Obituary – Fr Frank O’Dea SSS (1928 – 2021)

Fr Frank O’Dea SSS, author of Eucharist: The Basic Spirituality, died peacefully in Melbourne, Australia on 9 January 2021, aged 92.

Born in 1928, the second child in a large Catholic family, Frank grew up in the Melbourne suburb of Brighton during the Depression of the 1930s. He attended St Finbar’s Primary School at Brighton East, progressing to Christian Brothers’ College (CBC) St Kilda, now known as St Mary’s College, and later to St Kevin’s College in Toorak where he completed his secondary education.

On leaving St Kevin’s, Frank spent four years working for the State Electricity Commission (SEC). He also began tertiary studies towards a Diploma in Electrical Engineering at Footscray Technical School in the western suburbs of Melbourne, where his family had later moved. Frank had completed two years of this course when, in 1953, he decided to drop his studies and respond to the call of his religious vocation. 

He became an aspirant for religious life in the Blessed Sacrament Congregation of priests and brothers, founded by the French saint Peter Julian Eymard in 1956. The Congregation had first come to Australia in 1929 to take over the pastoral care of historic St Francis’ Church in the centre of the city of Melbourne.

Br Baylon SSS

With ‘a lot of trepidation’ and ‘a little reluctance’, in mid 1953 Frank moved from Melbourne to Bowral, New South Wales, where the Congregation’s Australian novitiate was located. After several months as a postulant at Bowral, on 5 February 1954 Frank formally entered the novitiate phase of his training, which involved two years of formation and culminated in his profession of first (or temporary) religious vows on 5 February 1956. At the time of his entry, Frank was clothed in the habit of the Congregation and received the religious name of Brother Baylon, after the Franciscan lay brother St Paschal Baylon (1540-1592) who had a great devotion to the Eucharist.

When Frank joined the Blessed Sacrament Congregation, he was obliged to become a brother and not a priest. He dearly wanted to continue studies and progress to the ‘scholasticate’ phase of training, which would have taken him to the Congregation’s seminary and led to ordination as a priest, but that door was not initially open to Frank. As he explains in Eucharist: The Basic Spirituality (at Chapter 12 and in his inspirational homily ‘The Healing of the Man with an Impediment in his Speech’), Frank had a stutter for much of his life. At the time of Frank’s entry, he was not allowed to become a priest if he had a speech impediment.

And so, on completion of his novitiate, Frank (as Br Baylon) remained in relative isolation at Bowral for many years. He mostly helped to cook and serve meals. He worked as the porter, a job he loved, and he sometimes assisted as sacristan. He did repairs and ‘odd jobs’ around the property, and he faithfully participated in the regular service of adoration of the Blessed Sacrament which was central to the Congregation’s spirituality at that time. Outside of prayer and his ’employments’, Frank enjoyed bushwalking and photography, and he read books to further his knowledge and education.

He made his final profession of perpetual vows on 5 February 1959 at the Congregation’s Seminary of Christ the King at Lower Plenty on the outskirts of Melbourne. Apart from a six-month stint working at the seminary in 1961-62, Frank was located at Bowral for over a decade, from the time he arrived in 1953 until August 1965 when he was posted to the Congregation’s religious community at St Peter Julian’s Church at Haymarket, Sydney.

By that time, the vast Bowral facility had ceased as a novitiate and had moved through phases as a juniorate and minor seminary, and later as a retreat house. The Catholic Church was being transformed by the modernising impetus of the Second Vatican Council (1962-65). And Frank, too, was being transformed.

Although Frank did not use the term, he was experiencing a kind of liberation. He sensed being freed from some of the harsher restrictions of an older and darker Church. Like so many others, he rejoiced in the spirit of hope, new life, and fresh air that seemed to have arrived with the teachings of the Second Vatican Council. At the same time, his personal healing was also emerging as he began to overcome the speech disability which had been a part of his life since childhood.

The healing of Frank’s speech was a long process and involved many stages. He liked to call it ‘a miracle in slow motion’. By the late 1960s, Frank’s speech was not fully ‘healed’, but it had improved enough for the leaders of his Congregation to allow him to train for the priesthood. Corresponding with this development, after 1968 it became possible for men who were ‘mature’ or ‘late vocations’ to undertake a shorter course of training for the priesthood, involving only four years of seminary training instead of the traditional seven years (for diocesan priests), or up to ten or more years (for priests in religious orders or congregations).

Priesthood

Frank trained for the priesthood at St Paul’s Seminary in Kensington, New South Wales (the ‘National Seminary for Late Vocations’), which was run by the Missionaries of the Sacred Heart from 1968 to 1998. When Frank was ordained to the priesthood by Bishop Eric Perkins at St Francis’ Church, Melbourne on 2 December 1978, he had just turned 50. His hair and beard were already grey and turning prematurely white.

Some might have thought he was not far off retirement. For Frank, it was a new beginning, a second chance at religious life, this time as the priest he had always wanted to be. And he did not waste that precious time he had been given so late in life.

As it turned out, Frank was blessed with over four decades to serve as a priest, and he never really retired. From 1978, he ministered as a priest in all of the Congregation’s Australian churches and shrines, in Melbourne, Sydney, Toowoomba, and Perth.

When Frank was posted to Perth, Western Australia in 1982, his main role was to minister at All Saints’ Chapel in the Perth CBD, but he also assisted in the suburban parish of Holy Cross, Kensington that the Congregation looked after. Frank realised how much he loved parish ministry and, in addition to celebrating masses and hearing confessions, he was soon running retreats, prayer nights and other activities at Kensington. He still had difficulty on occasions with his speech, but he did not allow those fears to stop him.

