In the 90s I had the privilege of living at St Mary’s College, University of Melbourne, where Michael Elligate was our chaplain. Michael’s thought-provoking sermons and the intellectually radical Loreto women who led our community had a profound influence on our generation. At that precious time in life when identity, meaning and beliefs are volatile, we had no idea how much erudite, subversive theology we were ingesting daily in their fine company. And so, we happily wandered across campus to St Carthage’s on Sundays at 5pm, to what quickly became an essential part of our lives: an hour in Michael’s presence amid a congregation where ideas were alive, resonant, passionate.
Before female, lay leadership in the church was a topic of common conversation, Jane Kelly and Michael suggested I might give the sermon at our St Mary’s Day Mass one year. They didn’t quite call it that of course. Many times, we watched rules negotiated, graciously stepped around or deftly challenged; these were people who made sure that quiet voices and perspectives were given space and dignity, often in spite of institutions.
Home from Europe after years studying, I landed back in Melbourne, determined to devote days and nights to making music, whatever it took. Undoubtedly the right professional decision, but economically disastrous in those early days! Quietly, unobtrusively, Michael became a patron, inviting me to play regularly at 5pm Mass, paid of course. And so, I learnt to shape choices of repertoire to context, to play with devotion in the service of a community of faith. In doing so, I joined a procession of musicians, poets, dreamers of all kinds who Michael befriended and supported, as we each tried to make a way through life with our gentle, unworldly ideas.
Both runners, for years Michael and I passed one another in the early morning shadows –– a wave, and the silent communion of people going about their daily meditation. I still run those same beloved routes, and often think of him there. We know from recent tragedies that safe passage is not always granted to innocent women in public places. For a time, I suspect that stopped many of us running. Now around those parks I carry the thought of Michael and other spiritual guardians close, and even though it doesn’t change the statistics or bring those young women back, it has made it mentally possible to return to those places.
A long while after I’d stopped practising any kind of formal religion, Michael was the priest I called as my cousin was dying of an overdose. His voice and thoughts were profound condolence. And years later, his was the church that hosted a funeral for another young man, also gone before his time to drugs. That fragile, outsider community were welcomed, held for a moment by the grace of ritual and kindness before disappearing back into precarious existences.
Church as sanctuary, refuge for the vulnerable; community as a place to articulate, debate and live honourable beliefs; spiritual leaders as exemplary humans. These ideas have been so badly shattered in recent times. It’s of great solace to know they live and flourish in Michael.