Fr Michael Casey SVD: Missionary and bon vivant

February 1, 2008 at 6:42 am (Fiction) ()

One of those waiting to meet the plane was Fr Michael Casey, a member of the Society of the Divine Word or an SVD, initials that Michael described as “smoke we don’t but drink we do.” This stemmed from the Order’s ban on smoking for its members. Needless to say, Michael did a bit of both, with more than a bit of the latter. A singular character in many ways, he had arrived in the Territory shortly after World War II. A Bostonian of Irish descent whose grandfather had immigrated to the States to escape the Irish famine, Michael was proud of his “bog Irish” heritage. His grandfather laboured on the Boston wharves and gave his five sons a good education, with two becoming lawyers and the others going into business. Michael’s father ran a successful furniture business, and liked to say: “Our origins, unlike the Kennedys’, are bog Irish rather than lace curtain Irish.” Michael himself combined the charm and suppression of violence of the Irish with the urbanity of an educated American.

As well as his priestly qualifications, Michael also had a law degree from the University of Chicago, which helped in dealing with government officials and defending his parishioners from time to time in the local courts. In theology, he was strictly pre-Vatican II and saw his sacramental duties as the raison d’être for missionary activity. Though he admired the humanity of Pope John XXIII, history, he contended, would see the Pope as a “clerical fool”.

 For the small expatriate group in Dreikikir, Fr Michael Casey was effectively the church, in spite of the fact that the Sub-District was overwhelmingly Protestant. 

Meanwhile the plane had landed, and passengers and cargo had been attended to. Fr William McAuley, the pilot, who had just alighted, was in close conversation with Fr Michael Casey. Michael was making his confession. He saw this as an essential spiritual exercise that he would be deprived of if the priest pilots stopped flying into Dreikikir. His sins, one suspects, were the more robust kind, of overindulgence in alcohol and displays of temper. Once this encounter was finished, Father McAuley checked that the few passengers in the plane were secure and, with a last wave to Jock and Michael, climbed into the pilot’s seat.

One could be forgiven for imagining that Fr Casey and Mr MacGregor would be as compatible as fire and water. However, their common interest in good booze was a wonderful equaliser, and outstation life was considerably enriched by the contribution of these two personalities.

 Annie’s presence in Jock’s house was a bone of contention between him and Fr Casey. A young woman of obvious mixed-race antecedents and few apparent domestic skills, Annie was a quiet, obliging and easy-going person. Her father was said to be an Angau officer stationed in Dreikikir near the end of the war, and who now served as a high-ranking officer in the Administration. Whatever Annie’s domestic capabilities, Michael Casey felt that her presence in Jock’s house compromised Jock’s impartiality. Of course, Casey assumed that MacGregor’s interest in Annie went beyond the merely domestic. When the subject of Annie was brought up, MacGregor told Casey to mind his own business and let him run the station as he saw fit.

 This situation had on occasions led to discussions that were as lively as they were ill-informed 

The conversation quickly turned to what was happening in Maprik. At this time, the United Nations Mission, under the leadership of Sir Hugh Foot, was visiting Maprik. None realised how significant this was for the Territory. Casey maintained: “This UN group don’t understand the uniqueness of Papua New Guinea.”

 MacGregor bellyached about “bloody socialists”. It seems that he had met Sir Hugh’s brother, Michael, at some function at Glasgow University, and was not impressed with his political views. Jack Murphy said: “The United Nations’ money could be better spent on health activities.” George Smith had heard a rumour about a supposedly glamorous-looking Brazilian, who was said to be travelling with the Mission as a secretary, and said he would like “to check her out.” Ward had spent a little time travelling in Africa, and realised that dramatic changes happened to colonies. He had just managed to get out of the former Belgian Congo before it fell apart. 

The group would have had little sympathy with the Mission’s subsequent recommendations to establish a university, and move towards self-government with an elected house of assembly, as a matter of urgency. The group’s prevailing mood was to get on with the drinking, which they all did, except Ward. After they had reached a high degree of intoxication, Annie served a meal of curry and rice, following which they returned to their respective houses. 

Casey had come by motorbike, and much to his credit, he managed to leave by the same means, though he did find cranking the motor by foot a daunting challenge. The farewells were heard in the night air. Ward said: “Good night Father, watch the downhill slope of the airstrip.” This was his track home.

Excerpt from Sepik Blu Longpela Muruk  

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