I got to know him in 2015 when working on The Fighter, a book exploring the life of ex-boxer and youth worker, Henry Nissen.
Henry worked with Father Bob for many years tending to the needs of street kids, the homeless, the impoverished and disempowered.
I spent memorable hours yarning with Father Bob and I accompanied Henry on the Father Bob McGuire Foundation food van on some of its nightly forays to parts of Melbourne to provide sustenance to those in need.
It allowed me to witness the work of the foundation first-hand. Invariably Father Bob would turn up at some point in the evening to lend his inimitable presence to the show.
On a typical night the crew would stock up at the warehouse — loading food, bollards, fold-up chairs, trestle tables, a portable barbecue and gas cylinders into a van, before heading off. Father Bob was eighty by now, and had handed over the physical stuff to younger workers, among them former street kids, such as Mem, who had become head of warehouse operations.
We pull up at a vacant space in a side street off Bay Road, Port Melbourne. Dusk is giving way to night. It is mid-winter, and dark by five-thirty. The space is all but deserted, dimly lit by the Coles supermarket opposite. The benches are vacant, and the nearby streets empty.
On arrival, the crew sets to work. They arrange the bollards, tighten the ropes, cordon off the cooking and serving areas, and string up LED lights along tree branches and fairy lights on a wooden fence to add a festive touch. They unfold the chairs, set up the tables, hook up the barbecue to the gas cylinders, then pile on chops and steaks, sausages, and chicken rissoles. They unload boxes of fruit and vegies, cartons of sprite and fruit juices, set out sandwiches, salads and bread rolls on the serving tables, alongside coffee, milo and tea, slices of cake and biscuits.
All is in place, the carnival erected, and from the streets they begin emerging, one by one, in pairs and alone, making their way from rooming houses, commission flats, hostels and single-bedroom apartments. A black-clad woman on a motorised chair; a white-bearded man, ear glued to a red transistor; men and women in tracksuits; women all dressed up; youths in hoodies; a man wheeling a trolley; men and women pushing shopping jeeps.
‘Father Bob speaks elliptically.
He sees the world in symbols; he views life as a sequence of parables.
He is beyond religion.
He is of life and the earth, and of the streets and the people.’
There are long-time regulars, and tentative newcomers. Children. Entire families. They mill about, lean against the fence, and form huddles on the footpath, or hang back in the shadows. Settling.
One by one they join the queue. They file past the tables, fill their plates, then find a seat on the plastic chairs and benches. Spirits are lifting, fueled by food and company. Hesitant eyes are making contact. The talk is accompanied by gestures that are growing ever more expansive. The listless are becoming animated, the stoic casting aside their reticence. Brooding is being transmuted into engagement. Snatches of talk drift in and out of hearing.
‘She’s a Jack Russell-chihuahua cross’, says the owner. The dog nestles beside her on the park bench. ‘Got his dad’s Jack Russell head and his mum’s chihuahua body.’ The dog stands up, eyes the crowd, and receives pats and accolades. ‘She’s with me all the time. She sleeps on my bed of course.’
A Laotian woman, a single mother, and her son, join the queue. Her eyes are clear, her complexion glows. She wears a black headscarf that accentuates her fine features. ‘You look so young,’ says Henry. ‘It must be the sticky rice,’ she replies.
S has brought garlic bread, his customary offering. The bowl is wrapped in tea towels, to retain the warmth. It’s the only thing he knows how to make, he claims, his proud weekly contribution. It is snapped up quickly.
‘I get hurt, I come back,’ says Y. ‘I always come back. I speak my mind, I get hurt, and I come back. A few years ago, I was on life support. I stopped breathing. I was at death’s door. I was floating away, and I saw a white fence, and I knew I had to get back. I fought hard. I was not ready to go yet. I come back. I go away, but I come back. I always come back.’
