Chance encounter leads to discovery of history of St Pat’s Community Centre

15 Dec 2022

By Contributor

By Prof Tom Brett

Professor Tom Brett and Michael Piu
Professor Tom Brett with St Pat’s Community Centre CEO, Michael Piu. Photo: Tom Brett/Supplied.

A chance encounter in June 2022 with John McLoughlin, proprietor of McLoughlin Books in Westport, County Mayo, led me on an interesting journey of discovery about the life and times of his uncle, Brother Ignatius Hannick of the Oblate of Mary Immaculate Order.

McLoughlin’s Bookstore had requested a re-supply of ‘We are Mayo’ (Tom Brett, Sean Rice) and I had completed a delivery to them.

Before I departed the shop, John asked me if I had ever come across Br Ignatius who had moved to Fremantle, Western Australia many years earlier.

I had to admit that I knew nothing about him but undertook to make some enquiries on my return to Fremantle in early July.

Family background

Ignatius was the third youngest of eleven children – four boys and seven girls – born to John Joseph (JJ) and Margaret Hannick, General Merchants and Potato Exporters from Ardnaree, Ballina, County Mayo.

He was the youngest of the boys and like his 10 siblings, attended the local national school in Ardnaree.

The family business must have been quite successful as Ignatius and his brothers had their secondary education at the Jesuit boarding school at Mungret in Limerick while his sisters boarded at the Ursuline Convent in Sligo.

One of his sisters, Breege, died at age 16 years following an accident at school.

Two of his sisters, Phyllis and Therese, later joined the Ursuline order, however Therese subsequently left due to ill-health and worked as an Art teacher in Ballina.

Another two sisters, Ann and Agnes, trained as nurses in Jervis St Hospital in Dublin.

Dympna became a PE teacher in Connecticut, USA while Margaret owned a bookshop (McLoughlin’s) in Westport and was the mother of John.

Tommy was the eldest of the family and became a Bank manager in Sligo while Jackie began farming in the Ballina area.

The remaining boys, Tony and Ignatius, worked for a while learning the tricks of the trade of the family business as apprentices with Williams’ store in Tullamore before eventually deciding on entering religious life.

Tony, became a priest and ministered in Yakima, Washington State, USA while Ignatius joined the Oblate of Mary Immaculate Order and was professed in 1959.

In his youth, Ignatius was a passionate gaelic footballer and played with the local Ardnaree Sarsfields team.

By all accounts he was also an accomplished singer and his favourite party piece was the song ‘Jerusalem’.

In his late teens, he developed the dreaded scourge of tuberculosis but was fortunate to be one of the lucky ones who survived and made a good recovery from the condition.

Brother Ignatius worked for a while at St Conleth’s Reformitory School for young boys in Daingean, County Offaly which was run by the Oblate order at the time.

It was there that he got to know Martin Cahill (an inmate from 1965-67) who would subsequently become one of Ireland’s most notorious underworld figures and was known as The General.

Daingean had a reputation for the severity of punishments meted out to the boys incarcerated there.

In later years, Martin Cahill wrote to Br Ignatius and thanked him for the kindness he showed to him during his stay at Daingean.

It was a letter that Br Ignatius treasured greatly. The General was shot dead in 1994.

Ignatius, fifth from left, was the third youngest of eleven children – four boys and seven girls – born to John Joseph (JJ) and Margaret Hannick, General Merchants and Potato Exporters from Ardnaree, Ballina, County Mayo. Photo: Supplied.

Life and times in Fremantle, Western Australia

Reports from family members were that Brother Ignatius was not particularly enamoured with the draconian nature of the Daingean institution and when he got the opportunity to re-locate to Australia, he gladly accepted the opportunity.

He was initially posted to one of the Oblate Houses in Camberwell, Victoria and later that year moved to Iona College in Brisbane.

Within a year he found himself in Fremantle, Western Australia and he never left.

He was attached to the Oblate order parish in Fremantle in 1968 and lived at the local Presbytery there.

The Oblates of Mary Immaculate have charge of the Fremantle parish and Br Ignatius played a key role in leading the development of social services for the homeless and less fortunate in the Fremantle area.

There is a story from 1972 of a frail, elderly man turning up at the door of the Presbytery one cold evening seeking help.

Reports at the time stated that he was cold, hungry and in serious need of care.

Brother Ignatius recognised that the poor man on his doorstep was one of many in a similar predicament.

His presence inspired Br Ignatius to take the initiative in establishing a soup kitchen to cater for the needs of this enlarging group in the local community.

Reports from some old timers who remember Br Ignatius speak of his ability to provide not just food for their bellies but also a sense of community and belonging and that someone did care about their welfare.

The original meals were provided in a small building at the rear of the local church.

This former school later developed into the Parish Hall.

Luckily, the new venture was well supported with donations of food by some local businesses while a growing number of local volunteers and support workers also played a crucial role in getting the soup kitchen up and running.

Many of the local businesses have continued to provide their support to the present day.

His work ethic and caring nature saw Brother Ignatius named Fremantle Citizen of the Year in 1981. He featured on the front page of the Fremantle Gazette newspaper on the 27 January 1982.

St Patrick’s Community Support Centre

With the passage of time, some government and non-government agencies including Lotterywest provided additional funding and what started out as a basic soup kitchen service gradually developed into something more comprehensive.

The original building was upgraded to accommodate the needs of the expanding services which now included a more complete meal service, better washing and hygiene facilities, a library, day room and recreation area.

