Australian journalist Mike Willesee, who passed away today, knew the highs and lows of fame but in his final decades came back to the Catholic faith of his youth and developed a passion for chasing down the supernatural in a series of documentaries focusing on miracles.
After having spent a life interviewing the rich, the famous and the powerful it was stigmatists and Eucharistic miracles – among other things – that he passionately hunted down in a series of documentaries produced with his friend and colleague Ron Tesoriero.
Mr Willesee, aged 76, passed away after having been diagnosed with throat cancer in 2016.
Over half a century he became a household name in Australian television journalism, founding one of Australia’s longest running and highest-rating evening news programs, A Current Affair.
Despite his fame he remained accessible to people from all walks of life and made himself available to Catholic media such as Perth’s Catholic Record newspaper, The Catholic Weekly and the Brisbane Catholic Leader among others.
His interest in journalism was apparent from an early age. In fact, the young Mike Willesee’s very first published article appeared in The Record, the-then archdiocesan newspaper of Perth in Western Australia; he was aged eight at the time.
Years later, at the height of his fame, he returned to host an evening presentation in front of 1500 people at John XXIII College in Claremont hosted by The Record where he screened his first documentary on Eucharistic miracles and took questions for an hour from the standing-room only audience.
No-one in the audience knew, however, that his father, former ALP Senator Don Willesee was dying that evening in a Perth hospital. Such was his generosity that instead of cancelling at the last minute, Mr Willesee gave a fascinating presentation, enthralling his audience with his conviction that miracles do occur, before rushing back to the hospital so he could be with his dying father.
Born in 1942 in Perth, he worked on television programs such as This Day Tonight (forerunner of ABC TVs 7.30 report), Four Corners, A Current Affair and Willessee at Seven.
Mr Willesee returned to his Catholic faith after famously surviving an aircraft crash in Nairobi, Kenya, in 1998.
The occasion, he said, was the first time he had prayed a genuine prayer to God in many decades.
His documentary, Signs from God was viewed by a staggering 28 million people in the US, when it first aired in 1999.
He never really retired from journalism and continued to pursue God’s presence through a series of books and documentaries. He was working on a book on miraculous phenomena around the world when he died.
In an interview with The Catholic Weekly’s Catherine Sheehan in 2017 he described it as “the greatest work” he had done to that point.
“It shows the truth of God in the Eucharist. The truth that God is alive in our world and that his hand moves,” Mr Willesee said.
Although raised a Catholic, Mr Willesee had drifted away from the faith as an adult. It took some prompting from his friend Mr Tesoriero to get him to go to Confession which – as it happened – occurred in a tea room above a restaurant he owned in Sydney.
Discussing the seriousness of his illness he didn’t shy away from the subject.
“I think having God in my life made it easy to accept. This is what’s happening. If that’s what God wants, that’s ok,” Mr Willesee said.
“It really doesn’t matter because so often Jesus told us to be ready … You don’t know what time the Master will come home in the night.”