At a Christian Brothers secondary school in Dublin, where he was raised, a young Philip heard a visiting Spiritan – or as they are also called, Holy Ghost Father – speak. “He gave one talk, for an hour.” He was curiously engaged and the interest stirred by the visitor never left him. At that time, the Spiritans were missionaries in Africa. Phil corresponded with the priest who sent him literature about the congregation’s work. “Unfortunately, my mother opened the envelope the morning it arrived and she said, ‘You know your health will not take Africa. You’ll have to think of something else.’”
As a newborn Phil had contracted pneumonia and was always prone to severe asthma. Accepting his mother’s injunction, he worked for seven years in a business he describes as being “like Bunnings” in the central heating department – but Africa had lodged itself in his heart.
He had a school friend who had entered the Spiritans and the two had remained in touch. His friend’s suggestion was to talk to the current vocations director, who said, “Let’s do one thing - try it for a year.”
Phil left the firm and was told there would be a job for him, should he return. After a year in the congregation’s novitiate in Ireland he was professed, then studied philosophy followed by theology. He was ordained in his third year of theology and then had a year’s pastoral experience in Dublin.
Meanwhile, Pope John XXIII had requested that the Irish Spiritans join the mission in Brazil. Since his school friend was in Brazil, Phil requested the same posting and it was granted. Brazil was very different from Dublin! First on the agenda was an intensive language course in Brazilian Portuguese. “I would go out on the street and I would talk to the children, because they wouldn’t laugh at you. The other thing that helped me a lot, strange to say, was comic books – Mickey Mouse and Donald Duck! I knew what the pictures meant and I could match the words to the pictures.”
On one occasion, Fr Phil says, “a telegram arrived saying ‘Dad died last night.’ The superior, who was very strict, told me, ‘Go down to Rio, spend a couple of days there and you’ll get over it.’ Seven months later, he comes to my door to tell me ‘Your mother died last night.’ So within seven months, as well as Mum and Dad, four uncles and two aunts died – and I never got home.” Fr Phil was comforted by the knowledge that the Spiritans in Ireland would be out in force for his parents’ funerals – and they were.
He is quick to say that the philosophy has changed since. Another superior’s attitude was, “You got your vocation from your family – what are you afraid of?’ As Fr Phil says, the gospel imperative about putting your hand to the plough and not looking back was taken literally, but “if you don’t look back when you’re ploughing you won’t have a straight furrow”.
After the mission in Brazil, which he eventually had to leave because of health issues, Fr Phil worked in Canada in parishes, in vocations and in Portuguese communities in various dioceses.
After ten years, the Irish provincial asked him to minister to a Portuguese community in the Channel Islands. “It was a real need.” Those intensive language classes had stood him in good stead. The Portuguese immigrants worked in the hospitality industry in summer and on the farms the rest of the year. From a country 5,000 miles wide he went to the island of Jersey which covers only 45 square miles.
After another ten years, Fr Phil returned to Dublin to nurse his sister who had been diagnosed with cancer. His other siblings had married and this sister had cared for both their parents.
His sister passed away and Fr Phil was ready to return to work. “I’m a firm believer in doing a job and then letting the people take over and move on – but you must train people for that. I felt that my job in Jersey had been done because only the very elderly were still speaking Portuguese. Everyone else was speaking English.”
A year’s sabbatical in Jerusalem preceded a move down under, initially to Melbourne, then to Mt Barker in Western Australia. He was there for 12 years. A melanoma and three operations led to further change for Fr Phil – and Mt Barker’s loss was the Diocese of Maitland-Newcastle’s – specifically Raymond Terrace’s – gain!
While Fr Phil is a priest in residence, not an assistant priest, he does not spare himself the distances the parish covers, travelling regularly to Bulahdelah, Karuah, Tea Gardens and Mallabula, as well as presiding in Raymond Terrace and Medowie.
He is much loved − for his warmth, his grounded and uncompromising homilies, his genuine love of his parishioners and his endless jokes and one-liners. Whatever you do, don’t try to out-pun Fr Phil!