By Debbie Cramsie
As he stood on the country platform at Central Railway waiting for the 4pm Blue Mountains service to arrive, Kerry Bayada tightly clutched his mother’s hand, not knowing when he would see her or his father again.
As the train pulled in and the whistle blew, there was time for one more desperate hug and then he boarded the Springwood-bound service waving as the doors closed behind him.
At just 12 years of age, Kerry was setting off to join St Columba seminary.
More than 70 years later and recently reflecting on that time, he says he had no real understanding where he was going and, admits that if he did, he might not have boarded that train.
Sitting on the tough leather seats, he gazed out the window as the passing landscape changed from suburbia to bush.
Noisy students laughed and chatted as they caught up on how they had spent the January school holidays and, although about 80 students surrounded him, he had never felt so alone.
He had never spent a night away from his family, let alone “a forever” in a place full of strangers.
The two-hour train trip rumbled up the mountain and felt like an eternity.
On arrival at Springwood station, he and the other students were ferried to the St Columba Seminary by a fleet of waiting buses.
He followed the throng of boys who seemed to know the drill, a hush converging on them as they entered the driveway.
He stepped off the bus, looked up and was speechless.
Built in 1909, St Columba Seminary was opened at a time when Australia’s Catholic seminaries were bursting at the seams. It was a seminary for school-aged boys to complete their leaving certificate before heading to the adult seminary at Manly.
He was led to a dormitory of about 30 beds, dropped his few belongings beside one, and changed into the supplied soutane and collar.
Dripping with sweat, the dry heat exacerbated by the unfamiliar items of clothing that would become his new uniform, he tried to take in his new surroundings.
Ushered to a dinner of bread, butter and jam, he remembered thinking, “Gee that’s not what mum would ever have given me for tea”.
He, along with the others boys, were then led into something called meditation (a term he’d never heard before) and then the “great silence” began.
No talking was allowed until after breakfast the following morning. He changed into his stiff new pyjamas and climbed into the unusually hard bed.
He was sure he heard some muffled sobs coming from under the blankets but lay as still as a rock until he eventually fell asleep.
Time has faded many, many memories, but waving goodbye to his parents just 10 days before his 13th birthday is as raw today as if it were yesterday.
On reflection, Monsignor Kerry Bayada, now 83, said he still can’t believe his parents let him go at such an early age. However, despite the challenging beginnings, he is extremely thankful for his 58 years in the priesthood.
Born in February, 1935, the eldest of seven brothers and sisters, Monsignor Bayada remembers fondly growing up in Sydney’s working-class Haberfield and attending Gladesville’s Villa Maria Primary School.
With World War II looming, his parents George and Irene decided that for the safety of their young family, they should move to the country so they descended on relatives at Yarrie Lake, near Narrabri.
Despite their efforts to escape the terror of war, they arrived to find the area surrounded by barbed wire fences, heavily uniformed soldiers and booming army trucks rumbling up and down the usually deserted streets.
Defence training camps had been set up in the area and he remembers sitting in wonder watching the young soldiers going through their paces and preparing for battle.
Despite the heavy presence of military, Monsignor Bayada said they settled into the area very easily and quickly became part of the small farming community.
“We absolutely loved it,” he says.
“We learnt how to survive in the bush and for kids coming from the city that was pretty exciting.
“I remember sitting with my uncle milking the cows straight into cups and then drinking the warm milk. We rode horses and would shoot rabbits. Looking back it really was a very happy time for us all.”
The family stayed in the district for about eight months, and then travelled back and forth between Sydney for a few years before finally settling in Tamworth.
He said he remembers those years as bitter sweet. It was where he lost his younger brother but also had his first thoughts about a life dedicated to the Church.
Young Francis Joseph Bayada was born in the local hospital and plagued with health issues throughout his short life.
He survived a bout of diphtheria but at the age of just four succumbed to the ravages of rheumatic fever and died at home when Monsignor was just nine.
His parents brought the small boy home from hospital and he remembers hearing the screams from his mother when he passed away at 6.45pm on a Friday night.
The next morning the family buried their son and brother with a very modest funeral, paid for with borrowed money.
Every weekend the family visited his brother’s grave – a pile of dirt, as they could not afford a tombstone.
“My siblings and I loved going to see little Francis,” he smiled. [But] being the eldest I noticed the toll it took on my parents. To this day, I can still hear my mum sobbing as she lay on the bed next to him.
“I can’t imagine what it would have been like to have lost a child. In fact, I remember my mum saying years later that she never really grieved for Francis and it was something she took to her own deathbed.
“We have since had a proper tombstone erected and from time-to-time we go up there to visit him.”
Life went on for the young Kerry and he took great comfort in the Church. He became an altar server and loved getting to know the local priests and watching with awe as they carried out their duties in the district. Baptisms, reconciliation, communion – even funerals were all greeted with a sense of fascination and something that he thought about doing.
The family eventually moved back to Sydney and while the memories of country life quickly faded, the desire for the priesthood didn’t.
He kept his thoughts about his vocation a secret from his parents but took the opportunity to talk to some visiting priests from St Columba seminary, who came to speak to the boys.
“I spoke to one of them about becoming a priest and he listened very attentively and told me to give it a few years, I was too young,” he smiled.
“And then a second priest spoke to me and advised I do something about it immediately.”
