One Perth priest can recall a tragedy that shocked the Catholic community in Perth in the 1950s.
By Anthony Barich
Rottnest parish priest Monsignor John O’Shea remembers receiving the dreadful call telling him his mate had died like it was yesterday.
It was the night of January 28, 1959.
The Monsignor, then 34 and assistant parish priest at East Fremantle knew Fr Joseph O’Hara and three Presentation Sisters had been down south for too long.
Father O’Hara, from Belfast, had been ordained with the-then Fr O’Shea in June 1955 at All Hallows College in Dublin.
The call, from Presentation Sisters at their convent holiday house by the estuary in Mandurah, made him fear the worst.
“Word came in the middle of the night that the rescue attempt was bungled somewhat,” he said last week, but even as he drove down to the coastal town on his scooter that night, though he was “apprehensive to go down and face it”.
His fears were confirmed when he got there and greeted two local Japanese fishermen from Yunderup, Joe and Alfred Okamoto, to learn they has found the bodies of Fr O’Hara, Mother Patricia Lynch, Superior of the Presentation Sisters in Iona, Mosman Park; Mother Finbarr Tarrant, Novice Mistress, and Sister Joachim Delahunty, only recently professed.
They had drowned where the dinghy, which the Monsignor co-owned with Fr O’Hara, capsized where the Serpentine River intersects with the point where the estuary flows out to sea.
The anchor fell into the water and caught fast in the estuarine mud beneath, preventing it from drifting off to shallower water that was probably just metres away.
Mgr O’Shea, was the principal celebrant at a special remembrance Mass for 150 people 50 years later on January 28 at Our Lady’s Assumption parish in Mandurah.
Perth Vicar General Fr Brian O’Loughlin, a past pupil of Iona Primary and who was taught by Mother Patricia Lynch and prepared for First Confession and First Holy Communion by her, was one of several priests concelebrating.
Also present at the Mass were the two surviving Sisters – Sr Augustine Goodchild and Sr Aquinas McMahon, who were rescued after spending some 18 hours in the water clinging to the upturned fiberglass dinghy.
“That night of grief and suffering must have seemed interminable to these two valiant Sisters,” said Sister Anna Fewer PBVM, the Presentation Sisters’ Congregation leader.
Fr O’Hara, the Monsignor remembers, was very keen on education.
“I recall him going up on his scooter – priests rode scooters in those days – to get the leaving results of Iona College from The West Australian newspaper for the benefit of Sister Carmel Ryan, the principal at the time,” he says.
Mgr O’Shea, now 83, looks back at the event with more than a tinge of sadness, as he maintains the whole thing could have so easily been avoided. But he’s also more philosophical about it now.
“I was quite apprehensive at the turn of events as I knew that they should have been well and truly back home by then.
“Some sisters went down to the eastern side of the estuary, others came back, on the return trip they evidently went out and had a picnic and on the return trip this tragedy happened.
“I still feel that it was a tragedy that shouldn’t have happened, but what can you do in God’s providence?” he said. “You accept it as such.”
“I was very concerned (when they had not yet returned), as Fr O’Hara was very responsible, but evidently didn’t know as much about boats. Had he been able to swim he would’ve pulled anchor and drifted out to shallow water. But you can be wiser after an event.”
Nevertheless, he says, the Presentation Sisters’ loss was greater than that of the Archdiocese. “It affected the whole Catholic community in a big way,” he said.
Sister Anna said that over the years the Sisters’ perspective on the tragedy has evolved from mourning to a spiritual boon.
“Suffering accepted has redemptive power, and the Presentation Sisters see the tragedy, both personally and collectively, in this light,” she said.
“Many blessings emanated from that night. It is undoubtedly only in retrospect that we perceive this reality.”
The funeral was at St Mary’s Cathedral. The Irish ambassador came from Canberra, and the Mass was led by Archbishop Redmond Prendiville.
For Mgr O’Shea, however, it was a year of great sadness for more than just the loss of his friend.
His mother was in Perth on a visit at the time, and “very sincerely condoled with me personally as she felt I had suffered a great loss in this fellow priest who was of my own class, and had gone through college with him”, Mgr O’Shea said.
She herself lost her life tragically in a motor accident within a year in Perth.Photos: courtesy of the archdiocesan archives of perth.
Archbishop faced a tough task of finding meaning for his flock in such a tragedy
By Anthony Barich
The four had died after their small boat capsised in the Mandurah estuary on January 28, 1959. Two other Presentation Sisters survived.
Even the oldest of the victims was comparatively young, the Archbishop said – the late Mother Patricia was “only 50”. The others ranged in age from 37 to 26. The late Fr Joseph O’Hara was 29. “All, they may say, were in the prime of life,” he said.
“It had pleased God in His own inscrutable design to call them to Himself, to call them from our midst even though the harvest was great and the labourers were few,” said the Archbishop, whose comments were reprinted in The Record at the time.
“And though their hearts that morning were laden with sorrow, they were also full of faith, hope, confidence and resignation to the Will of God and they uttered that fervent fiat, ‘Thy will be done’.
The Archbishop said that while Fr O’Hara was only in the Perth diocese for a short time, he made a “deep and lasting impression by his piety, industry, method, dignified bearing and his intellectual attainments which were of high standard”.
He said the three nuns were all “selfless and efficient teachers in the Presentation Nuns”. “But even though they were efficient teachers they were above all loyal and devoted Religious.
“May we not confidently hope that they who left homeland, father and mother, left everything dear to them and heeded the call of Our Lord to come to Australia, will receive, if they have not already received, the promise related by Our Lord in St Matthew, the reward one hundred fold, and receive eternal life.”