Father Ted McGrath's lonely road

John Hosie, A Lonely Road: Fr Ted McGrath, MSC. Adelaide, ATF Press, 2010

Father Ted  McGrath had barely reached his seventh birthday before experiencing the death of his father (who literally drank himself to the grave), the demise of his mother (falling, probably pushed, from a moving buggy), and the loss of two siblings through childhood illness. 

Joining the Missionaries of the Sacred Heart (MSC), McGrath was ordained in 1909, and became associated in Sydney with Eileen O’Connor, an invalid with curvature of the spine, who established an association of religious women called Our Lady’s Nurses for the Poor. 

For the next 50 years McGrath experienced unrelenting persecution at the hands of General administration and Provincial administration bureaucrats within his own religious order, who placed breathtaking restrictions on his personal freedom, banished him from Australia, and hounded him relentlessly in the hope that he would resign his membership in the order.

John Hosie has produced a compelling biography, presenting not just the outline of an amazing life, but skilfully situating that outline within a range of social and historical contexts: McGrath’s impoverished childhood on an 1880s northern Victorian selection; his early years as a priest in the parishes of Coogee and Randwick in the first decade of the twentieth century; his period  as a decorated military chaplain on the western front; his years of exile in England, the United States, Holland and France.

This is an immensely rewarding and readable book, which nevertheless left me somewhat disconcerted and dissatisfied, though this  is no fault of the author. The treatment McGrath received at the hands of his own religious order is literally inexplicable, and ultimately unexplained. 

Despite looking in all the right places (Provincial and General council minutes, Vatican archives, personal diaries and correspondence), Hosie has to finally acknowledge that he simply cannot produce a plausible explanation for 50 years of persecution. He is nevertheless measured and balanced in his treatment of McGrath’s tormentors, refusing to turn them into pantomime villains. 

Chief among these was an ecclesiastical trouble-shooter from head office named Hubert Linckens, who arrived in Australia at the beginning of World War I, and who took effective control of the MSC Australian  unit for the next six years.  Linckens was particularly offended by Australian “individualism” and lack of respect for authority, and set out to do something about it. Concretely that meant making an example of Ted McGrath, whom Linckens  perceived as being both individualistic and contemptuous of authority.

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FULL REVIEW: A Lonely Road: Fr Ted McGrath, MSC. A Great Australian (AEJT)

LINKS:

Our Lady's Nurses for the Poor

Eileen O'Connor (Australian Dictionary of Biography)

The collected poems of Timothy Edward McGrath M.S.C.

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