Perth’s man for all migrants

30 Apr 2008

By The Record

As Perth’s former Episcopal Vicar for Migrants, Fr Anthony Paganoni CS, prepares to depart for Adelaide, Sylvia Defendi reports on the legacy he will leave behind.


Fr Anthony Paganoni CS, Perth’s departing Vicar for Migrants


Surrounded by 1950s Communist ideology, a young Anthony Paganoni was advised by his father, that should he decide to enter the priesthood he should make it his mission to ‘think first of the people, especially the working class and the migrants.’
And while many years have passed since those formative years in Bergamo, Italy, the now Fr Paganoni has certainly held his father’s advice very dear.
Many would have encountered the missionary priest serving the Italian community in Morley and Leederville, where he said weekly Mass; the Spanish community, who relied on him for Mass at St Brigid’s in Northbridge; or the countless others with whom he openly shared an insightful conversation or two.
In fact, aside form his pastoral duties to all Catholic ethnic communities of Perth, Fr Paganoni was known for his zealous academia and interests in the social and spiritual effects of migration.
He published two books on the subject, countless articles in foreign journals and even a few series in The Record, describing this academic thirst as a need to ‘study for mission and mission for study,’ without which he could not do his job properly.
And yet, for all those he would have left a mark on, very few would know the man himself who modeled his ministry on a favourite Latin quote calling the faithful to live their faith through actions, values and morals.
The genuine relationships he was able to forge with academics, youth, people of ethnic origins, Perth locals and many non-believers, where a testimony to his ability to live his faith in a non-threatening manner.
All this from a man, who describes his ‘calling; to the priesthood as more a matter of circumstances than a ‘so called decision.’
As a young man of 16, Fr Paganoni attended a month-long session at the local Scalabrinian seminary with a few other youth from the Italian town.
Having enjoyed his stay, he accepted the open invitation to continue, only to realise the difficulty of study and seminary life.
Seminary educators decided he lacked discipline and told his brother not to bring him back to the seminary after the holidays had ended.
However, not knowing the seminary did not intend for him to return, Fr Paganoni made his way back at the conclusion of the holiday break.
“Who knows what the superiors were thinking when I returned,” he now chuckles.
Later relishing the academic instruction and discipline of mind the seminary fostered, Fr Paganoni never regretted his decision to persevere towards ordination.
It was at the seminary that he developed a strong appreciation for his order’s founder Blessed John Baptist Scalabrini, a late 1800’s Italian bishop.
“He is the embodiment of the best people the Church can produce. He was very zealous, very committed to the cause of migrants and a great communicator.
“He was a bishop very much in touch with his own people and because of this had first hand experience of the migration of people from his town to various parts of the world,” Fr Paganoni said.
But it was Scalabrini’s foresight and vision at a time when many lamented the exodus of the faithful, which really spiked Fr Paganoni’s admiration.
Scalabrini managed to see that in their own illiterate way those migrants would replace and reinstate Catholicism all over the world – a realisation Fr Paganoni has been focused on to this today with his work in the Australian Church.
“Statistics indicate that in terms of Church participation Catholics born overseas are leading the locally born-and-bread by 21%,” he said.
And his work over the years within a host of nationalities leads Fr Paganoni to believe that the Church in Australia will become increasingly spiritually diversified with the experiences, cultures and spirituality migrants will continue to bring.  
“It’s important for the Church in Australia to understand and accept the gifts migrants bring to best turn this social phenomenon into an opportunity for enrichment,” he said.
And he should know, his experience with migrants spans over 40 years, having from a tumultuous New York in the early sixties, Britain in the late sixties, Melbourne through the seventies and a changing Philippines throughout the eighties.
He witnessed the end of the Marco’s era while living in the Philippines, and the peaceful revolution that followed in 1985, when two million Filipinos halted soldiers with Rosaries in hand.
Perhaps, as Fr Paganoni declares, there is too much of a focus on a slow and unavoidable decline in Church attendance, while a quiet resurgence is bubbling in the lay movements of the Church.
“The vibrancy that we don’t experience in parish life we experience through the lay movements,” he said.
And he is not the only one to have thought so, with the Pope declaring lay moments the ‘engine’ of the Church.
After five years in Perth, Fr Paganoni says he finds it difficult being transferred – always knowing well what he is leaving behind and not very much about what he is going to.
“Leaving Perth will be particularly difficult because the Italian community remains a bit unattended and I’ll be leaving behind many friends,” he said.
No doubt Fr Paganoni will be bringing this life-time of study, friendship and mission, to better involve the rich spiritualities of migrants, to the Church in Adelaide.
Those who had the pleasure to meet him in Perth, are just glad he managed to share some of it with them.