True Stories. Part book, part documentary, this is a reading experience that goes beyond the covers. Each True Story is inspired by a book Penguin has published, a real Australian story. We bring that story alive through the use of audio, video, images, maps and interactivity.
FATHER BOB MAGUIRE’s inspiring life launches the True Stories site. The enigmatic priest, champion of the down-and-out, defies categorisation. At 79, he is still a social activist who refuses to be defeated by enforced retirement. True Stories goes behind the scenes, creating a lively portrait of the popular media performer known as ‘the people’s priest’.
SUE WILLIAMS is the author of a number of bestsellers, including Father Bob: The Larrikin Priest; Women of the Outback; No Time For Fear and Mean Streets, Kind Heart: The Father Chris Riley Story. Sue is an award-winning journalist. www.suewilliams.com.au
Penguin Group (Australia) would like to thank Father Bob Maguire for generously providing access to his personal collection of images, reproduced here. In addition, we acknowledge the following third-party sources:
‘Father Bob in Sts Peter & Paul Church, South Melbourne, 2011’
‘A group of female workers from Government offices sheltering in Fitzroy Gardens during an Air Raid
Precautions daylight test’,
‘Members of the Essendon/Moonee Ponds Air Raid Precautions squad during exercises at a refreshment break,
‘An Air Raid Precautions warden standing in a deserted Swanston Street, Melbourne, during an air raid alert’,
‘Melbourne train, with graffiti of soldiers names and warnings to Hitler’
‘Recruitment poster: 'the proudest job in Australia today'
‘Window display at Henry Buck's store, Swanston Street, Melbourne’
‘The great victory march through Melbourne’
‘Father Bob standing at the front of Sts Peter and Paul Church.’
Stills from 'Street Kids' the documentary
Opening image for the ‘Outreach’ section, featuring the ‘Hope Mobile’
Video: ‘A night out with Henri Ser of the Father Bob Maguire Foundation’.
View the original video and more on Ghost Pictures’ Vimeo channel: http://vimeo.com/51047623
‘Comedian John Safran and Father Bob’
‘Greeting parishioners on the day of his final mass at Sts Peter & Paul’
‘Holy water in a spray bottle, at Father Bob's drive-in confessional’
Every effort has been made to contact the copyright holder of original material used in this website. Where the attempt has been unsuccessful, the publisher would be pleased to hear from the copyright holder to rectify the omission.
Father Bob Maguire is today a legend for devoting his life to the care of people who were among the poorest, most downtrodden or abused in society, and for being able to help them on to better lives.
But few of them realised at the time just why the priest could relate to them so well and understand what they were going through. The answer is unexpected: he himself grew up the son of a violent alcoholic father, in a family of battlers, constantly shifting house when the rent money was all spent on drink.
The most chilling sound of young Bobby Maguire’s childhood was his father’s heavy footfall on the front doorstep, followed by the scratch of a fumbled key in the lock as he stumbled home from yet another drunken evening at the pub.
The family would hold their breath in fear, waiting to see just who would walk in. Sometimes it would be his dad, James Maguire, in a genial mood, animated with ale and conversation, telling jokes, singing songs, reciting passages from Shakespeare and recounting funny anecdotes from his years spent at sea in the merchant navy. More often, it would be a dark, smouldering stranger who didn’t want to know his kids and could, with his temper on a hair-trigger, explode into violence at any moment.
It was their mum, Annie Maguire, who was his usual target and she regularly endured savage beatings. The four children would cower in terror as their father lashed out in an alcoholic rage, frequently leaving his wife cut, bloodied and bruised. Even today, three-quarters of a century later, Bobby’s older brother Jim can picture the handprints of blood left smeared on the walls after Annie struggled to get away from him and out of the sight of the children.
At other times, the eldest sibling, Eileen, found herself on the wrong side of his fists, but Bobby, the baby of the family, has few memories of any of that. ‘I think I probably just blocked it out,’ he says now. ‘But I do remember the only time my father communicated with me. He’d been away and when he came home, he beat me with his belt. He was always a bad drunk and that’s the only time I can ever remember him taking any notice of me.’
Yet Jim, eight years older, recalls those times as if they happened yesterday. ‘He would think nothing of giving our mother a backhander,’ he says. ‘Mum would be holding her hands to her face and to her nose, and she’d be all bloody. He was a total drunkard, a mongrel drunk and a bully. And he’d wake up the next morning and reckon everything was tra-la-la, as if nothing had ever happened.’
