The Pastor of St Mel’s [poem by John O’Brien, 1954]

[Editor: This poem by John O’Brien was published in The Parish of St Mel’s and Other Verses, 1954.]

The Pastor of St Mel’s

Well now, it’s over forty years, the parish record tells,
Since I stepped out with fine ideas promoted to St Mel’s.
A coming place, a rising town, the Bishop’s letter read,
A stepping-stone by God’s good grace to better things ahead.
Alas, for tips episcopal and barren seeds thus sown,
The stepping stopped the day I set a foot upon the stone.
I’m still just Father John today, though frankly I allow
There was a time I had my dreams — that’s past and done with now.
I dreamt my young man’s dreams indeed, that long before today,
My brilliant gifts all recognized, I’d be upon my way
To papal decorations and diocesan acclaim —
With red around the buttons, faith, and letters to the name.
But here we are this year of grace, the name Old Father John,
Who’s shunted in the loop-line while the traffic passes on,
The signals all against him, forgotten, out of date,
Remembered by the Bishop only when returns are late.
The Consultors! did you mention them? — Ah, well now, what’s the good;
An agreeable lot of nice poor fellows who would help you if they could.
No! No complaints, for, mind you, had the pickings come my way
With all they have to give I’d be a lonely man today
In the front seats of the mighty, looking bored or dignified,
In a kind of isolation with the Bishop at my side.
Instead of which I’m down the hall, a rabid unionist,
With my treasured friends still with me — all debating how we missed.

Well, that’s the truth; and as for me I want no honours now,
No titles do I covet, for I have one anyhow:
They call me Father here around, and I have found it good;
The rich, the poor, the down and out all share that fatherhood;
A father to the thoughtless lad whose friends have been his foes,
The comely lass who cannot see beyond her powdered nose,
And in the dim-lit silent church each weekend over there
I’m Father to the erring ones who need a father’s care.
And men of every creed and none they greet me with a will,
Except the perky bank-clerk who calls me Mister. Still,
I’m Father to the ninety-nine and I would have you know
I wouldn’t swop that title, faith, for aught they could bestow.
Nor would I give this backward spot for all their fiddlede-dee,
The ups and downs of forty years have made it dear to me.
I came here to a block of ground and many lonely weeks,
I batched it like a homeless tramp and foraged at the Greeks’.
From here I combed my parish wide on horseback day by day
Beyond the furthest settler’s but two hundred miles away;

But that was when the step was light and fire was in the blood,
I saw the way the tide was set and took it at the flood.
Look round you now a church and school and convent crown the hill,
And every stick was built by me and paid for — better still.
So when the Bishop makes his rounds with purpose in the face,
Upsetting all the usual calm decorum of the place
(The whole staff with the jitters; the housekeeper hits the roof,
The curate busy on the job and keeping well aloof),
I take him calm, produce the books, suppress all buts and ifs,
He’ll find the whole transaction there — if versed in hieroglyphs.
And that’s the point: says he to me, “Now, Father John, look here,
That way of keeping books has been outmoded many a year,
No balance struck but noughts and crosses up and down and littered in between
And no one but yourself and God can tell just what they mean.”
They mean the wrinkle and the sear, the heartache in the night,
When no one lent a helping hand to aid me in the fight.
I scraped and begged and talked and bluffed, and when returns were thin
And bankers calling for their cut I put the savings in.
Then placed a cross to mark the spot where sleeps a heart’s desire
To meet my ain folk once again around an Irish fire.

But that is all beside the point: I started out to say
I wouldn’t leave this nest for aught that’s offering today.
There’s ups and downs in every place, there’s better and there’s worse,
And distant hills are green and fair right round the universe.
Content’s the thing; content is mine, I envy no man’s lot,
But thank my God upon my knees for all the things I’ve got:
The finest people in the world — with tact and stratagem
I know that they’ll put up with me and I’ll put up with them.
And so I’d block the Bishop if he called on me to fill
The Vicar-General’s parish, which of course he never will.
You might as well go try and shift that old gum-tree out there
And all its tangled roots disturb and plant them other where:
You’d only break its ageing heart, for it would pine to leave
The scene of happy sapling days and perhaps the birds would grieve.
To put that poetry into prose: I’m like that bent old tree,
And simple souls like little birds have placed their trust in me.
Old gnarled and rugged Father John, I’ve watched my people grow
Around me as the years went on; the records there will show
That I baptised them, married them, baptised their parents too.
I know their stories good and bad — the laurels and the rue.

