RIP Fr Con Reis (1914-2006)

Conrad William Reis was born in Albury on February 26, 1914, of German, Catalan (Spain) and Irish ancestry, the second of three children of Charles Reis and Susan Parer.

Con's childhood was comfortable and happy but his teenage years were marked by the sad death of his father when Con was 15. His mother took the children to Kew, Melbourne, and Con went to school at the Jesuits' Xavier College. He then went Corpus Christi College, Werribee, for seminary training before being ordained a priest on July 23, 1939.

In mid 1941, after only 18 months parish work at Mentone, aged 27, Fr Con was appointed chaplain to the Fourth Brigade of the Australian Army. His pastoral work was mostly with the 29/46 Battalion and the Fourth Field Ambulance, many of them 19-year-olds from Richmond, Fitzroy and Collingwood, with a contingent from Korumburra as well.

When they returned from New Guinea, every year for more 50 years, hundreds of men and their families, Catholics, Anglicans, Protestants, Jews, agnostics and atheists gathered under Fr Con Reis' leadership for a Requiem Mass to commemorate the fallen.

After the war Fr Con was appointed to the Catholic Missions office (1946-48) residing at St Columba's, Elwood; assistant priest at St Fidelis', Moreland (1948-1950); diocesan director of Catholic Migration (1950-53); and then came his appointment to St Albans in 1953.

Fr Con was the founding parish priest of a predominantly migrant community at Sacred Heart, St Albans, a post he filled for 20 years with extraordinary skill and success.

From 1973 Fr Con was appointed parish priest at St Columba's, Elwood, until his retirement in 1978. At a modest home in Frankston, he enjoyed many years of gardening and golf, reflection and relaxation, and helped out in the neighbouring parishes, especially St Thomas More's, Mt Eliza.

However, in recent years Fr Con was legally blind, suffered from the effects of a stroke and dementia, and became bed ridden. He died peacefully in his sleep on Friday, September 29, 2006.  He was buried from St Columba’s, Elwood, on October 6.

A keeper of the flame

Three major influences moulded his views on the teachings of Jesus Christ.  One of them was St Albans where, with the parishioners, Fr Con Reis constructed a remarkable spiritual family. Here, people of dozens of nationalities, some former enemies in World War II, worshipped side by side and their children went to school together.

by Val Noone

Two thousand years ago Jesus preached a way of life based on love of God and love of one’s neighbour, suffered at the hands of the rulers of his day, was crucified and then his followers, filled with the Spirit, found him to be living on, as it were, risen from the dead.

From this came our faith. In the words of the great Saint Brigid, Jesus, the preacher, had lit a flame. Through dungeon, fire, sword, holy empires, Vatican bureaucracies and many scandals that fire burns to this day and we are here to mark the passing of an outstanding keeper of the flame.

Fr Con took seriously his role as teacher and preacher. Those apparently effortless, helpful, brief and interesting sermons which he gave were the fruit of hours and hours of study… (and) he never went into the pulpit unprepared…

Con used to say that three major influences moulded his views on the teachings of Jesus Christ: World War II, St Albans and the Second Vatican Council. Let’s reflect on each of those in turn and try to draw out what each says about his understanding of the teachings of Jesus.

World War II

In mid 1941, Con was appointed chaplain to the Fourth Brigade of the Australian Army. He had especially close links to the 29/46 Battalion … and the Fourth Field Ambulance. The men gave him the nickname, “The Little Digger”. We are honoured to have a group of his army mates here today.

“Our unit”, as he always called them, went into battle for the first time in September 1943. Afterwards he said a Requiem Mass for the ones who had died. When they got back to Australia he did that again and for 52 years, on the first Friday in December, at whichever parish he was stationed. In later years, it was in this church. You will find a plaque at the back of the church marking this link. At those annual Requiem Masses, the affection and admiration of those men for Con, and he for them, was palpable.

Con recalled that after the early battles, they buried one particular comrade in a jungle clearing with a crude cross made of tropical wood to mark the spot. When they came back that way some weeks later the wood of the cross, fuelled by the moisture and heat of the jungle, had started to sprout. This, Con said, was one of the best symbols he ever found of the reality of the resurrection to come.

At one of those Masses he told the following story. Near Rabaul, after the fighting was over, he was allotted some Japanese prisoners of war to work under his command to build a chapel (see photo). Con said he was at first happy to see them overworked in the tropical sun without enough shade and water… but as time went on he had a conversion from hatred to tolerance and treated them more kindly.

In later years, he recalled that he had given sermons about the correctness of obeying orders even though he suspected the soldiers had been told to take no prisoners…  Indeed, in later life, Fr Con gave quiet, critical but real support to the peace movement…

St Albans

Then came the St Albans years, but there is a prelude to them.

In 1950, when he was 36 years old, Con was appointed director of migration for the Archdiocese of Melbourne at the height of the big post-war influx. He won respect among the migrants themselves, with Catholic and other organisations working to make them welcome and he was highly regarded by Arthur Calwell, minister for immigration.

In a talk to the old boys of De La Salle College in 1952 he said, “Our own forebears were migrants, it is up to us to make the newcomers feel at home.” He quoted Jesus’ parable: “I was an outcast and you took me in” and argued for upholding the Australian value of the “fair go”. That’s over 50 years ago and still relevant.

