The real problem for any obituary of Monsignor Sean O’Shea, possibly the most beloved priest of the archdiocese who died on December 7 and whose remains were buried beside his own beloved Holy Trinity Church on Rottnest Island on December 18, is knowing where to start.
“He was a joy-filled, dedicated priest who touched the lives of people deeply and, because of his engaging character, seems to have been known outside the Church almost as widely as he was within the Church,” said former Vicar General Monsignor Brian O’Loughlin, whose own journey to the priesthood was guided in the beginning by the seemingly ever-happy Irish priest.
It was a measure of the real and widespread community affection that when it came to organising Mgr O’Shea’s funeral, one which required ocean transport and special permissions, doors opened everywhere.
One of the clauses in the codicil attached to Mgr O’Shea’s will requested the Rottnest Express ferry, which had carried him on numerous occasions to and from Rottnest for his chaplaincy duties.
Mgr O’Shea had also spent ten years living on the Island as chaplain and his love for the historic site had given him a desire to be buried there.
When Mgr O’Loughlin and those involved in executing Mgr O’Shea’s will contacted Rottnest Express ferry services, the company spontaneously offered their flagship ferry for the exclusive use of transporting the Monsignor’s remains to the Island for the burial, together with mourners.
The burial also required the permission of both the Rottnest Island Authority and the Minister for Local Government to be buried outside a cemetery.
Mgr O’Shea had already dug his own grave beside Holy Trinity Church, having learned from a lifetime of presiding at funerals the importance of shoring up a grave with timber.
Some time later, he discovered his work was being consumed by white ants so he repaired the grave, this time constructing it as a brick-lined vault.
Mgr O’Loughlin had known the Irish Monsignor since childhood. In November 1955 he was a small boy whose brothers were already serving Mgr O’Shea’s masses in North Fremantle.
The following year he made his First Communion and joined Mgr’OShea’s team of altar servers. It was Mgr O’Shea who taught him the Latin Mass and the precise rubrics that accompany it.
Years later, when he was discerning his own vocation to the priesthood, it was Mgr O’Shea to whom he turned for advice and the Monsignor pointed him to Fr John O’Reilly at St Charles seminary in Guildford.
Mgr O’Shea also established the St Brendan’s Sea Scouts and Cubs, of which the future Mgr O’Loughlin was a member.
Later, as a student at CBC Fremantle, the young Brian O’Loughlin and fellow students would assist Mgr O’Shea as he visited the ships in Fremantle harbour and their seafarers.
“I think the secret of Monsignor O’Shea was his engaging personality, his gripping stories and his infectious laugh. And when you put all those things together, people just warmed to him,” Mgr O’Loughlin told The Record in an interview after Mgr O’Shea’s funeral.
“I said to Monsignor ‘how do I know whether this is my idea or God’s design?’ and his answer was simply ‘you go to the seminary and you discern it.’ … So he was a mentor.”
Mgr O’Loughlin said priests of the archdiocese regarded him with universal affection. “What you saw was what you got.”
However, what was interesting was his impact on the younger clergy of the archdiocese.
These looked forward every year to the clergy renewal in May each year for a week in Shoalwater and the annual diocesan retreat.
One of the characteristics they would look forward to was hearing his hearty laugh and being regaled with his stories and true life accounts; many saw him as a model for their own vocation.
“I think he just exuded the pastoral life and was the epitome of being a good shepherd to his flock …”
Today, Mgr O’Loughlin’s own annual work as a cruise ship chaplain all over the globe can also be traced back to his years as a teenager, visiting ships from all over the world in Fremantle harbour accompanying the young Fr O’Shea in his pastoral care of seafarers.
Among those paying tribute to Mgr O’Shea were two Archbishops:
Archbishop Timothy Costelloe delivered the homily at the requiem for Mgr O’Shea in St Mary’s cathedral which was attended by clergy from around the archdiocese.
The Monsignor could be summarised by the qualities St Paul had extolled to the first Christians living in Rome, he said:
“Monsignor O’Shea, like every one of us, was not perfect and no doubt has had his own share of failings, of mistakes and of sinfulness. As a man of faith and the Church he would not want us to canonise him too quickly,” he told mourners.
“Through our prayers we entrust him into God’s hands, confident in God’s mercy and deep compassion. We know that he is not beyond the reach of our prayerful help. And so we pray that his sins might be forgiven and that he might enter into the fullness of life
promised to all those who give their lives to Christ. We also entrust him to the prayers of Mary, the mother of the Church. At communion time we will sing one of his favourite hymns – Hail Queen of Heaven – and in that hymn we will ask Mary to pray for the wanderer, to pray for the sinner, to pray for us, to pray for Monsignor O’Shea.
Sean O’Shea was born on September 13, 1925 in Tullaher, County Clare, Ireland.
