Obituary: ‘beloved pastor’ Fr Kevin Spillane

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Fr Kevin, at right, as a newly ordained priest.
Fr Kevin, at right, as a newly ordained priest.

Born into life: 7 January, 1929
Ordained priest: 19 July, 1952
Born into eternal life: 16 July, 2016

On 26 July, Fr Kevin Spillane was laid to rest close to the mortal remains of many fellow priests he would have known as friends and brothers. The burial ceremony at Rookwood cemetery followed the funeral Mass at Fairfield church.

At the ceremony were Fr Kevin’s closest relations, numerous Legion of Mary members, diocesan priests and priests of the Opus Dei Prelature. After the Church’s ritual prayers, Legionaries added prayers from their handbook customarily offered for deceased members or someone especially close to the Legion. Fr Kevin had served as spiritual director to the Senatus for many years.

Fr Kevin Daniel Spillane, the beloved pastor of Villawood for 40 years, was what one might call the quintessential parish priest. At least that is what many of the younger clergy saw him as, and admired him for being. Like the Curé of Ars, he looked after all the ordinary pastoral needs of his people over the years, administering hundreds of baptisms, sitting patiently in the confessional, catechising converts, visiting the parish school, and offering religion classes at the local state school and the Patrician Brothers school in Fairfield.

Besides that, he had found time to help out at a nearby Alcoholics Anonymous chapter, offering spiritual counsel to those fighting addiction. Early on he was able to appreciate the valuable apostolate of the Legion of Mary. He happily assumed the duty of spiritual director to a group in his own parish, later being invited to take on a more extensive role.

Fr Kevin Spillane
Fr Kevin Spillane

He was also highly regarded by the priests of the Neocatechumenal Way at the seminary, Redemptoris Mater, for his kind collaboration on establishing themselves on Gurney Rd. Rector

Fr Eric Skuzny told me the story of how Fr Kevin, many years ago would gather with parishioners to pray for vocations to the priesthood in the church of St Paul on Gurney Rd. Little would he realise then that, in the future, many would be training for the priesthood precisely in that location.

He did all this priestly work without fan-fare, not seeking any sort of advancement to perhaps more fertile fields, or more prestigious roles in the archdiocese. This quiet but effective and persevering spirit of service was highlighted in the funeral Mass homily given by his close friend, Fr John Flader.

He was born in Ashfield, the son of Joseph and Ellen Spillane. Kevin’s father seems to have been an especially big inspiration in his life, a hardworking man who was widowed with children rather early on. He married a second time, Ellen becoming the mother of three more children. Joseph was a daily Mass goer, and devoted to praying rosaries as he travelled from one client to another.

With this parental faith, it is not surprising that Kevin felt his call at an early age, entering the minor seminary at Springwood. As the years passed he would be noted as a good friend to younger seminarians. This trait of kindness and fraternal spirit would persist through life.

After serving as an assistant priest in numerous parishes in the greater Sydney area, and even accepting a stint on loan to the Bathurst diocese, Fr Kevin was finally eligible, in 1976, to apply for a parish of his own. In order to assure himself that he was following God’s will, he applied for every parish that came up vacant. His idea was that this would allow the Archbishop to make a freer decision. In that way he became the parish priest of Villawood.

That year was one of several important steps in his life. He learned, for instance, that he was now free of the cancer that had appeared sometime before in the form of melanoma. This news in turn urged him to make a new move of generosity – he responded to a call to join the Priestly Society of the Holy Cross, becoming its first Australian associate member.

This body of diocesan priests is inseparably united to Opus Dei and encourages its members to follow the same spirituality of sanctifying one’s ordinary duties by their faithful fulfilment, day in and day out in God’s presence.

Though a primarily lay organisation in the Church, Opus Dei’s founder St Josemaria Escriva was allowed to see, some years after its birth, that the spirit of sanctification of one’s ordinary work readily applied to diocesan priests as well.
Opus Dei’s spirituality of personal responsibility, finding one’s own time for meditation, and the practice of other devotions, while flexibly integrating these into a busy life of activity and apostolate in the world, suited secular priests just fine. Thus a burning desire St Josemaria had felt to lend support to his brother priests was fulfilled through a new light of God.

