December 13, 2017

Sydney’s $60 million man says farewell

Phillip Collignon with wife Debbie outside ACN’s Anangrove offices. PHOTO: Giovanni Portelli

He’s the $60 million man – literally.

Over nearly three decades, Sydney man Phillip Collignon has raised more than $60 million in aid of poor and persecuted Christians around the world, but most people would not have heard of this humble and softly-spoken man.

Phillip is retiring at the end of this year after 27 years as National Director of the Australian branch of Catholic charity Aid to the Church in Need and the search is on for a successor.

Although reluctant to talk about his achievement of raising $60 million during his time with ACN, he admitted that when he first started with the organisation he never imagined such a thing would be possible.

“I would not have been able to predict that that would be the case when I started,” he said.

Deflecting the achievement to others, he described ACN’s benefactors as “Quite extraordinary … We’ve got a very loyal benefactor base. Last year they contributed over $5 million.”

For Phillip, ACN has been very much a family affair. Both his father and his sister were Directors of its Australian office before him. His wife Debbie is also Office Manager at their Annangrove office.

“She keeps me on my toes and I’ve got to account for every last cent. If I don’t I’m in trouble,” he laughed.

On the day Phillip had his job interview with ACN in 1989, newspaper headlines were announcing the fall of the Berlin Wall in Germany.

“That was providential, I think,” he said. “My career really started with the collapse of the Berlin Wall.”

Stepping into the role in February 1990, was “an intense learning-curve” he said. “They were the heady days of the collapse of Communism and all our efforts to try to resurrect the Church in all those Eastern bloc countries.”

His most memorable experience was travelling to Ukraine in 1991 and witnessing first-hand the revival of the Ukranian Greek Catholic Church which had been forced underground by Communism.

“About six million of these so-called non-existent Ukranian Greek Catholics came out from the woodwork to rebuild their Church. It was my first year in the job and to actually be part of that historical event was very, very moving.”

He said ACN’s current campaign in support of Iraqi and Syrian Christians who wish to return to their homelands following the demise of ISIS is “the biggest campaign ACN has ever funded.”

It is a “mammoth task” he says, with about $250 million needed to rebuild destroyed homes and churches.

From the beginning of the genocide of Christians in Iraq and Syria, ACN were on the ground assisting the fleeing Christians.

“Without ACN and a number of other Christian groups those displaced people would not have survived,” he said. “The world did not come to their aid.”

The main focus of ACN’s pastoral aid is on training seminarians and helping impoverished clergy with Mass offerings.

Last year ACN helped 43,000 priests with 1.4 million Mass offerings. “Without those Mass offerings, many a priest would not survive,” he said.

“ACN is unique in the Catholic world in that we’re a pastoral aid organisation,” Phillip said.

“When Fr Werenfried van Straaten founded ACN in 1947, little did he know it would become the number one pastoral Catholic charity in the world, looking after the pastoral needs of the Church.”

The 27 years he’s worked with ACN have been “a truly wonderful and inspiring time,” he said. “The work we do is vital–helping the Church wherever she’s poor and persecuted.”

And, yes, retiring from ACN after almost three decades is “a rather emotional experience.”

“It’s just dawning on me now that it’s been 27 years. Where did it go?”

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