Fr John Briffa retired last month after more than 50 years of service to St John Bosco, Engadine, the parish that will remain his greatest legacy as a priest.
Family and friends from the priest’s native Malta joined parishioners, past and present students of St John Bosco primary school and college, and residents of John Paul Village at the Mass of Gratitude on 24 January.
A Salesian, Fr Briffa first arrived in Engadine as resident priest at Boys Town’ (now the Dunlea Centre) before being appointed Engadine parish priest.
He quickly identified the greatest challenges for the southern Sydney community. A dearth of aged care facilities meant members of the parish were placing elderly relatives in care in other parts of Sydney. And with no local Catholic college, students were travelling out of Engadine for high school.
In establishing what is now St John Bosco College, Fr Briffa said the Salesians offered “a certain type of education, a family-friendly education”.
In 1984 the Engadine parish, led by Fr Briffa, opened John Paul Village.
Village resident Brian Fitzgerald, a long-time Engadine parishioner and friend of the priest, helped organise the farewell Mass.
“He always had the desire to build something for the aged because he had always provided for the children of the parish, in building a primary school and college,” Brian said.
Fr Briffa was posted to Malta in 1991 and had a stint in Perth before returning to Engadine in 2001 to take on the role of chaplain to John Paul Village.
“He loves the people of the parish,” Brian said. “We’re very fortunate that we’re not actually losing him.”
The priest, who turns 88 in February, will stay on in the area, but plans to take time in retirement to explore greater Sydney.
“I’m just going all the things I haven’t been able to do,” he said.
“Reading, a lot of walking … my idea is to get to know Sydney. Down here, we hardly ever go out of the Sutherland Shire.”
He paid tribute to members of the tight-knit Engadine parish.
“I have met a huge number of wonderful people, supportive people,” he said.
“When I came here the parish needed to be developed, they had an empty church and that was all. In involving the people in the decision, we got very friendly. That bonded the parish together.”
While he remains proud of his heritage – Sunday’s Mass opened with the Maltese national anthem – Fr Briffa has no desire to return.
“Engadine has been part of my life since 1964,” he told The Catholic Weekly. “I feel at home here, and these are my people. This is the family God gave me.”