Austral pastor served during bushfires, COVID response
A Catholic priest in Sydney’s southwest has earned a prized military award for extraordinary service during last year’s bushfire and pandemic crises.
Father Kene Onwukwe, administrator of St Anthony’s Catholic Parish in Austral and a part-time military chaplain, received the 414 Award for military this month. The annual award was established in honour of service and sacrifice of the 414 military chaplains who served the nation’s imperial forces during World War I, and is given to one chaplain each year.
Fr Kene said he was “very happy” to receive his award at a ceremony at the Holsworthy Barracks and honoured to be recognised in connection to the efforts of those wartime chaplains.
He still swaps his clericals for camouflage to provide support to Australian Defence Force personnel deployed to Operation COVID-19 Assist who have been helping to manage the safe reception and any necessary quarantining of people travelling or returning Australia from overseas.
It involves many phone calls, livestreaming religious services, and donning full PPE to visit soldiers working at Sydney airport and quarantine hotels. And while he is a Catholic chaplain, he is available to anyone in need of support, regardless of their religious affiliation or denomination.
“People know that I’m a Catholic priest but I am a chaplain for everyone,” he said. “Like St Paul wrote, “I am all things to all people”, so there is always something I can offer to support them in their wellbeing, whether it be religious, pastoral, or psychological,” Fr Kene said.
“I can help them find further support, be an advocate for them, or try to help with anything that is bothering them or limiting their performance of their duties. On the other hand, when something good happens, I can rejoice with them.”
The Nigerian-born priest joined the army reserve as a chaplain in 2018, and volunteered for deployment for several months full time with army units on the NSW south coast and Tasmania as part of Bushfire Assist last year.
“The training I receive really helps me not only as a military chaplain but also in my parish life, it is helping to form me in ways that I can apply to my ministry here at St Anthony’s”
In that role he not only provided pastoral and religious support to soldiers but rolled up his sleeves to do everything from clearing roads to repairing damage to property. Vicar general of the Catholic Military Ordinariate Monsignor Peter O’Keefe said that Fr Kene’s award was well deserved as he “clearly shows exemplary service and commitment to our soldiers and their families”.
“He has a lovely personality and all the feedback I get from the various commanders he has worked with shows that he is deeply valued,” he said. “[The ADF] love him because of his ability to relate, care for and love soldiers and also because being overseas-born he is well-placed to serve its increasingly cultural and ethnic diversity.”
Fr Kene said the job enriches him as well. “The training I receive really helps me not only as a military chaplain but also in my parish life, it is helping to form me in ways that I can apply to my ministry here at St Anthony’s,” he said.