Born into life: 24 November, 1949
Ordained: 25 August, 1975
Born into eternal life: 4 September, 2015
Death came quickly to Douglas Damien on Friday, 4 September.
He was surrounded by very special people in his life. The fact that he did not wait around to accept farewells from other family members and close friends – we will discuss with him at another time.
He was blessed in his swift departure from this life. It would have been totally unfair for him to live with further health problems.
It was difficult enough for him to ‘save the world’ struggling for breath each day. It would have been a torture for him to continue on with further disabilities. It would have been a torture for us as well.
He had an intense love for each of his brothers and sisters. As with all families, he did not always agree with them and they certainly did not agree with him in all things but his love was not diminished. He enjoyed immensely the celebrations of his wider family and grieved when sufferings came.
He was blessed especially in his friends. He was extremely loyal to them and would love nothing more than spending long hours with us. Although he could talk of sport and other day-to-day matters, he mostly enjoyed solving the problems of the Vincentians, the problems of the Church and the problems of the world especially when it came to those who struggled in this life.
He was blessed in the choice of his vocation. “Love God, but let it be with the strength of our arms and the sweat of our brows …” The Gospel which I have just read is a favourite of ours; whenever we reach out to needy of the world, we are really reaching out to the Lord himself.
Doug was blessed in his confreres, his brothers in the congregation. With rare exceptions he got on very well with all of us. We enjoyed his company, we were inspired by his commitment to the poor; his love of life was infectious.
However, before going any further, I must make one thing very clear. The Vincentians are definitely not going to promote his canonisation. We loved him deeply but he was so infuriating at times.
Among other things, he was intransigent, unyielding on so many subjects. Set topics became off limits; one knew when to back off to avoid an eruption.
When he lived in Sydney he decided that he would visit the homeless who slept in the park near Central railway. After a while he decided to take his sleeping bag and sleep there all night. Then he started to share their lifestyle and he would drink from the shared flagon. When one of his confreres discovered this, he argued that this was not healthy and was not in his own best interests. He would have none of it, ‘Be with poor’ and all that. It took a bout in hospital with hepatitis to change his habit but even then I was not sure he was really convinced.
Doug was blessed in his education, firstly by the Sisters of St Joseph with whom he developed lifelong friendships and here at Stannies with the Vincentians. Priests such as Frs Maurice Sullivan and James Maloney, present here today, were on staff with other priests and brothers who inspired Doug to join the congregation .
Doug was blessed in his provincials because, as he told us many times, he never had an appointment that he had actually asked for!
He was appointed firstly to Rockhampton in Queensland for a very short time and then back to Stannies. With other enthusiastic young religious, he set up youth ministries, not just in Bathurst but throughout NSW. At this time he worked closely with Maria Sullivan in a special friendship that deepened over the years and which will last forever.
He spent some years as vocation director and lived in Sydney where he lived with young men who were considering becoming priests. It was in these years in Sydney that he truly came to experience life with the poor. He started to immerse his life into the Indigenous culture, a commitment he kept throughout his life.
He was blessed in his appointment to undertake studies, firstly with the Columbans in Turramurra and then in Chicago. He thoroughly enjoyed those years; a new way of living the faith was opened to him. It was as though he now had a theology on which to hang his heart’s longings, to truly follow Vincent de Paul in caring for those in need.
In 1992 he was appointed to Fiji. Doug loved Fiji. He loved the people. He loved the culture. He loved living in another culture. He loved the lifestyle. He loved the music and dance. And he loved the work. He spent a little while in our parish in Natovi but mostly Doug was involved in the preparation of young men for the priesthood. Having experienced a closed, authoritarian, oppressive training program himself, he went about developing a formation program based on personal responsibility. The Fijian priests still quote me the mantra, “You are the agent of your own formation.”
