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Review - St Mary’s in Exile: True story of renegade priest

St Mary’s in Exile

By David Burton

Directed by Jason Klarwein

Queensland Theatre Company, Brisbane Festival

Bille Brown Studio

78 Montague Road

South Brisbane

Season: August 27-September 23. Duration: Two hours including interval. Bookings: or 1800 355 528.

David Burton the playwright, was a lapsed Catholic who returned to worship when he discovered Fr Peter Kennedy’s breakaway congregation in the Trades and Labour Council hall in South Brisbane, just down the road from St Mary’s Church, in the late 2000s.

Fr Kennedy had been a bit of a revolutionary pastor, welcoming gay and lesbian Catholics into Mass and even leaning towards Buddhism. His offsider was a younger priest, Fr Terry Fitzpatrick, a man who found the rules of celibacy a bit too hard to follow.

Fr Kennedy also simplified Mass and performed without vestments.

His way of worship was popular among the diverse residents of St Mary’s parish, so much so that where many pews were empty at other churches his following rose to 800 or more each Sunday. But this progressive attitude did not go down well with more traditional Catholics: Archbishops John Bathersby was head of the Church in Brisbane and Joseph Ratzinger, a very right wing cardinal, had become Pope Benedict XVI.

“An Adult faith does not follow the waves of fashion and the latest novelties”, was one of his quotes.

A disgruntled parishioner at St Mary’s saw a Buddhist statue in church and complained.

Then the happy band of worshippers was in big trouble from June 2008 when the complaint was lodged to June 2009 when Fr Kennedy was stripped of his right to preach, hear confessions, or assist with marriages.

It was an event that rocked the local Church establishment and now makes a fascinating tale to tell.

David Burton’s script replays the story of this renegade pastor as he confronts his past: is he a reformer or an ego driven disbeliever who thinks the Vatican should follow his lead rather than the other way round?

We see the jovial side, the procrastinator, and the angry and compassionate sides. We also hear of his beliefs and unbelief’s and the values of those around him. He is a flawed priest.

It is a fascinating look at a local story that rocked the Catholic Church and is yet to see an ending.

The play has humour and pathos, but the script seemed a bit underdone and characters lacked depth. Peter Marshall did an excellent job playing Fr Kennedy and Joss McWilliam was a dapper and powerful clergyman as Archbishop John Bathersby.

But for the life of me I could not understand the farcical look at a true event - when Fr Kennedy appeared on the ABC’s Q&A. Kevin Spink, in grey wig played Tony Jones and Bryan Probets was an hilarious Tony Abbott, including at the end donning a lifesaver’s cap. It made the audience laugh, although I am not whether it was with the piece at a it. It certainly did not fit with the general tenor of the play.

It was difficult at times for me to accept some onstage characters as I knew them, but it is a work of faction, not fully biographical.

I must stress here that I am not a Catholic but did work for the Catholic Leader Newspaper for many years and am well aware of the events and characters portrayed.

Kevin Spink played the unchaste Fr Terry well, but he was fairly one-dimensional, Brian Probets played a nicely written character, Joseph, who was a victim of sexual abuse as a child. I thought this was the best drawn character in the play.

Chenoa Deemal and Luisa Prosser played the radical female roles and Ben Warren was the mystery young man who enters in the first scene and hovers throughout.

It is about a struggle against authority; the little man against the establishment; but my thoughts were: In the end the correct thing was done. Fr Kennedy was sacked.

If you aspire to be a member of a religious order then you obey the rules. If you don’t like them, you quit. In this case the rules were cast in Vatican marble. Follow the canon law to the letter.

Is this a play that will appeal to a wider audience than knowledgeable Catholics? I’m not sure. I didn’t quite grasp the wider significance but maybe others will.