She speaks fast. Her mind is on fire. The accented words flow with a poetic intensity. ‘There are two horrible things in the world: envy and greed,’ she says. ‘I used to run all the time. I was on the go, chasing life, living it up and drinking myself silly. Now I can’t do without a walking frame. My wings’ve been clipped. But I still see things. I’ve seen rain. I’ve seen sun. I’ve seen bombs. I’ve seen hate. I’ve seen hope. I’ve seen angels and I’ve seen the devil, but I always come back…’
‘It is in the quiet undertone of voices, in the talk and laughter, and the stillness that hums beneath it.
In this hour there is trust.
The gathering is at its zenith, a tranquil celebration. Communion.’
Another long timer keeps her belongings in a jeep — CDs of Patsy Kline, Johnny O’Keefe, Bill Haley and the Comets, Hank Williams, country and western, sixties rockers. Grantley Dee: ‘Let the little girl dance’ is her favourite. She wears a black coat, a black beanie and a bright red blouse. ‘Mark Twain is my twenty-second cousin,’ she says. ‘Samuel Clemens was his real name. I’ve got the family tree to prove it.
‘My father lived hard,’ says P. ‘He drove himself, and he drove us. He hung on till ninety-three. He was a tyrant. He loved opera. He loved Verdi. I love Verdi, The chorus of the Hebrew Slaves, Va pensiero. Pure genius.’ He begins to hum it.
And all the while, Henry is on the move. Circling. Pausing. Listening. Entering conversations, greeting old timers, welcoming newcomers, handing out plastic knives and forks, paper plates and paper napkins, engaging in banter. Then the big moment comes.
‘His Holiness has arrived,’ says Mem. Father Bob is here to survey the troops, as he is most nights. ‘He’s the director. Alfred Hitchcock,’ quips Mem. ‘A dead set lookalike.’
‘Better than staying home,’ says the good father. He walks slowly, supported by a walking stick. He plants the stick on the pavement, and places both hands on the curved handle. He bends forward as he talks, moves from side to side, and works up a rhythm. The stick is an anchor. ‘Henry walks among them,’ he says. He lifts the stick and points it towards Henry, at work, circling the crowd. ‘See what I mean?’
Father Bob speaks elliptically. He sees the world in symbols; he views life as a sequence of parables. He is beyond religion. He is of life and the earth, and of the streets and the people, and Henry is a kindred spirit. ‘Henry is a people whisperer,’ he says. ‘He knows the dark side. He kisses and hugs the vampires. See what I mean? A prostitute once came to me and complained: “Henry comes up to us and kisses us, and greets us with his love and best wishes, and we become lazy workers.”’
Father Bob retains his vantage point on the footpath. He is at ease in the semi-darkness. He does not need to move forward. He lifts the walking stick and hooks the handle over his lower arm, freeing his hands. With each remark, his forefinger and thumb touch gently. He is firmly moored, yet in constant movement, mind ticking over. Taking it in. Observing.
‘It’s all about place’, he says. He lifts the stick from his arm and points it upwards. ‘Heaven is not another place.’ He lowers the stick and waves it at the assembled company. ‘It’s this place, clearly seen.’
Yes, it is all here: in the huddles around the tables and benches, and the lit-up faces, in the volunteers lined up behind the serving tables, and tending the barbecue. It is in the quiet undertone of voices, in the talk and laughter, and the stillness that hums beneath it. In this hour there is trust. Familiarity. The gathering is at its zenith, a tranquil celebration. Communion.
The talk is subsiding. The carnival is winding down. Slowly they are leaving, disentangling themselves, drifting off as they had come, in singles and pairs, in families, wheeling shopping jeeps now stocked with food, back to who knows where. Slipping away into the darkness, disappearing on side streets and around corners. ‘It all helps, it all helps,’ says the Laotian woman as she guides her son into the night.
They arrived, stayed a while, and now, quietly, they are gone. The lights are being unwound, the tables wiped down, and the chairs folded. The van is packed, and the crew is leaving. The square returns to quietude. Several old men remain. They lean back on the benches and succumb to their private dreaming.
From nothing to nothing, from empty space to empty space, and in between, heaven, clearly seen. And after all these years, Father Bob — still walking among us.
- Arnold Zable is Melbourne writer and storyteller. This article is adapted from scenes in his book The Fighter, Text, 2016.
- Main image: Father Bob Maguire. (Getty Images)