When Father Bob Sheridan was four or five years old, electric trains only travelled as far as Parramatta. At midnight street lights went out and radios fell silent.
Sydney’s Westmead, where his dad moved him, his mum and his younger brother John from NSW’s Riverina district to take a job managing the 2CR radio station, was nothing but paddocks and dams and cattle.
From his birth in Corowa, near Albury on the Murray River, that little boy’s life has come full circle through working in Sydney’s suburbs and CBD and back again to a country town where he is the exuberant 86-year-old pastor of the Blue Mountains parish of Sacred Heart in Blackheath.
Two places form a spiritual nexus along his life’s journey – Emu Plains where the love of his life is buried, and a sculpture of the Holy Family graces the parish church in her honour, and St Patrick’s Cathedral.
There Bob and Dawn were married and there, 40 years later, Bishop Kevin Manning ordained Bob, then widowed, to the priesthood at age 71. Father Bob still visits his wife’s grave each week and says that while his marriage was a happy one, his ordination was the greatest moment of his life.
“I’ve had a full life,” Father Bob said, spreading his arms wide in the front room of his presbytery. I’ve been rich, I’ve been poor, I’ve been married, and I’m a priest.
“And I’m having too much fun to think about retiring or dying.”
This year Fr Bob was honoured, but also bemused, to be awarded a Medal of the Order of Australia from the Queen for service to the Catholic Church. Two groups in the parish nominated him, independent of each other.
“I thought I had a pretty good grapevine going here but none of them said a word to me. Now I know who my friends are,” he chuckled.
“But I don’t do anything here by myself. We’ve got about 20 groups here in the parish and they form a network of care. Yet I’m the one who ended up with a medal.”
Each week sees Father Bob driving 300-400km around and beyond the bounds of his parish on home, hospital and nursing visits.
The parish encompasses three churches in Blackheath, Megalong Valley and Mount Victoria and is the largest geographically in the Parramatta diocese, stretching from the Megalong Valley over to Mount Wilson.
“It’s a bush parish and our Christian way of living here has got to accommodate distance,” said Father Bob. “There are families coming to our one Sunday Mass here at Blackheath from 50, 60, 70km away and they come because while we have phones and things they can only get you to a certain point, there’s no substitute for personal contact.
“We have maybe more funerals than your normal parish because of our demographics. It’s an elderly population and they’re moving on at the present time. But at the same time the young families are starting to come back since it’s much cheaper here than in the city. So we’re recycling.”
A commercial and industrial photographer by trade, Fr Bob first received a call from God more than 60 years ago as a young man working at the Postmaster-General’s Department (now the GPO building) in Martin Place.
“I went to St Patrick’s Church Hill for confession as we all do,” he explained.
“And while praying I had something like an inner voice say to me ‘Could you handle this permanently, could you enter into religious life?’ I think that was how it was phrased.
“So I spoke about it to the priest doing the confession and he said we can organise something.
“But then I met my wife.”
Fr Bob first laid eyes on Dawn during his steam train commute into the city. After a while, he worked up the courage to say hello and discovered they worked in the same building.
“I used to see her and think, ‘Gee she’s had a hard night’,” Fr Bob laughed. “There was a reason in the end and I knew there was something there from the start but I didn’t care, I was in love with her. Still am to this day.”
They married in St Patrick’s Church at Parramatta, which was part of the Sydney archdiocese then, and as time passed the desired-for children never appeared.
Then the ‘something’ became clear eight years into their marriage when Dawn was diagnosed with paranoid schizophrenia.
“The Lord knew what he was doing with me, though I didn’t know it at the time,” reflected Father Bob. “We could never have managed with children.”
Years of debilitating illness and hospitalisations ensued, sometimes for months at a time.
Meanwhile, Bob had gained his accountancy and other business certificates and became a proficient small business operator.
However, his first foray, managing a gym for American Health Studios, sent him broke and the mid-60s saw him selling soft-serve ice-cream, the latest new thing, at the Beverley Hills picture theatre at nights in the middle of winter in a bid to claw his way back into the black.
Then followed a string of promotions that led him and Dawn to moving to Newcastle.
“I used to bring her down to the Northside clinic in Sydney and leave her there and I couldn’t handle it in the end, it got too much for me, so I cut my ties up there and moved back,” Bob said.
“I bought a taxi only so I could be on call 24 hours a day for Dawn and the rest of the time I could get out and make some money.”
From taxi driving, he worked stints in management and marketing and then decided to open a newsagency in Kent Street near the Harbour Bridge. For nearly six years he worked an average of 100-hour weeks but now he was working towards a new goal, to finally enjoy his golden years with Dawn.
“We loosely organised ourselves that we were going to build up the newsagency which we did, and then we were going to sell it and do the tourist thing but then Dawn died,” Father Bob said.
It was 1997 and Bob was 65. The next three years disappeared.
“I couldn’t think of anything. I was in recovery mode, particularly after I got rid of the newsagency because it had got too much for me.
“While I had the newsagency I was fine but the minute I took that harness off I had the time to reflect and I had three months of hell. It was just absolute grief.”
It had been 15 years or more since Bob stepped foot inside a church, except to plan and attend his wife’s funeral. Before that, between working and supporting Dawn, there had never been time. Now, emerging from deep depression, Bob began to attend Our Lady of the Way Church at Emu Plains and commissioned a statue to be made of the Holy Family in Dawn’s memory.
He thinks that is when the then-parish priest Father Geoff Dickinson pegged him, although Bob by this stage had become a regular around the parish and even volunteered to take on odd jobs such as ground maintenance.
“He had me targeted after that,” Father Bob laughed.
“I was about 67 or 68 and I thought I’ll just keep doing this, just work around the church and make sure things get done, but he made a comment one day about whether I had thought of being a priest.
“And he said it’s not a question of age, it’s about your being, who you are, that’s what we’re interested in.
“That’s when the penny dropped because I knew that my thoughts were well and truly focussed on a religious life and had been for quite a long while.”
Once accepted into the seminary program, abbreviated from seven to four years in consideration of Bob’s age, Fr Chris de Sousa, then one of the vicars general at the Parramatta diocese, and Father Paul Roberts guided him through the course for which he is eternally grateful.
“I knew nothing of what you’d expect even a good Catholic to know,” Father Bob said, shaking his head in amazement.
In nearly 15 years of priestly life, he says he doesn’t claim privilege on his past experience. “As and when required I use my past skills. I think underlying this award is simply that knowledge and experience, because there’s nothing overt, nothing I can particularly tag and say ‘I did this’,” he said.
“It’s just the person you’ve got in front of you now and I’ve never been as content or as happy in life and in what I do as I am right now.
“I’m a round peg and I’ve found a round hole and I’m not getting out of it.
“I have a very simple philosophy as a priest and as a person and Jesus himself said it ‘Love God and love your neighbour’. And by ‘love’, meaning working at it, being a doer, and that’s what I’m doing here.”