Con and the diocese discussed whether or not to follow an American example and set up ethnic parishes. Con opposed the ethnic parishes and supported the view that having Australian parishes with suitable provision of Masses and pastoral services in the appropriate languages was better for the migrants.

After only two-and-a-half-years in this busy and demanding job as director of Catholic migration, Archbishop Mannix, then 90, appointed Con to be in charge of the new parish of St Albans.

One of the things that Con wanted me to put on the record today is that being moved from the immigration office to St Albans was influenced by the Santamaria Movement. That organisation wanted to take over the Catholic migration office and make it into an organising tool for what Con, supported by Fr Leo Ryan and Mgr George Crennan, regarded as negative, authoritarian and anti-democratic goals.

Around this time, priests such as Frank Lombard in the Young Christian Workers, John F. Kelly and Dan Conquest in education, and Jerry Golden in university chaplaincy, had similar problems to Con’s, as did lay groups around the YCW, the Catholic Worker and Arthur Calwell. Coadjutor Archbishop Justin Simonds was a source of strength and support to Con and the others. With Cardinal Joseph Cardijn, founder of the YCW, those loyal dissenters believed that “to be merely anti-communist or anti-socialist is to do nothing”.

Obeying his bishop’s orders, Con Reis, without fuss, moved to St Albans, and set about 20 years of the most extraordinary pastoral work in a 90 per cent migrant area, over half of them Catholics - was it the only place in Australia with that percentage of Catholics? - unmade roads, lack of services, but full of opportunity and hope.

Together with the Sisters of St Joseph, led by Sr Francis, Sr Assunta and others, the parishioners and he constructed buildings with voluntary labour under the leadership of Fred Barnard. They also created a spiritual community where former enemies in World War II worshipped side by side; and their children went to school together. There are ways to avoid ethnic conflict and St Albans has been an example.

Con led a parish for 1900 families, a school for 900 children, and set up four new parishes in the area, doing so much bookwork and organisation.

Archbishop Daniel Mannix was big-hearted enough to lavish praise on Fr Con for his achievements at St Albans… As he had united the different denominations in the army, as he had warmed to the Japanese prisoners, so Fr Con was able to unite people from both sides of the 1950s split in the Australian Labor Party. Alf Leckie and officers of the local ALP branch were as welcome at the parish as John Gigacz and Jim Shanley, officers of the DLP branch. Like the Apostle Paul, Con believed that in Christ there is no longer Jew nor Gentile, no male nor female, no slave or free man…

Fr Reis - some of the Europeans used come to the door and, using the German pronunciation, ask for Fr Rice – is a folk legend in St Albans and rightly so.

Second Vatican Council

While the flame of Christian teaching which Fr Con carried came from his family, his teachers and the great Catholic tradition behind them, when he was in his late forties, in the 1960s, he had a profound experience of the rekindling of that flame, namely through the Second Vatican Council convened by the great reformer Pope John XXIII. This meeting of the world’s Catholic bishops over four years was for Con, and for millions of others, a spring time of new learning, new possibilities: in Ezekiel’s words, breathing new life into old bones.

Two points about the council deserve mention today. Firstly, the overarching importance of the restoration to the Holy Thursday liturgy of the washing of the feet. Con, like most of us, loved the symbolism of the church being at the service of the world.

The second point is that he, again like many others, felt that the 1968 Papal ruling against contraception was a reversal of the renewal promised by the council. Fr Con was one of those who, like Cardinal John Henry Newman, would toast the Pope but would toast conscience first…

In summary, we salute Fr Con Reis as an outstanding, happy, intelligent, competent, dynamic, forward-looking, self-effacing and well organised Catholic priest and preacher of Jesus' teachings.

As a keeper of the flame, there is one characteristic that Con had to an exceptionally high degree, namely, the ability to encourage and trust the coming generation. The Irish have a proverb, Mól an óige agus tiocfaidh sí, Praise youth and it will flourish. Con did that.

Though Con was born in Albury, he was a Victorian all his adult life.

The poet Bruce Dawe says of Victorians that “they shall not grow old as those in northern climes grow old/ for them it will always be three-quarter time with the wind advantage in the last term/ … having seen in the six-foot recruit from Eaglehawk, their hope of salvation”.

However, Con did grow old and was stricken with a purgatory on earth: for the last few years he has been legally blind, mute but for a few words, and bed-ridden. We thought for a while that he was waiting for a Richmond premiership before he could die.

In Justin Villa and the Good Shepherd Nursing Home, two of the best such places in the world, Con was cared for by many marvellous people and found peace. And to the end he kept his crop of black hair. At Frankston in the years immediately before that he was helped by the remarkable work of his devoted carer Kay Daniels, her children and others…

Those of you who have been consoled by Con at the time of the death of a loved one know that there is only one way I can finish this eulogy. I must imitate Con and quote the 1500-year old words of the great Greek saint, John Chrysostom: “He whom we love and lose is no longer where he was before: he is now wherever we are.”

Con Reis: Well done thou good and faithful servant. You have been a keeper of the flame: our best tribute to you will be for us also to be keepers of the flame.

Val Noone, a former Catholic priest, is now married and has two children. 

The Principal celebrant at the Mass was Bishop Hilton Deakin. The Archbishop Emeritus of Melbourne, the Most Rev. Frank Little, was among those present in the packed church.

 
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