He was educated in Bansha National School, Christian Brothers College Kilrush, Co Clare; the African Missions College, Kilcolgan and All Hallows College, Dublin.
He was ordained on 12 June 1955 for the Archdiocese of Perth and arrived in Fremantle on November 12, 1955.
He was preceded to Western Australia by five of his father’s cousins who were among the pioneering St John of God Sisters in the-then remote Kimberley and who became known in the Order as ‘the Greene Sisters.’
His sister, Sr Anna Maria O’Shea, had already arrived in Western Australia on December 20, 1939 and entered the Sisters of Mercy.
Fr Sean O’Shea was assistant priest in North-East Fremantle which included the Royal Australian Navy Junior Training Centre, from November 1955 until March 1960 when he was appointed to the staff of St Mary’s Cathedral.
On August 7, 1961, he was appointed Director of the Stella Maris Seafarers’ Centre as well as Port Chaplain in Fremantle which included pastoral care of Rottnest Island.
In August 1967, he was appointed National Director of the Apostleship of the Sea and embarked upon visitation of Seafarers’ centres around the Australian coast.
This was at a time when Moscow and Beijing-line Communist Party members had largely achieved control of the maritime and dockers unions around the country in preparation for a political situation that could be deemed revolutionary.
All were deeply hostile to the Catholic Church and its personnel.
In the early 1970’s Father O’Shea approached Archbishop Goody, pointing out that Sunday Mass on Rottnest Island was being celebrated in a World War II era hut, and proposed the building of a church on the island reserve with a priest’s flat attached.
This is the only privately owned accommodation on the island. The Church was dedicated to the Holy Trinity on Trinity Sunday 1975.
In the 1980’s he met a community of Thai Carmelites who were ready to ‘found’ a new Community, and so Fr O’Shea introduced the Sisters to Bishop McKeon who sponsored them to come to Gelorup, in the Diocese of Bunbury.
During his term as National Director of the Apostleship of the Sea in the 1980’s he circumnavigated Australia by road and visited 69 ports to acquaint the respective Parish Priests with the needs of visiting seafarers, many of whom were Catholic Goans from India or from the Philippines.
Until a visit from Monsignor O’Shea many of these priests had never considered that the seafarers on their doorsteps needed any pastoral care.
In July 1983, he extended the services of the Stella Maris Centre to provide accommodation for seafarers discharged from hospital or waiting to join a ship.
The US Navy’s Pacific Seventh Fleet famously came to his rescue when the Carillion of bells for the Holy Trinity Church arrived.
The issue for Fr O’Shea was that there was no crane on Rottnest Island capable of erecting the bells and it would have been prohibitively expensive to bring one from the mainland.
Whilst the US Navy was in port, he acquainted the on-board Chaplain with his predicament, and pointed out that one of the Navy helicopters might be equal to the task.
“No problem” said the Chaplain who placed the matter before the Admiral who readily agreed that a Navy helicopter would lift the boxes containing the Carillion; flew them the thirteen miles to the Island, where the Navy servicemen rappelled from the helicopter and installed the Carillion.
He worked for the Pontifical Commission between 1987-1989 when he accepted an invitation from the Australian Bishops Conference to respond to the request of the Pontifical Commission for Migrants and ‘People on the Move’, to serve on the English Desk and organise an International Congress of the Apostleship of the Sea.
During this time he was appointed a Prelate of Honour by His Holiness Pope John Paul II.
On April 8, 1994, Mgr O’Shea was appointed Parish Priest of Mosman Park while continuing as Director of the Stella Maris Centre that included pastoral care of Rottnest Island.
On June 12, 1995 he was honoured with an OAM in the Queen’s Birthday List for ‘Services to the Community’, particularly as Port Chaplain of Fremantle.
For his service in the Archdiocese, to the Apostleship of the Sea throughout Australia and to the Universal Church on the Pontifical Commission for Migrant and Itinerant People, Monsignor O’Shea was awarded the papal medal Croce pro Ecclesia et Pontifice (Cross for the Church and the Pontiff) in 2009. After a rich and fulfilling life Monsignor O’Shea eventually retired from fulltime ministry in 2012.
However Monsignor O’Shea is not the first Irish presence to be comemorated in the grounds of Holy Trinity Church on Rottnest Island.
When older monumental works were being removed from Karakatta Cemetery in order to extend its life, Mgr O’Loughlin – then parish priest of Claremont – had removed the tombstone of Fr Joseph O’Hara, an Irish priest ordained with Mgr O’Loughlin in June 1955 but who tragically drowned with three Presentation Sisters in the Mandurah Estuary in January 1959.
He contacted Mgr O’Shea to tell him the tombstone was available and the Monsignor jumped at the opportunity to have it set in the grounds of Holy Trinity chapel on Rottnest.
In a very real sense the two Irish classmates remain united as they await the certainty of the Resurrection and that, many would agree, is a nice touch.