Last post for Melbourne's multicultural pioneer

Melbourne post-war migration pioneer, Fr Con Reis - known as the "Little Digger" - who was also one of Australia's last surviving World War II chaplains, was buried in Melbourne on Friday.

The Border Mail reports that Fr Reis, 92, who died in Melbourne on 29 September after 67 years of priesthood, was "mentioned in despatches" for bravery under Japanese attack while chaplain to the Australian 29/46 Infantry Battalion in New Guinea.

"As soldiers were torn apart by enemy fire, Fr Reis was right there, unarmed and in range of enemy snipers, comforting each soldier where he fell, giving dignity to their violent death and eternal life to their soul," a nephew, Charles Reis, told the Mail.

Albury-born Fr Reis, who along with retired military Bishop Alo Morgan, was one of the last surviving World War II Catholic chaplains, was born on 26 February 1914.

Ordained on 23 July 1939 - the eve of World War II - he served only eighteen months in a parish before becoming chaplain aged 27 to the Fourth Brigade of the Australian Army.

Fr Reis, who was also a cousin of famed World War II photographer, Damien Parer, worked mostly with the 29/46 Battalion and the Fourth Field Ambulance, many of them 19 year-olds from Melbourne inner suburbs, Richmond, Fitzroy and Collingwood, with a contingent from Korumburra as well.

Speaking at his funeral, former colleague, Val Noone, recalled that after one battle, they buried a fallen comrade in a jungle clearing with a crude cross made of tropical wood to mark the spot.

"When they came back that way some weeks later the wood of the cross, fuelled by the moisture and heat of the jungle, had started to sprout. This Con said was one of the best symbols he ever found of the reality of the resurrection to come", Mr Noone said.

For over 50 years, on the first Friday in December, hundreds of men and their families, Catholics, Anglicans, Protestants, Jews, agnostics and atheists gathered for a Requiem Mass with Fr Reis to commemorate the fallen.

In later life, he also gave his support to the movement for nuclear disarmament.

After the war, Fr Reis made his name as diocesan director of Catholic Migration where his pioneering approach to multicultural ministry drew the attention of then Minister for Immigration, Arthur Calwell.

Fr Reis opposed the American example of establishing ethnic parishes for immigrants and supported the view that having Australian parishes with suitable provision of Masses and pastoral services in the appropriate languages was better for the migrants.

In a 1952 talk, he said, "Our own forebears were migrants, it is up to us to make the newcomers feel at home." Quoting Jesus' parable: "I was an outcast and you took me in", he called for the upholding of the Australian value of the "fair go".

As founding parish priest for 20 years in the heavily immigrant parish of Sacred Heart, St Albans, in Melbourne's West, Fr Reis was able to implement his vision of a fair go for all reconciling many former enemies from World War II, who now worshipped side by side, with their children at the same school.

Photo: Blessing foundations of Sacred Heart Church, St Albans, Melbourne

Digger Reis took his ministry to the frontline (Border Mail, 6/10/06)
Fr Con Reis, Keeper of the flame (Eulogy by Val Noone)
Requiem Mass to Celebrate the Life of Fr Con Reis

LINKS (not necessarily endorsed by Church Resources)
Polish Migrants Stories
Dynamic Duo (Kairos, 14/5/06)
St Columba's Elwood
29/46 Battalion
Bishop John Aloysius Morgan (Catholic-Hierarchy)
Damien Parer (Australian War Memorial)
'Parer's last reel' (Australia's War 1939-45)

9 Oct 2006