Vale: Dom Michael King OSB
Dom Michael King OSB – Father Ernie as I knew him – will be welcomed to the heavenly choir. Ernie was blessed with a beautiful voice and perfect pitch. He could gather a note that had been played 10 or 15 minutes earlier. ‘How can you remember the pitch of a note from the end of the opening hymn to singing the Alleluias for the Gospel?’ I asked him one day. ‘I don’t,’ he said, ‘I hear it reverberating round the building. The last note’s still there.’ And he’s right. You have to learn to listen before you can sing as beautifully as Dom Michael. The angels will love him.
From this Benedictine, I learned my first real lessons in Franciscan poverty and community. It was rumoured that Fr Ernie (as I knew him) had given away to those in need all his stipend, and often much of his clothes, by each month’s end. There was a proto-community of about 15 living in the Fitzroy Vicarage, and only a few of them were working and able to pay their way. Mainly due to Fr Ernie’s generosity and wise cooking there was a nightly feast not just for the resident community but for hangers-on like me.
The most interesting facet of community I learned from Fr Ernie was an endless capacity for failure. Often he would invite newly-released prisoners to join the community as part of their release program. These young men sometimes worked out. On other occasions, their thieving and other anti-social behaviour tested the community to its limits. Fr Ernie believed always that there was hope for them.
On Sundays, Fr Ernie celebrated two large Parish Masses and then served a roast lunch for up to 30 people. He put the meat on before the early Mass, checked it between services. After the second Mass, we would gather in the vicarage’s backyard to drink Cinzano on ice before a long table was set for the meat and roast vegetables.
It wasn’t just the Cinzano: there was always much laughter in the Vicarage, and much mutual caring. When I heard some years later that Fr Michael had set up the community at Camperdown, I wasn’t surprised that he wanted to live in a more structured community. I was surprised only that he left inner-city Melbourne for the rolling downs of prosperous dairy and fat lambs country out of town.
For me, as a student placed for Sundays and three or four weekdays in 1974, Fr Ernie’s parish was an ideal environment to learn what Fr Ernie called ‘Anglo-Catholic’ ministry. I came to love visiting the high-rise social housing with their broken lifts and broken windows and non-functioning playground equipment. Single mothers struggled in those miserable flats. We were, Fr Ernie told me, like Father James Adderley and other early Franciscan priests in 19th Century East London.
I learned the respect Fr Ernie had when I walked around Fitzroy at night in a cassock. The winos and druggies called me ‘Padre’. Without the priestly ‘uniform’, I would most likely have been mugged.
Fr Ernie’s mentoring style was encouraging. He sent me out to the high-rises and the back lanes on my own, but was always ready at the vicarage to debrief and teach. When people came to the vicarage door begging, he kept me with him so I could learn to respond like him with love as well as money to the needy of Fitzroy. Like the pitch of the last note of the previous hymn, ministry for Fr Ernie was about listening to the faint reverberations. He had a sensitivity to pain and need that others easily missed. If you listen, the last note is still sounding.