I romped with them when they were babes and jumped them up in play
(Begob, you’d want a hoisting jack with some of them today).
What matter if at times I use the bitter word to strike —
I’m in this parish long enough to say just what I like.
I’m welcome, faith, to take my stand ’neath any Catholic roof,
And wag an inch below their nose the finger of reproof.
It’s plain and blunt old Father John, I know the yarns they tell:
The takings off and goings on and, faith, they do me well —
There’s fact and fiction woven through the yarns that they recall,
With ragged bits from Comic Cuts I never said at all.
Pernickety, that’s what they say; ah, yerra, what’s the use!
I barge and storm and blaze away and pitch them to the deuce;
’Tis all the love that guards the plant in him who toils and delves,
For I would give my heart’s last drop to save them from themselves;
They know it and they understand and when the skies are grey
They come to me as children might to drive the clouds away.
When things are black and all has failed and every hope is gone,
Then someone says, “You go round and see old Father John.”
I’m doctor, lawyer, arbiter and something more than that,
A conjurer who brings at will the rabbit from the hat.

I pull the strings and save the job and pay the rent that’s due
And lend, of course, the “coupla pounds” to set them up anew.
’Tis not, of course, the modern touch, the ultra-streamlined way,
They’ve clubs and guilds and groups and things to do the like today.
I’m out of date, the Bishop says, and that he harps upon
He’ll have his chance to pull the stack when I am dead and gone.
He’ll send some smart young cleric here with notions brave and bold,
Who’ll turn the whole place upside down, and that before I’m cold.
Good luck to him: the wheels must turn, new times new modes bespeak,
But for the nonce I carry on and use the old technique.
No style about the quiet old church where I officiate,
The wattle waves across the fence, a track leads to the gate;
And simple faith in simple hearts burns ever soft and bright,
Akin to that wee ruby lamp aglow by day and night.
No fuss, no pomp, no big days here — I’ve always baulked thereat;
I teach them how to say their prayers and if they’d stick to that,
Just say their prayers and trust their God and petty wrongs condone,
And understand another’s rights are sacred as their own,

There’d be no need for all the hate where neighbours scowl and frown
And nations standing by their guns to shoot each other down.
Ah, yerra, what’s the use of this tall talk and blatherskite,
It’s just that I am balancing the vital books tonight.
There’s something on the credit side I hope and trust to run
Against the fearsome debit of the things I might have done.
It won’t be long before the few years left shall slip
And I must stand to answer for my faltering stewardship.
The hill is getting steeper now each day as I begin
To trudge home with the paper when the Sydney train comes in.
And people down the town I meet — I recollect the face
But never seem to strike the name, and say things out of place,
Forgetting things and muddling things, the memory moving slow,
But clear on little trifling things that happened years ago;
Old names come who fought with me the struggles of the past,
And those who rallied round me first are nearest at the last.
They’re gone, all gone, they sleep tonight down there beneath the sky,
And my absolving hand it was that bade them all good-bye.
The street of unremembered men has claimed them one by one
We leave a feeble work behind when all is said and done.
I know the place, the plot, the row where each of them is laid
And soon I’ll take my place — ah, well, I’m not at all afraid:
There’s something on the credit side I hope and trust will run
Against the fearsome debit of things I might have done.

Published in:
John O’Brien. The Parish of St Mel’s and Other Verses, Angus & Robertson, Sydney, 1954

Editor’s notes:
ain = own (Scottish word)
begob = an Irish exclamatory oath, a euphemism for “By God”
nonce = (in the context of the phrase “for the nonce”) the one occasion, a particular occasion, the present occasion, the one purpose (from the Middle English “nanes”)
pernickety = fastidious, fussy, characterized by excessive precision and attention to trivial details
yerra = yerra = yerra or arrah is an exclamation, a phonetic representation of the Irish airĕ, meaning take care, look out, look you — ‘Yerra Bill why are you in such a hurry?’


  1. John Bell says:

    My uncle Father Frank Bell (uncle Cliffy), my dad’s little brother, was an altar boy to Father Hartigan at St Mel’s in Narrandera. Father Hartigan inspired my uncle to become a missionary priest in Peru among the Cechuan people. In later years, Uncle Cliffy championed the preservation of John O’Brien House. Sadly, uncle Cliffy died last night 16 Feb 2020, in the Loreto Home of Mercy in Wagga. A short film titled “The Pastor of St Mel’s” featuring my uncle celebrating John O’Brien’s poem, was commissioned and produced several years ago and filmed the presbytery where John O’Brien wrote Around the Bored Log. It is a legacy to the Irish Catholic post and the early settlers in the Riverina. A beautiful film

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