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Pioneer priest vows to die with his boots on

Date: August 04 2012


Graham Downie

Neville Drinkwater is still leading the parish he founded in 1974, GRAHAM DOWNIE writes

Neville Drinkwater won't discuss his age but concedes he is possibly the longest serving priest in Canberra and Goulburn. So why does he continue to work full-time? Without hesitation he responds, ''Because I love doing it.''

Medical tests confirm his brain is clear and his heart and lungs are healthy. But for a few aches and pains, what more could he want? ''I would prefer to die with my boots on, as they say.''

On who might ultimately replace him, he says, ''He will be someone better than me.'' But it will not be a woman because, ''the Pope said we won't have women as priests.''

A pioneering priest in 1974 when he established the Catholic Parish of St Thomas Aquinas - a parish he still leads, Father Drinkwater begins each day at 6am and is in the church at 6.30am when most people are in bed. The job is demanding but many people help him, including 25 groups in the parish responsible for particular tasks. ''We spend $20,000 feeding people around this area every year. We visit the jails, and that is a big job.''

He sighs and says most people are in jail because no one has ever really loved them. ''They have never received great love; they have never given great love.'' Yes, they are glad to see him. ''I just go along as an ordinary Australian bloke. That's all I am.''

He makes no secret of his disappointment over the decline in Mass attendance in Australia. ''People have walked away from Jesus Christ. They have turned their back on Him.'' But neither does he concede the battle is lost. ''There have been ups and downs of faith. But the success of material things these days is tremendous isn't it? All I hear is Gina Rinehart bringing in hundreds of people to mine our lands. People are so obsessed with money that they are forgetting about God to a certain extent. But I find there are no atheists in intensive care.'' And people who have been away from the Church for 50 years ask for a priest when they are dying of cancer.

There are about 3500 people in his parish, of whom about 500 regularly attend Mass. ''I keep at them,'' he says. ''I keep pecking away in a gentle way. You can't tell people what to do these days.''

Similarly, people who have not been near the Church for some time like to have their babies baptised. ''There is no point having your baby baptised if you are not going to rear the child as a Catholic because religion is caught, it is not taught. You catch your faith at home from mum and dad. The Church is in difficulties at the present time. But we will ride it out.''

Until his move to Canberra in 1974 he had served in established parishes. So what was it like establishing a parish at Charnwood? ''I couldn't find the area. There were no streets here; no houses; no shops. The nearest shop was Jamison. I had to get a man with a theodolite. He took some sightings and we drove out into the bush and I found this little bit of a hill here. There were cattle grazing. He said, this is your parish.''

He had nowhere to live and no money to establish the parish, he says, ''I was in a little bit of a predicament. I had to find a neighbouring parish to give me a bed for a little while.'' A house in Companion Crescent, Flynn, still with no electricity, served as the first centre for Mass in the new Parish of St Thomas Aquinas. About a dozen people attended.

The gradual growth of Charnwood saw St Thomas Aquinas Primary School built adjacent to the site for the future church building. Father Drinkwater recalls they were still difficult days. ''The Anglicans asked me, how do you manage. I said blood, sweat and tears.'' Relations with the Anglicans were good. ''Once our school was built, the Anglicans used our school for their church services. They did that for many years.'' So too did the Catholics until their church was opened in 1989.

Preparation for the building of the church at Charnwood included the selection of an architect. ''I didn't want an architect who flew in from Melbourne or Sydney and flew out again,'' Father Drinkwater says. ''I wanted a local architect who was firmly established in this area.''

Of 10 architects suggested by the Institute of Architects, nine responded to an invitation to design the church. ''The architects thought they were walking into a parish committee of simple people who knew nothing about architecture. But I had two architects on my parish committee.''

One impressed with his preparation, which had included a study of the area's flora and fauna. ''Mr Aldo Giurgola was not only an international architect but he was also a thorough gentleman,'' Father Drinkwater says.

By then Giurgola had made a significant contribution to Canberra with his design of Parliament House. Father Drinkwater recalls telling Giurgola: ''You deal in mega bucks and I deal in mini bucks. I said, you can't do this. He said, yes I can Father.''

Father Drinkwater says that despite his reputation, Giurgola had listened to the parish committee's ideas. ''He didn't try to ride over the top of me with his professional brilliance.''

The church was opened in 1989 and is recognised by other architects as one of Canberra's significant church buildings. It has a clear window to give a view of a modern cloister. It also has a glass cross within a masonry wall. The height of the church increases toward the front. Father Drinkwater likes the building because it is simple. ''I did not want an ostentatious church. The church is a place of worship. It is not a place for ostentatious decorations.'' Though he describes it as a simple building, it was awarded the Canberra Medallion for Architectural Excellence in 1990.

Father Drinkwater was born in Newcastle, NSW, where he was educated by Marist Brothers at Hamilton. ''Soon after that I came down this way (Canberra and Goulburn) and I have been down this way for the rest of my life.''

He attended seminaries at Springwood and Manley and was ordained in Newcastle in 1954. His first appointment was to Queanbeyan, whose only Catholic church then was St Gregory's. ''I fell through the floor of the old presbytery twice - we needed a new one.''

After a couple of years he moved to Gundagai, where he recalls attending motor vehicle crashes on the Hume Highway. ''And there were plenty of them.'' The faith was strong then but has faded. ''Materialism has taken over. We think more about money than God.''

After several years at Gundagai he went to Bega. About that time the second Vatican Council (Vatican II) was meeting in Rome. One of its more obvious changes was to allow Mass to be celebrated in languages other than Latin. ''It was a great thing the Vatican Council did. It gave us the liturgy in English.''

After Bega came Gunning, and then Boorowa.

Since his ordination he has served under six bishops or archbishops and is awaiting the seventh. Did he have a favourite. ''Archbishop Carroll was a country lad and we were also classmates. We went through the seminary together and had been friends for many years.''

Graham Downie is Religion Reporter

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