Their mother tried to hide her injuries as best she could, although doubtless the neighbours knew exactly what was going on. But this was Australia in the late 1930s, and everyone had enough problems of their own to worry about. In the small working-class suburb of Thornbury, 7 kilometres north-east of Melbourne’s CBD, most people were having to battle to get by.
The Maguires had significantly more to cope with than most. James’s drinking loomed large. It had cost him his home once, back in Scotland, when his family, frustrated and embarrassed by his escalating alcoholism, encouraged him to migrate to Australia where they hoped he’d be able to put his past behind him and make a fresh start in a new land. His cousin Francis Maguire says he was the black sheep of the family.
His drinking was wreaking a terrible toll not only on him and his prospects, but now also on the life of the woman he’d married in Australia and, in turn, on their four children.
And their youngest, Bobby Maguire, took it hard. He developed into a quiet, introverted and fearful boy, and it gradually became harder and harder for him to find a reason to get up in the mornings.
By the time Bobby was born in 1934, eight years after the last child, Jim, the family was really struggling. James had left the merchant navy and was working for The Herald newspaper, but his drinking had been gradually growing worse. On payday, Annie, who’d also migrated from Scotland, often took Eileen along with her to meet James as he left work to see if they could intercept him and take some of his wages before he spent all of the money on drink. ‘Sometimes, they’d manage it, but often they wouldn’t,’ says Eileen’s daughter Peta Knights.
In the weeks where there was money, there’d be enough food to go round, and occasionally new clothes. But those times were the exceptions. Annie was also taking in mending from neighbours and friends, and picking up some machining work at home to try to raise extra funds to pay the bills. Often, it still wasn’t enough, and the family was forced to move house a number of times around Black Rock, Prahran and East St Kilda when the rent fell due and they didn’t have the money to pay.
Neighbours would regularly knock on the family’s door to let them know James was lying, drunk, in the gutter somewhere – from beer, wine or sometimes, even more desperately, Bay Rum, an oil used in the preparation of men’s cologne and toiletries. It often fell to Jim to go out to find him, pick him up and half-carry, half-drag him back home.
Later, violence would flare, against his wife, against his eldest daughter Eileen and only a few times on Jim, who grew in height and strength and stood up to him, so he backed off. ‘While he picked on Mum, I don’t remember him attacking us so much,’ says Jim. ‘If he had, I think Mother would have stabbed him with a kitchen knife. She wouldn’t have let him do that. We only survived because of her. She was a saint.’
And, of course, she couldn’t have left her husband. A devout Catholic, she’d married for better or for worse, and she would never have dreamt of breaking her vows. Besides, how could she possibly have survived on her own with four kids, and no form of social security whatsoever in those days?
Already, this was all having a profound effect on Bobby’s psyche. Living in such grinding poverty, he came to know intimately the desperation of having no money, of being constantly hungry, of going without, and of not having anywhere to turn for help.
you had to
do to survive
Bobby made do the best he could, often borrowing his brother’s old services overcoat to wear to school, to hide the holes in his hand-me-down pants and the fact that he rarely had socks. It was a grim, exhausting way to live, and the experience would end up colouring the rest of his life. ‘You did whatever you had to do to survive,’ he says.
Throughout it all, however, he looked up to his long-suffering mum and, like Jim, saw her as a saint: a model of Christian piety, patience and forgiveness. He only wished he could be more like her. One of his happiest memories was when she took him away, just the two of them, to a guesthouse at Daylesford, the spa town 100 kilometres north of Melbourne, for a weekend. He still has a photo of himself from that trip.
His sister Kathleen, his elder by 10 years, also tried to help. She took him to the movies a couple of times and to football games at Essendon. But Bobby was fast becoming a bit of a loner. Looking on, others could see he was having trouble coping and took a kindly interest in him. One of those was the first parish priest of St Joseph’s at Black Rock, Father John Gorry. Another was a nun, Sister Claude, from the nearby convent in Sandringham opened by the Presentation Sisters.
‘I think she [Sister Claude] also thought mum was a saint and felt she could maybe mould him [Bobby] into a saint as well,’ says Jim. ‘The church got its hands on him early.’
