Perth author pays tribute to ANZAC War Chaplain, Priest

23 Apr 2015

By Dr Marco Ceccarelli

Perth Author, Ruth Marchant-James, discusses her article on ANZAC Catholic Army Chaplain, Fr John Fahey, which has gained attention as ANZAC Day approaches. Photo: Jamie O’Brien.

There could not have been a better writer taking on the brief biography of ANZAC Catholic Army Chaplain Fr John Fahey than leading Western Australian historian, author and researcher Ruth Marchant-James.

A former acquaintance of Fr Fahey during his post-war ministry as parish priest of Star of the Sea, Cottesloe, and author of seven books on topics ranging from the history of the Presentation Sisters of Western Australia, to a detailed chronicle of the iconic Town of Cottesloe, Mrs Marchant-James wrote a comprehensive article on Fr Fahey in 2007 that once again merits our attention in this most commemorative of moments.

Titled Major John Fahey DSO: War Chaplain and Hero, the article delves into the various attributes and accomplishments of Fr John Fahey: his exceptional leadership and diplomatic abilities, ecumenical understanding, knowledge of Latin and Greek and sportsmanship, and above all his bravery and devotion to the soldiers who fought at Gallipoli, a trait for which he was awarded the Distinguished Service Order (DSO) medal.

“Fr Fahey’s story stands out to me,” Mrs Marchant-James said. “When his battalion reached Gallipoli and he was asked not to disembark because he was a chaplain, he refused the order and went into battle with the men.

“His boat was allegedly one of the first to reach the shores of Gallipoli, and for a priest it was unusual but he actually fought with the bayonet, he was a fighting priest,” she said.

Mrs Marchant-James said that Fr Fahey was a well-respected figure during the war for his work consoling the wounded, performing burials for the deceased and counselling those returning from battle.

However, her work not only draws attention to Fr Fahey’s bravery, but to that altruistic and self-effacing nature that earned him the respect and admiration of many, both religious and non-religious.

“From my archival research I realised that a lot of people talked about the solace that Fr Fahey gave them and the wounded. They admired him. He didn’t bother with just his own flock, it didn’t matter who you were. He attended to everyone, regardless of their religion.

“Fr Fahey was never one to bask in fame,” said Mrs Marchant-James, “and often refused the label of public hero, preferring to direct attention to the brave Australian troops, heroic nurses and women at home during the war years.”

Upon his return to Perth in 1918, Fr Fahey was nonetheless greeted by a civic reception arranged in his honour at His Majesty’s Theatre that saw hundreds, including Premier Henry Lefroy and Mayor of Perth William Lathlain, give him a true hero’s welcome.

He was stationed at St Mary Star of the Sea, Cottesloe, from 1919-32, was one of the founders and creators of the Returned and Services League of Australia (RSL) in WA, took country appointments at Kellerberrin from 1932-36 and at various Perth parishes from 1936-39.

He eventually returned to St Mary Star of the Sea, Cottesloe, until his death in 1959. More than 2,000 people attended his funeral.

Fr John Fahey was a classical scholar with a common touch who could have risen to greater heights within the hierarchy of the Catholic Church. However, in Mrs Marchant-James’ words, “he perhaps wasn’t as ambitious as some priests looking for a higher position in the church.

“He was certainly capable of it, but he was simply happy being among the people who formed his flock.”

Whether on the blood-soaked beaches of Gallipoli or the picturesque shores of Cottesloe, Fr Fahey’s ability to draw people to himself and to the message of the Gospel stands out as one of the great qualities of his character.

He will be remembered, along with those who served in the Great War, at this year’s ANZAC centenary service.

Ruth Marchant-James is a Fellow of the Fellowship of Australian Writers (WA), a founding member of the History Council of Western Australia, a member, and, at various times, an office bearer of the Australian Society of Authors, the Royal Western Australian Historical Society, PEN International, Friends of Battye Library, and the Cottesloe Society.

Publications such as The Meath Story; Untamed By Time; Cork to Capricorn: a History of the Presentation Sisters of WA 1891 – 1991; and Fields of Gold, as well as numerous articles, research papers, lectures and presentations can be attributed to her name.

A Generous supporter of the JS Battye Library of Western Australia, Mrs Marchant-James was listed as a “Gem of Time” by the friends of Battye Library, a title that acknowledges the outstanding contribution of men and women to the preservation of Western Australia’s history.

A copy of Major John Fahey DSO, War Chaplain and Hero, in Early Days Journal of the Royal Western Australian Historical Society, Vol 13, pt 1, 2007, pages 109-123 is available by contacting the Royal Western Australian Historical Society.