Feature

‘It’s the right time to say goodbye’

Father Paul Kelly is leaving St Mary's and Maryborough.
Father Paul Kelly is leaving St Mary's and Maryborough. Robyne Cuerel

OUTSPOKEN. Frank in stating one's opinions, especially if they are shocking or controversial.

Father Paul Kelly bristles at the word I use to describe him when I head to St Mary's Catholic Church in Maryborough to interview him for the final time before he leaves the parish he has called home for the past 9½ years and heads to Victoria Point, south of Brisbane.

"I never really set out to be outspoken," he explains.

He sees his contributions as part of his involvement in the community, adding that what he says comes from a place of genuine concern.

"I've always been willing to take a risk and say something that I believe in," he said.

Father Paul Kelly with some of his Dr Who collection.
Father Paul Kelly with some of his Dr Who collection. Alistair Brightman

Take, for example, the shocking killing of Maryborough man Wayne Ruks on the grounds of the church in 2008.

I wonder how to bring this up with Fr Paul, someone who loves the church so dearly - he describes it as being one of the most beautiful in Queensland - and yet has had to cope with the fact that such a horrible event took place on its grounds.

As usual, however, I don't need to worry.

Fr Paul brings up the issue himself, speaking with typical frankness, making it clear the event had a lasting impact on him.

"It was tough for the whole community," he said.

When two men were found guilty of manslaughter in relation to the crime, the accused men told the court that Mr Ruks had tried to grab one of the men's crotches before he was beaten to death, shedding light on the so-called "gay panic defence".

Under Queensland laws, unwanted homosexual or heterosexual advances can be used as a partial provocation defence for violent crimes.

Fr Paul started a petition to close the legal loophole, gaining more than 200,000 signatures, but in the end changing that law was deemed "unnecessary" by the Queensland Government.

Despite the lack of success, it was remarkable to see a Catholic priest fighting for the abolishment of a law so obviously offensive to the gay community.

Fr Paul said he was pleased the security cameras installed by the church, one of the first buildings in Maryborough to have them installed, helped to solve the case.

Fr Paul was a vocal opponent of Pub Fest, saying he feared for the safety of those taking part in the event.

With wry smile, he suggests Pub Fest is past its use-by date suggesting that if it was a television show it would have been cancelled a long time ago.

Fr Paul came to Maryborough from Murgon, and before that Ipswich, excited and nervous about what he might find at the parish, about whether or not the town would embrace him.

"I wondered whether people would accept me, whether they would like my style," he said.

Now he realises that the only thing that is the same about priests is that they are all different - and that it is the message they are trying to convey that is the most important thing.

Fr Paul said he loved the idea of the continuity of the parish and the church, which depended on no one particular priest or person.

He tells me of a novel titled The Power and the Glory, which starts with the arrival of a Roman Catholic priest in the Mexican state of Tabasco in the 1930s, replacing another priest who had died.

The Mexican government was trying to suppress the Catholic church and by the end of the novel, the second priest has been killed by a police lieutenant who despises the church.

However in the final scene of the novel another priest arrives in two towns, suggesting the Catholic church cannot be destroyed.

"It just keeps happening in a way that's bigger than the individual," Fr Paul said.

Fr Paul said he felt churches were very important in regional areas, where the role of priests seemed to be well defined and clearer than ever.

Father Paul Kelly outside St Mary's Catholic Church in Maryborough.
Father Paul Kelly outside St Mary's Catholic Church in Maryborough. Robyne Cuerel

He felt that in built-up cities, the role of the church and priests was not as clear.

As well as causing a stir with his vocal opinion on Pub Fest, during his time in Maryborough Fr Paul also became a YouTube sensation with a selection of songs he wrote, sang and filmed himself.

Thousands of people viewed his catchy tunes on the video sharing website and Fr Paul admitted as a child he was torn between being a priest or a sound technician. Fr Paul admitted he was a frustrated musician and said his parishioners were "very supportive" of his musical efforts.

The 45-year-old signed a new contract to stay on in Maryborough for a further six years in January 2013, making his decision to leave even more surprising.

But Fr Paul said moving elsewhere had never truly been off the table and he had always been conscious of picking the right time to do.

He had contemplated leaving after spending seven years in the parish but had decided not to go - and he had been very happy with his decision to stay at the time, Fr Paul said.

Finally making the decision to leave Maryborough wasn't easy for Fr Paul, but he says he knew it was the right time to go.

"It's time to move on," he said.

"I could have gone on forever here.

"Sometimes I think I'm mad too for going."

But he said it wasn't in his best interests, or the best interests of the parish, to stay.

Fr Paul said he was excited to be heading to Victoria Point, especially because his parents and his brothers live in Brisbane and he was looking forward to seeing them on a more regular basis.

Evelyn Keys, a volunteer at the church, joins in our conversation, wanting to make clear the contribution Fr Paul has made during his time in Maryborough.

"He's been an inspiration to the parishioners who have been here all their lives. I've been inspired by him," she said.

It's clear she isn't the only person who feels that way about Fr Paul.

St Mary's College and St Mary's primary School both fall under the auspices of the church and both schools held farewells for the popular priest, making sure he knew how much he was appreciated in the community.

Topics:  catholic church father paul kelly maryborough priest st mary's catholic church



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