By Caroline Smith
For Father Marcellinus Meilak, the 50th anniversary of his ordination into the priesthood on the 11 March, passed like any other day – with a Mass in his residential Chapel and a low-key celebration at the Maltese Club in Bassendean, surrounded by friends and parishioners whom he has known during his 24 years in Perth.
The 76-year-old Franciscan of the Order of the Friars Minor (OFM) celebrated his anniversary last month, having been ordained in Valetta, Malta, in 1967.
Later that year, he arrived in Adelaide to begin what was to be decades of service in parishes across Australia.
Reflecting on his decision to join the Franciscans, he said it was largely influenced by his childhood in Libya in the years during, and following World War II, when priests from the Franciscan Order helped to rebuild the country and re-establish its inhabitants, many of whom were returning to Libya after being taken prisoner of war, with Fr Meilak and his family among them.
“We were in a Franciscan parish in Tripoli, and the Franciscans helped us; they helped everyone, so their example was terrific, and I could see that St Francis was there, working in them….inspiring them.
“We were so grateful for their help because we had nothing after the war – everything was gone. Our home was gone, the family bakery was gone. We only had the clothes we were wearing.
“We slept on the floor of the Church, sometimes,” he said.
“I thought to myself, ‘That’s what I want to be – I want to help other people. I want to be like them’.”
Upon arrival in Australia, Fr Meilak was appointed to the Parish of Lockleys in South Australia and soon made use of his language skills, acting as Chaplain to various communities, including the Italian and Maltese communities in Adelaide, Victoria and later, the Parish of Midland in the Archdiocese of Perth.
“In South Australia, the Italian and Maltese communities didn’t have anyone to say Mass for them, so we started that, and we had dances and other fun activities for them,” he said.
“At that time, as migrants, many were learning English…some had no English skills at all, so to hear Mass in their native languages was of great comfort to them.
“I would say, today, that this is still the case. I find that the young populations I first ministered to all those years ago are now grandparents.
“I find that some lapse back into the mother-tongue, so to communicate with parishioners in their language is still as relevant today, as it ever was.”
“From Lockleys in South Australia, I was appointed to Box Hill in Victoria.
“Again, there was a big Italian community; they needed a priest who spoke Italian, so the process repeated itself.
“I offered Mass in Italian, helped them form social clubs and offered activities, to help them feel at home and comfortable in their new country. We organised community processions with statues of Our Lady; we had elderly and senior people getting together, going on picnics and other outings.”
When Fr Meilak was told in late 1992 that he would be moving to Western Australia, he was surprised by the news, but upon arrival, learned to adapt to the new surroundings.
“It was a shock for me because all the friars, all my friends, used to tell me about Western Australia – about how far away it was! How remote it was. Then I learned I was coming here,” he said.
“On arrival, I was a supply priest for St Brigid’s Parish in Collie for two months.
“I thought I was in heaven because it was so much quieter than Melbourne, where I’d been so very busy. But, I saw the needs of the people there, too. So, although I had a shock, coming to Western Australia, I got used to the place, the people, and I can say that my 24 years here in Western Australia, have been very rewarding.’
Fr Meilak began his ministry in Midland in early 1993, where he spent seven years as Assistant Parish Priest. Here, he helped to organise the Italian social group ‘Circolo’, which, to this day, still brings people together for morning Mass, lunch and leisure activities such as card playing and bingo in the parish hall.
It was during his time in Midland that Fr Meilak began to have trouble with his sight, beginning with an unfortunate operation for glaucoma which led to the loss of vision in his left eye.
“I was having problems with one eye, and my doctor told me I had to have an operation,” he said.
“The day after the operation, I was in great pain. For five weeks after that, I visited him and he told me it was getting better. But I was in so much pain and it was ignored. One day I said: ‘Doctor, I’m sorry but I think I need a second opinion.”
Upon visiting another doctor, Fr Meilak was told that he had a detached retina and a haemorrhage – all of which was beyond help. His sight was destroyed in that eye.
Fr Meilak was initially told his vision might require him to retire to a nursing home at the age of 53, but with the help of then Midland Parish Secretary, Liz Jones, he was able to continue his work. He continues his ministry, in its various ways, with her help to this day.
“She typed all my Masses in Italian, English, Maltese, Latin…whatever, in increasingly large fonts, so I was able to continue to read with my right eye,” he said.
“If she was not here, I could not say Mass or funerals, or do any of the things I did….or still do.
“In this last year I have had three operations on my right eye. The unfortunate consequence is that I lost the sight in my right eye. But, this does not stop me – I continue in various ways, in my ministry as a priest….to serve the Lord.”
Fr Meilak continued to work in Midland, helping it transition from its initial ministry by the Franciscan Order, to an Archdiocesan priest in 2000.
During his time at the Parish, Fr Meilak also served as Chaplain at a variety of hospitals and many nursing homes, including Swan Districts Hospital and then Mercy Hospital in Mt Lawley (now St John of God), and was Chaplain to the Our Lady of the Missions nuns in Highgate.
His commitment to the Italian and Maltese communities has also continued, and he remains Chaplain to these groups today.
Reflecting on his life as a priest, Fr Meilak says the founder of his order, St Francis of Assisi, has been a major influence in everything he’s done.
“I think Francis is alive in us Franciscans; he gives us his spirit,” he said.
“There is a story about how St Francis spoke to some boys who were needing some food. They went out and came back and said: “No-one gave us anything.” St Francis advised them to go out again, but say: “In the name of Jesus, can you give us some food.” They came back with much food, and St Francis told them: “You need to bring Jesus into everything you do.”
“That was a good example – and it encouraged me. Jesus is the centre of my universe – and my Founder, St Francis of Assisi, translated our Lord for me in a myriad of ways. I can only hope that I have touched the lives of others in some way – brought Jesus to them; brought his love and friendship to them.
“There is a poem I often reflect on. It is called ‘The Road Not Taken’ by Robert Frost (1874-1963).
“It is a simple poem, and the image of two roads is clear for me. The idea of choices changing your life for ever, made this poem a favourite of mine. I made my choice 50 years ago – it changed my life for ever. I took what I thought was the road less travelled…and to me, it has made all the difference.”