School for young Bobby Maguire offered little respite from the battles going on at home.
He started at the small Catholic primary school, Our Lady of Lourdes in Armadale, in January 1940, just four months after Prime Minister Robert Menzies announced Australia’s entry into the Second World War. With troops going over to fight in Europe, North Africa and South-East Asia, the fear of a Japanese invasion at home loomed large.
His best mate Brian Harman, who lived around the corner from him, remembers the hours they used to spend in makeshift trenches with their war games, taking it in turns to play the heroic Australian soldiers and the dastardly Japanese enemy. With Brian being six months younger, Bobby relished playing the captain in charge. ‘He was good at giving orders, even back then,’ says Brian. ‘But apart from playing a bit of football and cricket in the park, we didn’t really see him that much. I think he spent a lot of time at home, helping his mum. He seemed a bit of a lonely boy.’
Most of the time at school, he was still quite introverted, quiet and conscientious. He wasn’t very particularly sociable or adventurous. ‘There wasn’t room for that in my life,’ he says. ‘I wasn’t particularly interested in trying new things or changing the world. I was too busy just trying to survive.’
At home, apart from his dutiful sister Kathleen, who continued taking him on occasional outings, no one spent much time with him. In Bobby’s third year at the school, the new parish priest in Armadale, Father James McHugh, started taking an interest in him too. When Bobby turned eight, the priest invited him, together with his mate Brian, to be an altar boy. Bobby was delighted to be given such an important role, as well as a regular job cleaning up the grounds around the church and the toilet block out the back.
The war finally ended in Australia 12 days before Bobby’s 11th birthday, with Japan signing an unconditional surrender. Yet the celebrations weren’t to last long for Bobby. His 21-year-old sister Kathleen, already grieving that her American boyfriend had been sent away to Sydney, fell ill. She was finally diagnosed with ‘galloping consumption’, a particularly virulent form of TB, and a month later, she was dead.
Two days later, a letter arrived from her American sweetheart. He’d been diagnosed with TB in hospital, he wrote. She should get herself checked out too.
For Bobby, the death of his favourite sister left a massive vacuum in his life, but he rallied as best he could. ‘I think losing Kathleen, that’s when I started to learn that I couldn’t depend on other people to look after me,’ he says. ‘I had to learn to look out for myself, to take responsibility myself for my own life.’ It was the early stirrings of his so-called ‘Do-It-Yourself, Bring Your Own’ philosophy that was to shape his viewpoint forever more. So at the age of just 12, he set out to make sure he and his mates stayed on the straight and narrow.
We had to take action, we had to take charge of our own destinies, rather than leave it to others
They formed a football and cricket team – the Prahran Rovers – designing their own caps with little metal shields on them, and organised a series of social matches. ‘We lost most of them, but we had a place and an identity,’ he says. ‘We enjoyed it, and it kept us out of mischief.’
It was the youngster’s first taste
of organising other people, and
of asking for help to get a task done, and he proved surprisingly good at it. ‘I think that was really the start of my social activism,’ he says. ‘You can’t leave it to your peer group, you have to take responsibility. You’re the one who can decide whether to turn toxic and go to hell, or work out how to make life better and go well.’
In 1948, the year Bobby started at the Christian Brothers' College (CBC) at St Kilda, his dad, James, died, with lung cancer finally claiming his life. It felt like another tragedy, and a release, all at the same perplexing time.
But even while Bobby was struggling to understand the loss, fate had yet another cruel hand to deal. His mentor Father McHugh went into hospital with a minor illness. A few days later, completely unexpectedly, and in only his very early sixties, his heart gave out. For Bobby, it seemed everyone he’d ever loved, and anyone who’d ever cared for him, was being snatched away.
His mum, Annie, had now turned 60, but was a very old 60, worn out by all the hard years. She had a stroke that left her partially paralysed down the left side of her body, unable to move her left arm and one side of her mouth, and Bobby became her carer. Legacy, the charity for dependants of former servicemen who were having a hard time, helped them out with money for school fees.
He was still a very subdued boy, however, and a bit of a loner. One of his teachers, Brother Leo Griffin, says he was very quiet and meek. ‘He showed absolutely no sign of how he was to become later!’ he says. Bobby would often stay late to help clean the school.
He showed absolutely
no sign of how he was
to become later!