On last wings and a prayer as Father Bob bows out

RIGHT to the end of his 38-year tenure as South Melbourne parish priest, Father Bob Maguire was mischievous, teasing the hierarchy and delighting the packed congregation.

RIGHT to the end of his 38-year tenure as South Melbourne parish priest, Father Bob Maguire was mischievous, teasing the hierarchy and delighting the packed congregation.

"I found my birth certificate last night, and I thought it said I'm 73, so I nearly rang him [Melbourne Archbishop Denis Hart] to say, 'It's off, tell the Capuchins not to come for a few years.' "

Yesterday, the 77-year-old priest stepped down, forced into a retirement he and most of his parish believe is far too early, having co-celebrated a surprisingly positive final Mass. From midnight tonight, the Capuchin order will take over.

Father Bob remains a priest, and will step up his work with the Father Bob Maguire Foundation, but losing his parish has disenfranchised both him and his supporters.

"I'm like a fly whose wings and legs have been pulled off. I'm still a fly, but I can't fly," he said.

"The people here [Saints Peter and Paul Church] know that I am not deserting them, but the people in the public housing, they don't understand. One rang me last night and said, 'I thought you'd be here forever.' "

Throughout his four decades at South Melbourne parish, this diminutive man has been larger than life: a dedicated minister to the disadvantaged, a star media performer, Victorian of the Year, a builder of community, and an orthodox, if unusual, Catholic priest.

"Bob is definitely a breath of fresh air, and sometimes a gale-force wind," former Port Phillip mayor Frank O'Connor said in a brief panegyric.

Mr O'Connor asked why Father Bob was "being thrown on the scrap heap" when other older priests were allowed to carry on. "It's a lurch by the Catholic Church back to the 1950s and before, where the clerics will take control and the parishioners will be suppressed."

An hour before the Mass began, the church was already half full. Laureen Thompson, no longer a churchgoer, came from Carlton North. "He's the only reason I came to church because he made sense to me. He's a man of the people, not a man of rhetoric."

He never turned people away, Ms Thompson said, including the mentally ill who were less welcome elsewhere. "People would steal stuff from the altar, but the church was always open. That's what community means.

"He used to have kids on roller skates taking up the collection, just to get them into church."

Phil Slattery, 90, came from Brunswick. She knew Father Bob before he was ordained, and loved him for his kindness.

"But this is not about Bob Maguire. It's about the Catholic Church in Victoria, the lack of accountability, the unkindness, the judgmental attitude to the poor but not the rich, darling the rich bring money in," she said.

The mood in the pews was certainly rebellious, but Father Bob guaranteed there would be no repeat of the defiance in churches at Redfern and South Brisbane after popular priests were replaced. To the bitter end, he remains "a company man".

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