By Natashya Fernandez
“God is much better than we think and people too are much better than we think.”
These were the words that retiring Aid to the Church in Need (ACN) National Director, Phillip Collignon reflected on, spoken by ACN founder, Father Fr Werenfried Van Straaten.
Mr Collignon will next month on 31 December step down from his role as National Director of the international charity which is under papal jurisdiction, after more than three decades.
In an interview with The eRecord, Mr Collignon talks about his time at ACN immediately after the collapse of Communism, some significant milestones during his tenure and why ACN has very much been a family affair.
Mr Collignon said that he will never forget the day he became National Director.
“The day will forever be etched in my memory because it was the day the Berlin Wall came down in 1989. I went for the interview with the newspaper about the Berlin Wall coming down. The Secretary General, who interviewed me and Fr Werenfried van Straaten had been working towards this moment since 1947.
“To me this was a providential moment and back then I didn’t know how significant it was. But looking back now, I was employed virtually the day the Berlin Wall came down. That was quite a moment.
“That was the beginning of my career at such an extraordinary time because the charity went into a whole different mode with the collapse of Communism – we had to help rebuild the Church,” Mr Collignon said.
With a small benefactor base back then, Mr Collignon said that he slowly started growing the charity through advertising, as well as broadcasting the need to help rebuild the Church after 70 years of Communism.
While he was no novice to the charity, even then, he said, ACN was very much a family affair when his father John took over the work in Australia on a voluntary basis, in 1968. After his father’s death in 1976, his sister Ann stepped in until 1990.
“The charity was introduced to the family by Nobertine Priest Fr Coenen in 1963, who at that time was the Chaplain to the Catholic Dutch Migrant Association.
“Back then, the charity was known as Iron Curtain Church Relief and the whole family helped out with admin jobs and the dispatch of the Mirror newsletter, which is still around today.
“By 1968, the charity was in the process of changing its name to Aid to the Church in Need and that was the start of the Collignon’s family involvement in the work,” he said.
While it was run voluntarily till 1990, when Mr Collignon took over as a full time Director, it was his responsibility to spread the work of ACN throughout Australia.
His first task was to move out of their family home and find an office with more space to accommodate the growth of the work.
Since then, the charity has grown tremendously, but that didn’t come without challenges, Mr Collignon said, the first of many was to grow the benefactor base and to increase donations.
“It was easier then to get donations than now because the charity market has exploded and there are thousands more charities out there than when I first started.
“Today, ACN is the largest pastoral charity in the world with a very loyal benefactor base. The three main anchors to our work, which our benefactors love, are that we are loyal to the teachings of the Catholic Church, loyal to the Pope and have a devotion to Our Lady, as our charity is consecrated to Our Lady of Fatima.
“We tell our stories through the press and adverts, and our most successful fundraising tool is still our Mirror newsletter which our benefactors receive. It’s not wishy washy, we talk about Catholic principals and teachings and our benefactors always know what to expect.
“We are rather unique in the charity world as donations to ACN are not tax deductible so giving a donation to help our work is a real sacrifice. The ATO recognises us as a charity for the enhancement of religion and on those grounds we are not eligible for tax deductibilty. Our benefactors know that and are still happy to give,” Mr Collignon explained.
Going on to further talk about the projects and areas the charity works and helps out in, Mr Collignon said that their main aim is to help the pastoral needs of the Church.
“So our main projects will include training of seminarians, construction, religious formation of the laity, the formation of priests and religious, transportation such as boats, cars, motorbikes, donkeys etc. One very important aspect of our work is to support poor priests overseas with Mass offerings. Last year ACN distributed over 1.4 million Mass offerings to assist over 43,000 priets in need.
“We also have 30 per cent of our budget go to construction and we also put a lot of time and effort into refugee and emergency aid, particularly in light of what’s happened to the Christians of Iraq and Syria since 2014.
“When the Christians of Iraq were forced from their homes in Mosul and their villages in the surrounding Nineveh Plains, the donations to ACN increased tremendously. It was quite an amazing response,” he added.
With 22 offices worldwide and an income of over 129 million Euros last year, Mr Collignon said that despite the funds that come in, sometimes they have to turn down 100s of genuine project requests.
“It’s hard. Our headquarters in Germany have to assess the need and they look at the pastoral aspects of the work and have to prioritise some over the others.”
With countless stories and milestones under his belt, a significant moment Mr Collignon said was early on in his career when he had the most memorable moment in 1991.
“I had the privilege of going back to Ukraine and witnessing first-hand the revival of the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church which was forced underground by Communism.
“About six million of these so-called non-existent Ukrainian Greek Catholics came out from the underground to rebuild their Church. It was my first year in the job and to actually be part of that historical event was very moving.”
Stepping down at the end of 2017, Mr Collignon said that he leaves with mixed emotions – joy and sadness.
“Sadness because after nearly 50 years, the Collignon family will be standing down from its leadership role of the charity. Joy in the fact that I will now have more quality time to spend with my family.
“I think the 50th year of the Collignon’s involvement with the leadership of the charity is the right time for change. You have to have faith that the successor will carry on the role.”
With words of wisdom and advice for his successor, Mr Collignon wishes the new Director success as they take on the charity.
“The legacy that I would like to leave behind is our loyal benefactor base who will pray and continue to support us financially in the important and unique pastoral work we for the poor and persecuted Church
“I pray the new director will continue the good work that is already being done in making the plight of the poor and persecuted Church better known throughout Australia and the world,” he concluded.
To know more about ACN and to subscribe to their Mirror newsletter, visit www.aidtochurch.org