That night a very anxious Kerry broke the news to his mum who quickly told him to “go talk to your father”. And while neither parent was at all surprised, their biggest concern was how they would afford it.
In those days, the boys had to pay 70 pounds to attend the seminary, which was well and truly out of the question for the struggling family. However once his parents saw how determined he was in pursuing a vocation his parents approached the local St Vincent de Paul Society who gave him the money.
Before he knew it, his application form had been lodged and he was asked to meet with Cardinal Norman Thomas Gilroy, the then Archbishop of Sydney for an interview.
He and his mum travelled by tram to St Mary’s Cathedral on a Saturday morning and he remembers being asked why he wanted to become a priest and he said: “because it’s the best way for me to serve God”.
Just days later his acceptance letter arrived and he started preparing for his departure to the junior seminary.
He was supplied with a list of items he needed to bring including a dressing gown, pyjamas, and slippers, which he received as Christmas presents from his family.
“It all happened so quickly, I didn’t really have the opportunity to think about what I was doing,” he smiled.
“Being the eldest I didn’t complain, I just did the best I could and got on with it.
“I had never owned a dressing gown or slippers before so my family somehow purchased them for me for Christmas. Not exactly the type of presents I was hoping for but I was still very grateful.”
He spent his early years at the seminary before he was transferred to St Patrick’s at Manly for the conclusion of his studies.
Surprisingly this was where he really struggled most with his vocation.
He said after so many years at Springwood it had become home and leaving all that was familiar to him took its toll.
“I remember celebrating my 21st birthday feeling very, very low,” he said. “I suppose today you’d call it a type of depression.
“I had gone from being with my classmates in a big dormitory to being in a room on my own.
“It was very grim and I seriously thought about my future and if the priesthood was what I really wanted.
“I like to think God had a hand in it but I became friends with a fellow seminarian and between the two of us I worked through my issues and decided to stay.”
Fr Kerry was ordained and assigned to Our Lady of Lourdes parish in Earlwood in 1964.
He said he very quickly became aware that despite the many, many years of training he really had very little idea how to deal with the parishioners.
“For the first time I had to deal with real people,” he said.
“They had real problems, ones I had never experienced myself so had no clue how to deal with them.
“I was so naïve looking back, we really were very under-prepared.”
Gradually he settled into the parish, but after four years, he was moved to Newcastle and then Belmont.
Cardinal Gilroy gave him permission to buy a car so he could drive himself around his new parishes.
He spent a few years in the region before getting a look at the other side of life moving to Darlinghurst in 1967.
Prostitution, homosexuality, drug addiction were things he witnessed daily.
“It certainly was a side of life I had never seen,” he said. “I went from seeing nothing to seeing everything.
“It was a real challenge but one I thoroughly enjoyed.
“I remember meeting this young fella who was a drug addict, I persuaded him to go to a rehab hospital and get cleaned up.
“After a few days I decided to go and visit him and see how he was getting on. Once I got there I was accused of trying to smuggle him drugs.
“I just couldn’t believe they would even begin to think a priest would try and do that. To start with, I wouldn’t even know where to get them.
“I guess it just shows how naïve I was.”
After two years, another move, this time to Roseberry, taking on the job of Vocations Director for the Sydney Archdiocese, guiding young men thinking of joining the priesthood – a role he carried out for the next 17 years.
At just 33 and himself still a young man, talking to school students and other young men about vocations was something he loved, and today still comes across many priests who he helped discern their vocation, including the current Archbishop of Sydney Anthony Fisher OP.
Short stints at Strathfield, Silverwater and Concord West followed before he was installed initially as the parish administrator at Our Lady of Fatima Church, Caringbah in 1985, and then Parish Priest and Monsignor a year later, where he stayed for 30 years until his retirement three years ago.
During that time he said he did the lot, “hatched, matched and dispatched” and thoroughly enjoyed the parish and the parishioners.
“The Caringbah community accepted me and made me part of their family,” he said.
“They were there for me in the difficult times, especially when my parents died.
“It’s a very caring community and exceptionally generous. When we held an aid appeal after the 2004 tsunami, we raised $27,000 over two weekends.
“Still today when I visit the parish they all tell me they miss me. I’ve been very touched by the things they have told me I gave them. Sometimes I thought I hadn’t expressed myself very well but somehow, something I said touched the congregation.
“I appreciate them for their kindness and generosity and that they accepted and welcomed me. They have been family to me. I appreciate that very much.”
Upon retirement three years ago, Monsignor Bayada moved to an aged care village where he remains the chaplain. He celebrates Mass twice a week and fills in from time to time when Sydney priests take holidays.
Over the years, he has officiated at all his siblings’ weddings and baptised his nieces and nephews.
He said in his 58 years as a priest he “did the best I could”.
“I have had an extraordinary life,” he smiles with a tear in his eye. “I have no regrets and can honestly say I did the best I could.
“There have been both some incredibly sad and happy times.
“I remember when I buried about six young people in a very short time frame and that left a real mark on me. But then I have seen some incredible things and been very, very blessed.
“There aren’t many of my classmates left now, just a handful who I see now and then. If I had my time over I would do it all again in a heartbeat, it’s been a wonderful life.”
Asked what advice he would give his 12-year-old self now, he pauses for a moment, then says: “Go ahead mate, take the challenge, it’s all worthwhile.”