It’s been a long, long time since I’ve posted on this page. I do so now to honour a stalwart of the Saving St Brigid’s story, Gerry O’Brien, who was farewelled today, from our beautiful church and hall. Sadly, I’m in Berlin, and could not be there to share in the very colourful and very lively celebrations of his life.
And so, I do all that I can do. I write. I have to. It’s my best means of remembering, celebrating and participating, from a distance, in the ritual of a reluctant goodbye.
My dad met Gerry on their first day of school at St Brigid’s in 1945. Gerry met Mary the same day; she would one day become his wife. They danced together, as sixteen year olds, at the Crossley hall, alongside my mum and dad’s budding young romance. The two couples were bonded for life from those legendary Crossley dances.
In 2005, when Dad nervously penned his first protest letter about the closure of St Brigid’s to the Church hierarchy, it was Gerry that read every line and urged dad to print and send it, ‘without changing one word’.
Gerry has been a constant presence in our lives ever since then. Little did dad and Gerry know that approaching 70, they’d just kicked off a battle that would mobilise an entire community – a community that stretched across the country – and snowball into a three- year campaign that even got the Pope’s and national media attention.
And yet, Gerry was nowhere to be seen in the limelight. While others could play that role, Gerry knew his – to steady the ship, or our nerves, when things got hairy or heated. To call out the bullshit – no priest or bank manager or potential donor could skirt around the facts with Gerry in the room. He didn’t have the time for such games. “We’re wasting our time here aren’t we?” From someone else’s mouth, it might be rude. Not from Gerry.
He treated people with the respect he himself deserved. Sure, he’d let us know when they didn’t, but you’d have to be quick to catch it from under his breath, and even then, Gerry was not one for whinging or navel gazing or gossip. He either get the job done himself, or he’d ask someone who did. Directly. No beating around the bush. Can you do it, or can’t you? In a world where we spend our working lives having meetings about meetings, working with Gerry was a breath of fresh air. I loved a St Brigid’s for that alone!
But that’s not to say Gerry was devoid of feeling or emotion. There was nothing so heartfelt as a hello hug and a kiss from Gerry. In that simple everyday gesture, Gerry had a way of putting wrongs to right in the world. It felt like a homecoming, every time.
With quintessential Australian characters like Gerry around, it was easy to see why everyone kept comparing our unfolding story with The Castle. While this portrait is woefully inadequate, at a pinch, you could say Gerry might fall somewhere between the lightness and larrikinism of Darryl Kerrigan at the kitchen table and the respect and reserve of Bud Tingle in the courtroom. Both equally lovable. Gerry was never above a ‘suffer in your jocks’ jibe, but if he had a point to make, you could be sure he’d carry it off with as much solemnity as the ‘it’s not a house, it’s a home’ speech.
And so, we saved St Brigid’s in 2009. And Dad and Gerry were only just getting started. In those early months (or years?) when we scratched for every last dollar to repay the mortgage, Dad and Gerry were as ingenious as they were mad in making the most of an opportunity. Or maybe they were just downright dogged.
A $10,000 grant for a new roof for the hall, but no money for labour? No problem. Forget the fact, they were both well into their 70’s, Dad and Gerry trained up to get their white cards, and clamoured up the scaffolding to the get the job done.
Great Victorian Bike ride, and thousands of thirsty cyclists coming our way? Dad and Gerry loaded up the boot with bottled water, thick as thieves, like the school boys they once were, racing down the Princes Highway to make a buck, with not one ounce of Irish luck on their side! Not to be deterred, they’d be off cooking up their next fundraising idea…
When The Friends of St Brigid’s had scraped the bottom of the barrel to pay our monthly re-payment, someone snapped a photo of treasurer Gerry holding the last $5. Grinning of course. When all was grim, Gerry could still grin. “She’ll be right, Rett”, he’d say to mum and they’d both roll up their sleeves and get back to work. And it was alright. More than alright. St Brigid’s is bloody booming!
They say creatives have to be half mad to do what they do. They could say the same about people like Dad and Gerry. The lengths they went to. But Dad and Gerry knew, deep in their bones, the lengths our ancestors went to get on those ships and come out to Australia, survive and then build St Brigid’s – against all the odds.
Against all the odds, Dad and Gerry had a dream; Gerry told the packed congregation at St Brigid’s centenary celebrations in 2014.
He referenced the great man and then said “We too had a dream…and I think we got there today”. His voice cracked, overcome with the emotion of achieving it.
Gerry, my heart cracked when I heard of your passing the other day and the earth felt a little less solid beneath my feet. I wandered around Berlin with tears streaming down my face, thinking about flying home, knowing exactly what you’d think of such indulgence.
If you were here, you’d give me a grin, take off your Akubra, put your arm around me and give me a kiss, with only one thing to say: “What the frig would you do that for?”
I’ll miss those kisses Gerry, and I’ll miss you. Thanks for showing us, in all your dogged, mad and warm, witty ways, how to have the fight of our lives.
St Brigid’s will never be quite the same without you xo