First published on 7 Oct 2011. Updated on 14 Jun 2012.
Father Bob Maguire remembers the exact moment he first laid eyes on his church. “Beautiful, I said to myself. What in the name of God have I done to deserve this church? It was Saturday, 14th of September, 1973. Seven o’clock at night.” And today, 38 years later, that’s still where you’ll find him.
Father Bob was commissioned by the Catholic Church at the age of 26. He had no family to rely on - something he now waves away with a dismissive “it’s a sad story and all the rest of it” - and thought the church would keep him out of harm’s way. “It’s not a very pious idea of a calling to the priesthood,” he admits, “but it’s mine.”
After serving as a chaplain during the Vietnam War, Father Bob returned home to become the Parish priest of Saint Peter and Paul’s in South Melbourne. “And that,” he says, with the sarcasm he uses for anything that might be considered pretentious, “is history.”
In the nearly four decades he’s spent in South Melbourne, Father Bob has witnessed the neighbourhood change around him. When he arrived, what he calls “social engineering” had stripped away the church’s congregation, sending them fleeing to the suburbs. Through a focus on community work, there is now a synergy between those gentrifying the area, those in nearby public housing, and other churchgoing Catholics. “We knew people when they were 15, and now we know them when they’re 45. There’s a continuum of involvement. There’s an understanding. A shared story.”
The church visits hospitals, courts, and morgues. It provides scholarships for students and it feeds people in the parish house. Father Bob deliberately avoids hanging around during meals, however, in case anyone thinks the food is somehow contingent on his approval. And he’s never shied away from a fight if he thought it worth fighting. “The old battles were us defending our clients against drug traffickers. We lost 40 in the '80s. Their names are on a plaque out in the garden. I hope it stays there forever.”
But an unexpected new stage in his ministry began the day he discovered John Safran lurking inside his church. “He was obviously spying,” says Father Bob affectionately, “as he spends most of his life doing.” Father Bob was convinced to appear on the irreverent TV series John Safran Vs. God and soon the pair ended up bantering on triple j radio together. While this confused some of his fellow clerics - because, as Father Bob patiently explains, they have no sense of humour - he sees his profile as a way to offset the “toxic footprint” of other church scandals.
Despite his habit of referring to everyone as “comrade”, Father Bob isn’t interested in revolution. He regularly (and publically) argues with Catholic authorities, but he’s determined to fight from within. In 2009, when word spread that he’d been ordered to retire at age 75, the community rallied around him - or tried to, anyway. “I stopped them rallying!” says Father Bob. “I’m an institution man, but I’m unconventional. I think that’s what Catholicism is at its best: ‘unconvenstitutional’.”
1953 Enters the Roman Catholic Training College at age 18
1960 Commissioned by the church
1969 Joins the army, leading the Character Training Unit for young officers
1973 Comes to St Peter and Paul’s as Parish Priest
1978 Founds the national homeless youth organisation Open Family Australia
1989 Receives the Order of Australia for his work with street children
2003 Founds the Father Bob Maguire Foundation
2004 Appears on John Safran Vs. God
2006 Co-presents Sunday Night Safran on triple j
2011 Is named Victorian of the Year