This aspect of service and encouragement to fellow priests appealed to Fr Kevin, as did the ethos of self-discipline in living a “plan of life” (a self-managed routine of norms of piety, such as a morning offering, daily spiritual reading, time for mental prayer, personal recitation of the rosary, etc).

He took on wholeheartedly what St Josemaria had written years before: “You have got to be a ‘man of God’, a man of interior life, a man of prayer and sacrifice. Your apostolate must be the overflow of your life ‘within’.” (The Way, 961.)

Fr Kevin giving Communion.
Fr Kevin giving Communion.

Fr Kevin’s parish work absorbed the great majority of his time. Villawood has been over many years, and still is, an area with a large migrant population, with many families remaining in the area for only a few years before settling elsewhere.

It is home to the oft-mentioned Refugee Detention Centre. The varied circumstances of people living in the suburb, including the Catholic parishioners, led to many diverse incidents of a pastoral nature over the years.

There was the story of David, now deceased, whom Fr Kevin met in his role as a mentor in the local AA meeting place. For whatever unfortunate reasons, David had found himself living the life of a derelict while still a young man.

Estranged from his family, and caught by the vice of alcoholism, with no religious background to speak of, he nevertheless had been touched by an inspiration of sorts. At some point the realisation came to him of how obsessive was his use of foul language. This led to a resolution: to put a stop to these low language binges. When after a month or so he found he had succeeded in doing this, he took courage and resolved to take a further step – to end his alcohol dependency.

So entered Fr Kevin into his life, as David began to search for meaning. Their conversations led to baptism in the Catholic Church. He became a good friend of Fr Kevin’s, sharing some wisdom of his own about the problems of society. He was at Mass each day at Sacred Heart parish. He reconciled with his family and made himself useful, working for his sister and her husband at their local shop.

Another interesting episode involved an unmarried Polish man known through his attendance at Mass. He was an engineer who had been giving virtually his entire substantial earnings to charity before age required him to purchase or rent a flat in Villawood. He had chosen to pass his evenings and sleep at the Matt Talbot Hostel for homeless men. When this gentleman passed away, Fr Kevin carefully took charge of his diary.

There were many who came into the Church personally instructed by Fr Kevin or helped by one of his catechists. He had a strong bond with the local Vietnamese community. The Legion of Mary members in his parish were no doubt his greatest collaborators in reaching out to disconnected Catholics in his parish. He in turn supported their work faithfully attending their meetings and carefully preparing a locutio (inspirational or doctrinal talk) each week.

Another story concerned little Leonie, a seven year old non-Catholic child, suffering severe cerebral palsy, who lived with her mother a few doors down from Fr Kevin, in what had once been the presbytery.

One day the mother came to the door telling Fr Kevin that her child wanted to become a Catholic. Since the girl could not speak, or get around by herself, Fr Kevin was unsure of what to think or do. He called upon someone who was skilled in communicating with such persons. This person assured him that such was indeed the desire of the child. She, being a practicing Catholic, proceeded to instruct her in preparation for baptism. Once baptised, Leonie would periodically request her mother to take her to confession. Her mother needed to act as an interpreter bringing her child into the confessional. Fr Kevin subsequently learned that Leonie’s bedroom had been the blessed sacrament chapel in the old presbytery.

Fr Kevin’s human warmth, simplicity and good humour made him lovable to his people. He was one of those pastors that Pope Francis would approve of – non-judgmental, patient, approachable, and “with the smell of the sheep”. He could be seen many mornings doing a jog around the adjacent public reserve or walking the streets to do visitations.

He was a good sportsman, excelling at tennis and squash. These pastimes offered him pleasant catch-ups with family members, friends and fellow priests.

He most often prepared his own meals and was reasonably good at it, though no chef. There, there were no comparisons to be made with the Curé of Ars, none of the “cold potatoes only” diet. Instead his friends would tease him for his slow rate of consumption and his refusal to leave anything on his plate. To these he would invariably reply with an adage taken straight from the Gospels (via the Latin Vulgate bible) – ne pereat! (that is, “lest it be wasted”!)

Saints of God, receive his soul and present him to God the most high!