By Caroline Smith
When Jolimont resident Peter Saunders looks back at Pope (now Saint) John Paul II’s tour of Australia more than 30 years ago, what he remembers most prominently is the generosity and support which the Western Australian community provided to him as State Director of the visit.
The Pope’s tour of Perth in November 1986 lasted less than 24 hours, but included a Pontifical Mass at Belmont Racetrack – attended by more than 100,000 people – along with a visit to the Convent of Glendalough’s Little Sisters of the Poor, a blessing of the Catholic Education Office and an evening meal with bishops at St Mary’s Cathedral presbytery.
“The one thing I recall was an extraordinary level of goodwill from all sections of the business community,” Mr Saunders said.
“Perth Turf Club allowed us to use Belmont Park for free, no charge at all. And Reg Dawson, Town Clerk of Perth City Council, did a lot of things for us, no questions asked.”
He added that Keith Mattingly – who was formerly employed with The West Australian Newspapers – was also a valuable source of support.
“He went straight to the Archbishop to offer his services. Keith was fantastic, he had so many contacts and nothing was too much trouble. I was very lucky to have someone of his calibre on side,” Mr Saunders said.
There were a number of other key contributors within the business community, including the founder of Leeuwin Estate, and past Chancellor of University of Notre Dame Australia, Denis Horgan, who chaired the committee of sponsors.
Reflecting on his own involvement in the tour, Mr Saunders told The eRecord that it began when his Parish Priest Monsignor Pat O’Reilly – who was then-director of the WA tour – asked him to help with organising the event, as his Deputy.
However, when Mgr O’Reilly died in mid-1986, Mr Saunders was chosen to take his place.
“I reckon I started in March of that year. We started together – he (Mgr O’Reilly) went off to one meeting in Melbourne when I was with him – and when he passed on I went to another meeting,” he said.
“He was very well-known, and held in very high esteem.
“(National Director) Mgr Brian Walsh came over for his funeral, and the Archbishop (William Foley) said, let’s go down to Belmont to see what’s happening out there, and while they were there they decided between them that there was no one else for the job but me.”
Upon his appointment, Mr Saunders worked from the project office in Hay Street, where he engaged with state officials such as then-Premier Brian Burke and Commissioner of Police Brian Bull, as well as organising two major appeals to help fund the tour.
Other key figures included architect Iris Rossen, who designed the altar for the Belmont Mass, and Servite Friar Father Chris Ross, who supervised the liturgy. The project team’s operating costs were mainly provided by the Knights of the Southern Cross.
But as well as organising the event, Mr Saunders had to ensure that Catholics throughout WA knew it was happening.
“One of my tasks after the Mgr (O’Reilly) passed away was promoting the tour in local parishes,” he said.
“I attended meetings as far away as Geraldton and addressed the faithful, so busloads of people came from Geraldton.”
Looking back on the experience, Mr Saunders said he had been impressed with the Pope’s enthusiasm for the multiple events he attended while in Perth.
“He was a man of tremendous energy, because he landed, then he went to the Belmont Mass, then the Little Sisters of the Poor, then the Catholic Education Office, and then came back (to the Cathedral) for dinner,” he said.