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Final act of mercy brings dignity to those who died in poverty

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The gathering which also included representatives of the Archdiocese of Sydney’s Justice and Peace Office and CatholicCare Sydney. Photo: Supplied
The gathering which also included representatives of the Archdiocese of Sydney’s Justice and Peace Office and CatholicCare Sydney. Photo: Supplied

Burying the dead is one of the corporeal works of mercy but what happens when there is no known next of kin?

Or what if family and friends have no means to pay burial costs for their loved one’s remains?

St Vincent de Paul Vinnies Van coordinator Josie Charbel is convinced it’s a reality that can touch any family—and even happened in hers.

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Antonio Chidiak lived at Northcott state housing estate in Surry Hills and was a regular at the Eddie Ward Park stop of the nightly Vinnies Van service for a cup of coffee, a sandwich and conversation.

“One of the most beautiful things about him was that he became very faithful and he used to go down to the Missionaries of Charity in Surry Hills to volunteer at their breakfast service every morning, serving the most vulnerable, and only then he would sit down and have a meal,” said Josie.

“The sisters said he was very quiet. He never caused any fuss, he never complained, if someone was bothering or upsetting him he would literally just turn the other cheek and keep walking.”

“Yet he was struggling himself; his room had the bare basics.

“There were times I was told he had no electricity and no mobile phone, so we’d have to send someone to go and knock on the door and seek support for him to keep communication going with social workers and the healthcare system.”

When Antonio died of cancer he had no emergency contacts and had said he had no family.

Josie later discovered that he was actually a distant cousin of hers.

The Bringing Them Home interment service for the homeless at Rookwood Catholic Cemetery on 8 August, led by Bishop Terence Brady, was held during Homelessness Week and coincided with St Mary MacKillop’s feast day. Photo: Supplied
The Bringing Them Home interment service for the homeless at Rookwood Catholic Cemetery on 8 August, led by Bishop Terence Brady, was held during Homelessness Week and coincided with St Mary MacKillop’s feast day. Photo: Supplied

He was honoured along with three other Sydneysiders who also died without the means for a burial at the Bringing Them Home interment service for the homeless at Rookwood Catholic Cemetery on 8 August, led by Bishop Terence Brady.

The service is held during Homelessness Week each year and this year coincided with St Mary MacKillop’s feast day, who herself was known for her outreach to the poor.

The gathering which also included representatives of the Archdiocese of Sydney’s Justice and Peace Office and CatholicCare Sydney.

Referrals for interment come to the Grief Care team from the St Vincent de Paul Society and other communities for marginalised people including David’s Place and Cana Communities, funeral directors and parish priests.

Once accepted, Grief Care coordinator Sinead Kent tries to find out as much about each person as possible and contact any known relatives or friends.

While it is a very Catholic offering, it is open to anyone. “Being a person of no means is the deciding factor, and their faith is not a factor,” she said.

The four were afforded words of remembrance and their ashes committed to burial beneath their own plaques along the landscaped Charles O’Neill Walk in a special section dedicated to the poor through a partnership with the St Vincent de Paul Society and Catholic Cemeteries and Crematoria.

The other three were Sydney aged care residents Maria Smith, Fernanda Alexandra and Terrence Fetherston.

Students from St Patrick's College, Strathfield, participate in the interment service. Photo: Supplied
Students from St Patrick’s College, Strathfield, participate in the interment service. Photo: Supplied

“Lord of all creation, our desire is that nothing redeemed by your son will ever be lost, and that the just will be raised up on the last day,” Bishop Brady prayed at the interment.

“Comfort us today with the word of your promise as we return the mortal remains of our brothers and sisters Antonio, Terrence, Fernanda and Maria to the earth.

“Grant them a place of rest and peace where the world of our mortal remains has no dominion.

“Confirm in our hope that they will be created anew on the day when you will raise them up in glory to live with you and all the saints forever and ever.”

Tom Hall, former Catholic Healthcare employee and pastoral care coordinator at Holy Spirit Croydon, said that that sadly there are always some people in aged care homes who while not technically homeless have no living relatives or surviving friends.

“Sometimes by the time they come into our care they’re no longer in a position to tell us very much of their story, but we valued them all the same,” he said.

Patricia Thomas, bereavement consultant at Catholic Cemeteries and Crematoria, told The Catholic Weekly that the service is growing as a community event each year thanks to the vision of the late Peter O’Meara, the St Vincent de Paul Society, and the ongoing efforts of Bishop Brady and Sinead Kent.

“My heart just drops when I hear stories of urns being thrown into bins, and in the past in our cemetery they were placed in mass burial spots,” she said.

“The Bringing Them Home service emphasises that life is sacred from the womb to the tomb.”

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