do that….!) the Australia and New Zealand Province seems to have contributed beyond its size in many ways to the wider SSF. I don't just mean the number of recent and present office holders in the three orders but the ways in which brothers from this province have become part of the life of other provinces. Well - we may just seem to be brash colonials from down under and inclined to speak our minds but we are bold enough to believe that we have a part of the vision of Franciscan life and we hope that together we may help build the body of Christ. f


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