The original soup kitchen had now grown into the St Patrick’s Community Support Centre and in the early years of the new millennium, the organisation registered itself as independent, not-for-profit and moved to its present location on Queen Victoria St a few hundred metres from its original start-up site.

Today, St Pat’s, as it is affectionately known, is widely recognised as one of the leading specialist support services and community housing providers for people at risk of or experiencing homelessness in Perth.

Their work is supported across all levels of government, local business, philanthropists and the wider community, and while they still focus their efforts on the south metropolitan region, they have teams active across the city.

What started out as a group of committed volunteers evolved into an independent organisation which today employs over 80 staff with a full-time equivalent of around 65.

This is ably supported by a further dedicated team of more than 100 volunteers.

The face of homelessness has also changed over the years.  

Unfortunately, like much of the world Australia is in the grips of a housing affordability crisis, with a social housing shortfall of 39,000 homes in Western Australia alone.

This has put added pressure on service providers like St Pat’s as well as families already struggling to make ends meet. 

 “For the first time since we began collecting data, the number of women needing support from our services is greater than the number of men,” said St Pat’s CEO Michael Piu.

“This is a strong indicator of the growing number of families facing homelessness as well as the lack of suitable, safe and appropriate housing options for people on low incomes,”

“St Pat’s is leading projects to build new social housing and are actively working with government and other providers to unlock more affordable housing options to improve outcomes for people in our community,”he said.

Br Ignatius Hannick joined the Oblate of Mary Immaculate Order and was professed in 1959. Photo: Supplied.

More than just food

One of the great legacies of Brother Ignatius was that he recognised that what many people sought was more than food and a bed – they wanted a sense of community, of belonging somewhere and that someone did care about them.

He worked across all religious denominations and was hugely supported by the nearby Anglican Parish of St John.

He pioneered the breaking down of stigma and was happy to work with anyone who wanted to work with him and the goals he sought to achieve.

In his later years Brother Ignatius reflected on the tough early days.

“Over at the Presbytery the housekeeper was providing about eighty hampers of food to a queue of people every night. They’d be fighting for a position. I spoke to the Superior and he said, ‘If you can do anything about it, you’ve got my full support.’ I visited bakeries and asked if they would donate bread and I went to market gardeners and asked if they would supply me with potatoes or vegetables. I’d go out in a utility, get a couple of stone here and a couple of stone there, hoist them up on my back. Some people were sleeping out, elderly people, and I told them if they’d like something to eat to call up to St Pat’s. About 10 came up and I gave them soup and bread. That’s all I had! I was doing this for a month or two and the numbers were increasing when the Anglican minister down at St John’s said to me, ‘I see what you’re doing up there at St Pat’s, can we help you?’ I told him we were desperate for voluntary workers. ‘I’ll put the hard word on our parishioners on Sunday,’ he said.”

Mr Piu remembers Br Hannick as a man of great humility.

“He rarely spoke about himself, for Br Hannick it was always about the other person and how he could support them,” Mr Piu said.

“Every day he’d be checking in and helping out at the Day Centre but still take time to sit and share a yarn and a meal with people, play a game of pool and build those important relationships.

“St Pat’s has shifted to data-based models to help us tackle chronic homelessness but the interesting thing is, Brother Hannick was already doing a lot of the things we now know, through verified evidence, are exactly what is necessary to support people on their journey as they exit homelessness, into housing and onto living a life where they can thrive,”

“He knew that loneliness, and a lack of feeling welcome and accepted, was a silent killer of people experiencing homelessness, and he was absolutely right.”

Health and accommodation

The Freo Street Dr, a mobile medical service for the disadvantaged in the greater Fremantle area, provides an in-house clinic each week at St Pat’s.

The Day Centre also boasts a health clinic, with nursing staff and visiting allied health professionals including podiatrists, chiropractors, physiotherapists, counsellors, optometrists and more.

One of St Pat’s proudest achievements is its Dental Clinic, which is better-resourced than most private practices and provides more than $200,000 in pro-bono oral health treatments a year.

In addition, there are 22 small units on-site – affectionately known as Iggy (Ignatius) House – for which St Pat’s has received development approval to transform into 28 long-term apartments for people exiting homelessness who need wrap-around supports.

Among St Pat’s range of accommodation options are homes for single men, women, couples and families.

They also have a special program, Youth Place, which caters to young people aged between 15 and 25.

Future directions

Looking to the future, St Pat’s CEO Michael Piu says the agency is actively involved in supporting and leading advocacy in areas like investment in social and affordable housing, better and expanded service delivery, better access to mental health supports, and strong collaboration between community service providers and government.

“It’s been humbling looking back over our 50 year history and realising the breadth of support and goodwill which has helped us change the lives of thousands of people and made us into the organisation we are today.

“I think Brother Hannick’s family and the people of County Mayo should be extremely proud of his dedication and life-long commitment to the most vulnerable people of Western Australia and it is an honour to continue his legacy.”

(Footnote: When I visited St Pat’s Community Support Centre recently, I was delighted to present them with an inscribed copy of our ‘We are Mayo’ book – a small gift from one Mayo man to recognize the great work of another Mayo man, Brother Ignatius Hannick. After moving to Australia, Ignatius managed to return to Ireland on two occasions to catch up with family and friends.  His nephew, John, remembers them climbing Croagh Patrick together when he was a youngster of 10 years. Brother Ignatius’s health declined in his later years and he died in 2005 aged 77 years).