In June 1982, he began promoting the Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults (RCIA), whereby adults interested in the Catholic faith were assisted through a staged process of ‘initiation’ into the Church from an original enquiry phase to their eventual baptism and reception of the sacraments.

Only one person turned up when Frank first offered to speak about RCIA in the Holy Cross parish hall on 8 June 1982. Frank was undeterred. By November 1982 he had six candidates who had completed several months of ‘pre-catechumenate’ and were ready to move on to the next stage, the ‘catechumenate’, in which they received sponsors to assist their development of in prayer and knowledge of the Church. Perth’s Catholic newspaper The Record described Frank’s Kensington group as possibly ‘the first Perth implementation of the new rite of Christian initiation’.

Within a short time, the fruits of Frank’s efforts were many. At Kensington on Holy Saturday (2 April) 1983, two adults were baptised and seven adults were received into full communion and confirmed. At the same ceremony, another person was catechised, three children were baptised, and a young person (previously baptised but not instructed) was received into full communion and confirmed. This time, the hall was full of parishioners, friends and families for the post-ceremony supper.

In 1985, Holy Cross, Kensington parish combined with the nearby parish of Holy Family, Como. Frank was appointed parish priest of Como-Kensington in late 1989 and served as parish priest in 1990-93. During his fourteen years in Perth (1982-1996), Frank became aware that it had been a ‘weakness’ in his own Congregation in Australia that many of its priests (who had mostly ministered in central city shrines) were not exposed to the kind of diversity that he felt blessed to have gained by living and working in a parish.

On returning to Melbourne in 1996, Frank promoted a programme of eucharistic evangelisation called Life in the Eucharist (LITE). LITE introduced contemporary eucharistic theology to parish communities through structured courses presented by trained lay adults led by a Congregation priest. Assisted by Fr Jo Dirks SSS and later Fr Alfred Yap SSS, Frank was instrumental in the establishment of successful LITE teams to serve parishes in Perth, Melbourne, and later Sydney. Frank became the spiritual director of LITE Australia.

In ‘Retirement’

By 2000, Frank was living in a small religious community attached to the Congregation in the Melbourne suburb of Box Hill. This community lived in a series of ordinary housing units with one unit serving as a chapel. Built in the mid 1980s as a scholasticate complex called Eymard College, it later served as a novitiate, a provincial administration community, and eventually became a retirement community for older priests and brothers who retained some independence. Frank was aged in his seventies when he arrived at Box Hill, but ‘retirement’ was not an attractive option for Frank. For many more years, he assisted with the celebration of Sunday masses in eastern suburbs parishes, both near and far, notably at Mitcham, Blackburn South, Park Orchards, and Ringwood North. When he was unable to drive himself, parishioners and friends volunteered to drive him.

For fitness and recreation, Frank became a regular swimmer at the local aquatic centre. He also cared for the garden at Box Hill. One of the legacies of Frank’s experience in Western Australia was that he developed a keen interest in Australian native plants. And what began as an interest became a passion after 2004, when he returned to the West to tour the wildflowers of South West WA with a group of native gardeners. He was an enthusiastic member of the Maroondah branch of the Australian Plants Society (APS) and became widely known in native plant circles. A visit to the native garden Frank planted at Box Hill was reported, accompanied by a superb slideshow of photographs, in Jenny H. and Jill L., ‘Two Box Hill Gardens’ (APS Yarra Yarra website, February 2018).

The solitary Wollemi pine that grew outside Frank’s back door seemed strangely symbolic of Frank — a survivor, somehow old and young at the same time — born again.

Frank’s garden of almost 300 species of Australian plants allowed him to share in the extraordinary richness of creation. In his article ‘The God of Diversity: A Spirituality of Gardening with Natives’, which is accompanied by photographs of some of Frank’s flowers, we realise that his experience of that garden was not merely knowledgable and practical. His relationship with the garden was deep and almost mystical.

Eucharist: The Basic Spirituality

Some years ago, a friend said to Frank: ‘You should write a book’. His first reaction was to laugh. But the seed was sown. Although Frank scarcely knew how to use a computer at that time, with characteristic tenacity he found his way and was soon producing full-length chapters. Before long, he had twenty chapters drafted of a manuscript titled Eucharist: The Basic Spirituality. He had also interviewed over thirty people about their personal experience of the Eucharist, which he included in the publication as ‘witness stories’.

As a result of its publication online, Frank’s book reached a readership far beyond what could ever have been achieved in print. Eucharist: The Basic Spirituality has now received hundreds of thousands of page views and has attracted readers from almost every country on earth. 

The success of the publication meant that Frank found himself with a global eucharistic ministry, responding from his computer to hundreds of readers who used the site’s contact form to ask him about the Eucharist or other teachings of the Catholic Church.  He realised his book was being used as a resource by parishes, pastoral associates, theological students, schools, teachers and many others. 

Ill health and mobility problems eventually obliged Frank to move into residential aged care for the last phase of his life, which was spent at Mercy Place in the inner Melbourne suburb of Parkville. Being dependent on others was not in Frank’s nature, but he needed the extra care he received. And he was happy.

Despite his advanced age, it was remarkable that Frank survived contracting COVID-19 in 2020 and endured many weeks of enforced isolation. His letter to friends and family at Christmas 2020 was typical of Frank, discussing some of the many problems he saw in the world and exploring ways of how to deal with them. Always the priest and teacher, he drew on the words of Scripture to explain his thoughts and encourage his readers. He shared a joke and he included a picture of one of the Australian native plants he loved (Callistemon subulatus).

In the last week of his life, Frank was struggling to breathe, yet still active on his computer faithfully serving the enquiries he received through his book. 

When Fr Frank O’Dea died at the age of 92 on 9 January 2021, he had been a professed member of the Blessed Sacrament Congregation for 64 years, and 42 years a priest.

May he rest in peace.