In our “A Drink with Jeff” series, Campbelltown Catholic Club community liaison Jeff McGill has been catching up with a diverse selection of club identities.
Annette Read still remembers the joy she felt as a child when a letter arrived from Japan. Her new pen pal had sent her a letter full of kind words and carefully-folded origami.
Annette also remembers the sadness she felt as that same letter was put in the bin — to avoid upsetting her father, a World War II veteran who fought the Japanese.
For a little girl in the early 1960s, it was an early lesson in perspectives and how simple welcoming gestures are not always that simple.
Welcomes are also a topic that Annette knows a fair bit about. Her beaming smile will be instantly recognisable to anyone who has walked through the doors of Ruse’s St Thomas More Catholic Church, her hand thrust out in a warm greeting. As a sacristan, liturgist, and member of the parish’s sacramental team, Annette is known for rolling out a red carpet to visitors. She’s affable and heartfelt…but no pushover. If people are rude or insulting Annette admits she can go from “naught to bitch in five seconds”.
So, I decided to explore that topic a bit further and invited Annette to join me at The Catho as this month’s “Drink With Jeff” interview.
We met in the foyer and, as we walked in, got the usual beaming grin from Evy at the front desk, the usual witty chat with Kevin the doorman, and then a dose of friendly banter with longtime staffer Gemel as she served us our coffees. These are things I probably take for granted…but Annette doesn’t.
She told me that’s what impresses her most about The Catho — not the shows, the meals, or the car giveaways…but the people. A warm welcome, she insists, can go beyond mere words, but be a daily reminder of the decency of (most of) our fellow Aussies. Annette is not a gushy type of lady, so her words carry weight.
As we sat down in Harvest bistro I asked her when she joined the Catholic Club.
“It would have been about 1975,” she said. “We’d just moved to Campbelltown and I was working in Sydney — you remember the old red rattler railway carriages that took an hour and half to get there. And my husband John was teaching at Picton at the time. Well, our bank was located on Queen Street [decades before the internet or ATMs] and we’d get to the end of the week and say to each other, ‘Did you get any money out?’ No. No.
“Well, we needed to buy groceries and somebody told me to go to the Catholic Club because you could cash cheques there. So, it was a $20 cheque that made me join the Catho.
“We were soon down here all the time: meals, functions, whatever. My sister and I still come quite regularly to have a meal — it’s still the only place in town you can get decent crumbed lamb cutlets…my favourite…with mash and gravy. We also like to come to Embers for special family occasions.”
Our conversation turned to Annette’s childhood. She was born in 1952 and educated by the Sisters of St Joseph — the ‘Brown Joeys’ of Mary MacKillop fame. It was not an affluent upbringing as her family, the Dixons, were Housing Commission tenants in Herne Bay (later renamed Riverwood) and then at Bankstown.
“My father didn’t marry until he was in his forties — he was a World War II veteran who had served in New Guinea. He never spoke to us about his experiences, but come Anzac Day, he’d watch the march with tears streaming down his face, and you couldn’t talk to him. For weeks afterwards he’d have nightmares.” Her father was particularly traumatised by the brutality and suffering that other diggers suffered as prisoners of war under their Japanese captors. That led to the topic of the binned pen pal letter.
“I was in Year 7. We had to get pen friends and the nuns gave us a list of names from Japan. So we all wrote off, and I got this letter in the mail from a boy in Japan, and he’d included all this origami. I was so happy as I opened it up, but my father sat there glaring. My mother soon afterwards told me to get rid of it — that was the end of that.”
Forgiveness is a key ingredient of the parable of the Good Samaritan but her father was unable to bridge that gap. “That one episode does not say who my father was,” she insisted. “He was in fact a devout Catholic, a giving man, and a wonderful father to us.” The truth is, not everyone comes back from war in one piece.
Annette said she completely understands her feelings of her father. But she also knows it is not wise for hatreds to be passed from generation to generation. “My grand-daughter, in Year 10 at John Therry High School, is studying Japanese and hoping to visit Japan. I said I’d pay half her fare.”
Annette said both points of view are valid, given the perspectives of the people involved and the timeframes of their experiences. Indeed, we agree these layers and complexities should be kept in mind by all of us, as our society gets embroiled in simplistic populist rhetoric and dopey culture wars.
Those shades of grey certainly became evident during our chat. Annette adores her Catholic faith but is appalled by the church’s child abuse scandals. She admires beautiful architecture, but dislikes the huge and elaborate churches built in some parts of Campbelltown, given that Christ was born in a stable and preached on hillsides. She also wants to mind her own business, she said, but finds that impossible at times. “Mary Mackillop said never see a need without trying to do something about it. That’s got me into trouble more times than not, because you often get criticised for sticking your nose in, or something like that.”
Some people use poverty as an excuse for criminal or anti-social behaviour, but Annette’s own childhood lessons were to be appreciative of what she had — something that still resonates today. She said she loves the new playground that Campbelltown Council has created at Ruse, taking her grandchildren to play there, but is sickened by the graffiti that quickly covered it.
“We were very poor when I was a child and mum was trying to give us a good education by the nuns, so on top of her own housework, she would go down to the presbytery each week to wash and iron. Father Francis Corrigan would say to her, ‘Joycie, you don’t have to do all this’, but mum would reply, ‘Father, I pay my own way — it may not be in pounds and shillings, but she said I can work off my bills.’ Mum and dad were like that. The Housing Commission would paint the inside of a home every five years and the exterior every 10 years but we never had any maintenance or painting done; my father did it all himself. He was poor but proud. As he walked along the street he would also pick up screws or nails, saying they might be useful for something.”