After a few years he was appointed rector of Pacific Regional Seminary. This came as a total shock to his confreres as administration was never Doug’s strongest suit but, as usual, he entered into the role with commitment and vision. Fr Mick O’Connor, the present rector, sent me an email last week offering his condolences to us all. He said, “Doug made a great contribution to PRS as rector. He established some very good patterns for formation – which not all his successors have been able to follow (myself included) but we can try to walk in his footsteps.”
Even now, many years later, I am still reminded by young Fijian priests of how they learnt so much in Doug’s lectures.
However, his time in Fiji came to an end. He returned to Australia and, in 2005, to where it had all begun, St Stanislaus College.
Doug met up with a kindred spirit in John Edwards whom he admired immensely. He began to enjoy his role as chaplain and president, and often spoke with us of how he enjoying working with John. However, his friends and family started to realise that all was not good. Slowly but surely his health deteriorated. The crunch came with a savage pneumonia which almost took his life. John Edwards will never forget that drive to the hospital.
Now began the most difficult time of Doug’s life. It was not just the struggle to breathe; it was not just the extensive time it took him to get going each day; it was not just the embarrassment of needing oxygen just to live, of needing to have a scooter to get around, of grieving the loss of the energetic, fun-filled life that he had always known.
His deepest pain was the guilt. He felt so guilty that, by continuing to smoke, he had now put himself in a situation where he could not do what he always believed he had been called to do; to change the world, or at least some part of it.
I believe, however, that this was his finest hour. The special people of his life were there for him but this was a journey he travelled alone.
Slowly, with the spirituality that he had lived throughout his life, his head and his heart came to accept that to carry the guilt forever would be a much greater load than even the emphysema that had overtaken his life.
Slowly, he regained his spirit and started to live with his illness. He accepted advice from his medical team, discovered all sorts of tricks to live with a scooter and actually learned to live very effectively and to say no when the fibre of his being said, “go, do this, do that.”
In many ways, his latter years were the happiest of his life. He developed closer ties with the staff and students of the college.
He loved to be with the staff, to share with them his hopes for the students. He loved to be with the students; encouraging them in all aspects of their lives, be it academic, artistic or sporting. He loved his role with the Board of Directors who he held in the highest regard. He believed that the college was indeed blessed in the appointment of Anne as head of school; his esteem for her was matched by his personal enjoyment of their friendship.
He continued to “work for the Lord with untiring effort”.
Doug loved the people of Bathurst and the Central West. When he could, he attended all sorts of religious and civic events. He thoroughly enjoyed celebrating weddings and baptisms associated with ex-students of the college. He felt honoured to be able to celebrate funerals and to be present to those who mourned.
He loved to celebrate the big liturgical events of the college, such as graduation, opening of school. He would retire to his room afterwards and would reappear sometimes after several days, ready for the next big challenge.
Doug loved to be with the diocesan clergy and with Bishop Michael. He enjoyed the banter, the arguments; they all knew where he stood on all topics.
Doug loved the Vincentian community here in Bathurst. He was always a great community man, contributing in all sorts of different ways. We enjoyed his presence in community and will be deeply missed at all future gatherings.
In the midst of a very busy life, Doug became much more openly reflective. He loved the quiet times simply being, listening to good music as he contemplated life. Doug was not stupid; he knew he would not ‘make old bones’; he prepared for his death continuing to serve the Lord in his people but also in quiet peacefulness in himself and in His God.
I would like to conclude with a few comments to the young men of the college and to those of you who are recent ex-students.
I want to thank you for all you did for Fr Doug. You could have sniggered about the old man in the scooter, but no, you treated him with the utmost respect and dignity. This enabled him to be for you especially when you were most vulnerable. A lesson well learned.
You have been given a wonderful living lesson of a magnificent life, lived, in more recent times, under great difficulties. Fr Doug’s lesson to you: live your life to the full. Live it for others and when life sends you terrible blows, stand up again and continue to serve others.
We have been blessed by the life of Fr Doug Akehurst.
This is an edited version of the eulogy given by Fr Michael Walsh at the funeral of Fr Doug at St Stanislaus College, Bathurst, on 14 September.