Reflections on my association with Uniya
Address on the occasion of the closure of Uniya
Fr Frank Brennan SJ
Kings Cross, 25 May 2007
I see we are still using the same old church lectern which has
almost brought to grief many a distinguished speaker here at Uniya,
including Ambassador Richard Woolcott and Governor Marie Bashir.
One of the delights of speaking after Sister Patty Fawkner SGS
is that you know all the key bases will have already been covered.
I can afford to be a little more anecdotal and nostalgically reflective.
On my office desk, I have this photo from the opening day of
the Uniya office here at Kings Cross 18 years ago. In front of
the fine Uniya painting by Miriam Rose Ungunmerr stands Fr Peter
Hans Kolvenbach SJ, the Superior general of the Society, who launched
us on our way. Beside him is Greg O’Kelly SJ who was the
founding Chair of the Board. In front of him is Brother Paul Schulze
SJ who was one of our great supporters. Looking at the photo again
today, I mused that Paul has moved on to the life hereafter; Greg
has moved on to episcopal life; Peter is about to move on from
the Jesuit helm. All things come to pass, and now the time has
come for Uniya to pass. I had no idea 18 years ago that I would
he here this evening getting over the effects of acute renal failure
speaking at the closure of Uniya. But who of us has the least
idea of what we will be doing eighteen years from now?
I have fond memories of our founding Uniya here at Kings Cross
in the parish of St Canice. Peter Hosking SJ and I travelled up
from Melbourne. Two fine young women, Kate and Liz O’Neill
dropped in to help us. It was only later that I suspected that
their parents, the great parishioners Keith and Lisa directed
them to go and help those helpless Jesuits. We forged wonderful
relationships with so many of you here. Years later, Peter Hosking
performed the nuptials for Liz and I performed the nuptials for
Kate. Tonight we pay tribute again to Liz who was forever young
in our midst. I also want to single out the late Donal Taylor
SJ, the first Jesuit parish priest and superior here at St Canices.
Donal had moved from Hong Kong to Australia late in life and was
looking forward to a leisurely pastoral engagement on the other
side of the harbour. His provincial asked him to cross the Harbour
Bridge to be superior of these young Jesuit Turks who were being
unleashed on Kings Cross. He came in obedience and he was a wonderful
father figure for us.
We spent a long time discerning whether to come here to Kings
Cross and to open Uniya, a Christian Centre for Social and Research
and Action sponsored by the Australian Jesuits. Most Jesuit work
was focused on Melbourne, and the Sydney works were all located
north of the Harbour Bridge in those days. We were interested
in coming to Sydney, not just for the Keating reason that if you
are not here, you are camping out. Having been adviser to the
bishops’ conference on Aboriginal issues for some years,
I felt emboldened to ask Cardinal Clancy if the Sydney Archdiocese
had any plant available for the establishment of such a centre.
In the nicest possible way, we were told that there was nothing
available. Perhaps a little brashly and with no budget, I then
asked if the archdiocesan real estate agent could advise on church
properties available for sale. A couple of weeks later, the phone
rang in my office at Jesuit Theological College in Melbourne.
A voice declared, “It’s the cardinal.” Before
I could say, “Put him on”, I realised indeed that
it was the cardinal. That is the way a cardinal introduces himself.
Cardinal Clancy then said, “I think I might have something
for you. How about the parish at Kings Cross/Elizabeth Bay? There
is a small school building adjacent which could be suitable for
your social justice centre.” I could not imagine anything
better. All our prayers were answered. By year’s end we
made the move.
Our mission was well articulated by Fr Kolvenbach when he told
Our option for the poor may often mean standing for some and
always means standing against others. There are dangers here,
also. We can all too easily follow trends in our choices of names
and works and places. We can be easily seduced into thinking that
we are doing great work for the poor when in fact we are chiefly
using the neediness of the poor for our own consolation. It is
good to remember that ‘Uniya’ is one of the most remote
places on earth, its present site a wasteland, and the original
mission something of a disaster. Among the remote, wasted and
failed you have a proper place! There is no fashion or fame or
favour to be found here. You are to discover the threads of society
from the underside, from the perspective of those without status
or power. Beware of the false consolations of being relevant or
And yet there are times when you must seek to be heard, when
you must choose to stand up and be counted, when you will become
public figures, notorious or noted. The task given you, and asked
of you, has its focus in social structures, in the laws and politics
and cultures that prevail in this part of the world. The hard
task before you, a task which will demand loving sacrifices, is
the struggle for justice, a struggle which will give more life
to those most in need.
Tonight we express our gratitude to each other and the many absent
past staff, board members, volunteers, interns, supporters and
our public who have been so loyal and connected through our publications
and seminars, especially the annual Lenten seminars. We are forever
grateful to the parish of St Canice whose parishioners have made
us so much at home, and to Cardinals Clancy and Pell who welcomed
us to the diocese first in 1989 and then again when we re-opened
the doors of Uniya on Mark Raper’s return to Australia and
my return from East Timor in 2002. Recalling the Uniya logo of
the “Holy Family” in flight with an Aboriginal motif
designed by Miriam Rose Ungunmerr from Daly River and rendered
into a wall hanging crafted by Cambodian refugees under the watchful
eye of Margaret Burchell IBVM, we reserve our most profound thanks
to those we have been privileged to serve in solidarity, especially
the indigenous people of our land and the asylum seekers and marginalised
of our region.
The mission given us by Fr Kolvenbach is still our collective
mission, regardless of the passing of Uniya. I have always thought
that the Uniya way of doing things was always at its best when
we were eye-balling both the oppressed and the decision makers.
When you are eye-balling both, you cannot be sanctimonious and
you cannot confine yourself to rhetoric or abstract principle.
Let’s celebrate this mission afresh and recommit ourselves
to the faith that does justice before we go our separate ways
this night. Thanks for all we have shared and done together in
the name of faith and justice. Given my delicate, and hopefully
temporary, delicate medical condition, pray hold me excused.