Of all the things to be grateful about in her life, Annette cherishes the happy memories of her late husband, John Read. They met in 1969 on their way to a school camp in the Blue Mountains. “I first met John on Strathfield Railway Station and we just clicked, right from the start.” They were married in 1973 and settled in Campbelltown, raising their two daughters, Sarah and Elizabeth, here.
Later moving to Ruse, they witnessed the birth of that suburb’s parish church. Annette smiled at her memories of Father Bernie Dowdell arriving to say mass at the St Patrick’s College chapel with his shoes covered in mud and clay, because he was digging trenches on the Acacia Avenue building site.
Annette has worked with many priests in her time, but her clear favourite is Father Michael Healy — and I doubt she’s alone in that. Father Michael is adored by just about everyone, and has been the honorary chaplain of the Catholic Club for decades. In fact, he and the Club share an anniversary. Father Michael arrived in Campbelltown as a young curate from Ireland the same weekend the Catholic Club opened in 1968!
“I absolutely love Father Michael,” Annette said. “If I was half the person he was, I’d be very proud. I’ve seen other priests over the years look with disdain on other people, and judge them, but Father Michael embraces every single person.”
That resonated with us both. Particularly as the same week as our conversation, one of the big news stories was Sam Newman calling on people to boo Aboriginal ‘Welcome to Country’ events. (The latest chapter of the dopey culture wars.)
I told Annette how pointless I thought that was. The whole message behind Welcomes to Country was respect, recognition, and bringing people together. Good things. Campbelltown’s own Uncle Ivan is renowned for how he warmly he includes everyone. Is it really so hard to smile at a warm welcome and consider the history of our land?
Annette, I discovered, feels even more perplexed. She comes from an Indigenous background — but not that she knew that growing up as a child. “I was in my twenties when my mum quietly told me,” she said, like it was something to hide. “Her family was from Orange and one of her Irish forebears was a drover who saw an Aboriginal clan trying to kill a woman for doing something wrong. He rescued her, married her, and I’m descended from one of their children.”
So, you have Wiradjuri bloodlines, I asked.
“Yes,” she smiled. “Something to hide back in the 1970s, at least in the view of many people, but I love the fact that it is now something my grandchildren are very proud of. I spend time with them in the library reading some of the Aboriginal books there. I sometimes like going to the church at Minto, where Sister Kerry Macdermott arranges special Aboriginal-themed masses.”
We both agree that Sister Kerry is a local treasure, who has devoted her life to the service of others, particularly Indigenous families. Her Winga Myamly group (a Wiradjuri phrase meaning ‘to sit down and talk’) organises the big memorial services held each year to mark the Appin Massacre of 1816 and she acts as a mentor at schools such as John Therry.
At this point in our chat, the crowds around us snowballed as Harvest bistro came alive with lunchtime crowds. Annette fondly recalled bringing her children and grandchildren to the Catho to watch The Wiggles. She has also attended many performances by John “True Blue” Williamson, one of her favourites.
Annette told me she loves what the Catholic Club does in the wider community, with so many large donations to worthy causes — and not just the Catholic causes. “The word catholic, with a little c, means universal and that’s what they’re demonstrating in my opinion. It’s really a core body in our community.” But that doesn’t mean Annette automatically agrees with every decision the Club makes. “The worst thing they ever did in my opinion was close Cafe Samba. That was my favourite place, and every second Thursday my sister and I would go there. It’s just not the same without it.” But, everyone has a different perspective, we shrug.
It has now been more than two decades since Annette lost the love of her life. Husband John died aged 50 after a battle with cancer in 2002 and she still misses him dearly. John was a deeply respected teacher at John Therry for many years and was the heart and soul of the school’s netball club, which played under the Catholic Club banner. “He was organiser, coach, match referee and mentor,” she said. “He would be on court each Saturday from 7am until he attended 6pm Mass that night.”
The love and respect felt for John was reflected in not only the size of his funeral and even the need for a police escort for the procession, but the constant stream of friends and former students who came to their home to see him in his final months. “He touched a lot of souls,” Annette said.
She now gets great satisfaction meeting and greeting people, and helping Father Michael at Ruse parish, and told me several stories of the many relationships that have resulted. “I try to greet every person walking in, about 90 per cent know by name now. To call somebody by name is one of the best things you can do, it acknowledges them as a person.”
It’s a little thing, but also a really big thing — and I speak from experience. Some years ago, after I retired as a newspaper editor, I was hired to do some photography at a local event with a huge crowd. I was still pretty new to that sort of thing at that time, barely knew anyone in charge of the event, and was a little nervous and unsure…until I heard my name being called. It was Annette. She happened to be in the crowd and spotted me. After hugging me and welcoming me, she began introducing me to key people, singing my praises, and generally making my task a whole lot easier.”
Not that Annette and I always agree. I can be pretty annoying, but what I love about Annette is that if she disagrees with you, you won’t die wondering. But I love that sort of bluntness…I much prefer someone who says it to your face, rather than behind your back. The word authentic comes to mind. Even welcoming.
“All my life I’ve worked in customer service,” Annette said. “Thirty-odd years in Medicare, and before that in Repat (which turned in Department of Veteran Affairs). The old saying that the customer is always right is a load of bulldust…but the customer is very important to your business. You have to be careful to learn the difference between humility and weakness, and confidence and bullying…there is a thin line and everyone can misjudge it…including me. I’m no saint. We can only do our best.”
She finished by referencing her late husband, the school teacher. “You’d think the three Rs would have been important to John, but it was really the three Fs — family, faith and friends. They were his touchstones. In the end you are remembered for your love, not how many houses you own or the car you drive, but the people you love.”
I think most of us would agree with that, no matter what our perspectives.