This story will be told in parts. First the context details, then the homily at his funeral, followed by the rough transcript of a video tape of him speaking about his priestly life on the occasion of his 50th anniversary of priesthood. After that the homily from the local memorial Mass and then my own memories and some of those shared with me during our time of mourning his loss.
The mementos on the casket included a white chasuble, a white stole, his chalice, his rosary beads, a photo of him as a young priest or seminarian, and his divine office – opened at a page with a prayer card of St Mary MacKillop.
For various reasons his good mate, Fr Aub Collins MSC was unable to preside over the funeral, so his ordination classmate Fr Michael Kelly did the honours instead:
'As the Passover drew near, Jesus arranged for His disciples to prepare the table for the Last Supper. There with His apostles He said, 'Take and eat of this, for this is My Body, the new Manna. This is My Blood. This is Me. Now you go and do what I have done.' On His death bed Jesus gave the family of God the gift of the Mass. 'Go out', He told them, 'cure the sick, look after the poor, if they have sinned, give them My forgiveness.' When Cardinal Gilroy ordained us back in 1958 he told us that the same gift has been conferred on you as given to the Apostles. We were commissioned just as they were, to transform bread and wine into Jesus, and then to go out to the poor and the lonely. Fr Bill went out in joy, to go out like Jesus. He wasn't a book man, but he was a prayer man and a Mass man. He prayed through all his apostolates, the jail, other parishes and Woy Woy, first and foremost giving them the Mass. After a recent Mass at Bateau Bay where Fr Bill's death had been announced a lady came up and spoke to me. Years ago her parents were living at Woy Woy, but they had both lapsed in their faith. Now her dad was seriously ill, so she called the presbytery. Within 30 minutes Fr Bill was at her dad's bedside giving him the sacraments and the last rites. That was the kind of man he was, a man for others. I was up there with him some three weeks ago and I anointed him. Then I asked him to anoint me. I asked him, 'Bill, are you ready?' His answer was, 'Well Mick, we are only going to meet the Master.'
In our funeral booklets told us that there would be a slideshow after Communion. What we never expected in a million years was this extraordinary video clip which preceded the slideshow. Who expects the deceased to preach to you at his funeral? Therefore it took a little while for me to stop being gob-smacked and to start the pen moving over the paper, so some of the early detail is missing.
It was a relaxed and happy Fr Bill that we saw. The room where the food and drink part of his 50th ordination celebrations took place had seats around the perimeter for the adults and lots of children in the middle playing happily. May God reward the person who took this video and arranged it such that it felt like Fr Bill was talking directly to the viewer.
It started something like this 'I'm going to tell you a bit about my life as a priest. If you want to listen, that's fine. If you don't, well that's fine too.' And then he did a quintessentially Fr Bill thing, he moved from standing up to getting down at the level of the children, half-reclining on one elbow on the floor. He spoke first about his parents, how his Dad would go and visit the poor every Sunday morning and bring them assistance and how his Mum would go every Friday to visit her housebound mother. From their example and from their faith in God he learned that 'you gotta care for and look after people, especially the sick and the needy'. He decided that the best way to love God and help people was to become a priest. He recalled a day soon after his ordination, at home with his family, when his dad brought in the mail containing the news that he had been appointed to Katoomba parish. Being a Penshurst boy, he had little desire to be sent that far away. But he went, and God blessed him there. From there he was sent to South Hurstville and then to Waitara. It was at Waitara that he experienced the darkest days of his priesthood when his Mum died. Some 10 months after that, his Dad died. Sometime after that one of the Sydney auxiliary bishops (Muldoon?) told him that Cardinal Gilroy wanted to see him. 'O God, what have I done now?' 'No, its not quite like that, I think Gilroy wants to talk to you about doing prison chaplaincy.' So he went to see Gilroy, and Gilroy sent him to serve at Long Bay Jail. Having no clue about how to tackle such an appointment, he contacted Fr John Brosnan 'Brozzie' who was serving as chaplain at Pentridge Prison for advice. It was good advice. 'Don't whatever you do sit on any committees, they're nonsense. Don't ever be critical of the men and women inside. Say to yourself, 'There would I go except for the grace of God'. Just walk around and be friendly with them.' So I did. I would tell them 'Believe in yourself. Believe that you are loved by God and that Christ lives in you. You can choose to live that way, or your old way. How to do it? Act justly, love tenderly and walk humbly with your God.' For all of us, what we've gotta do is to love one another. God loves you, just as you are. We don't take that truth in nearly enough. Remember, you can take nothing with you when you go, except your kindness and concern for others.'
At that point the video clip ceased, and we were heartbroken at missing the rest of the story.
The slideshow was good; it showed Fr Bill as a boy growing up in his family, and the close relationships he kept with his brother and with his sisters all his life. There were lots of photos of him dressed in pre Vatican II clobber and offering Mass the pre Vatican II way. But there were also shots of him relaxing on holidays and doing some mild horsing around, living life to the full with gratitude.
The church of St Declan's Penshurst was full to capacity for Fr Bill's funeral Mass. It says a lot for someone who had been out of circulation for 19 years. It says a lot when many drove over 90 minutes in peak hour traffic on a Friday prior to a long weekend to get there, and many of them were aged under 50.
This fell on the Monday of the long weekend, and we had numbers close to a Sunday Mass attendance. A good many had not been in church much since primary school days, but they came back to pray for Fr Bill and to honour him.
The homily for the Mass by the current parish priest, Fr John 'Jack' Robson, went something like this:
'It is good to see so many here this morning in honour of Fr Bill Meacham. I did not know him well. All I know is hearsay. He was a hardworking priest to this parish. I have been doing school interviews recently, and many of the parents are ex-St John the Baptist students who were at the primary school during Fr Bill's time. He left a deep and lasting impression on them, and on the whole school. Many made their sacraments with him, some he even baptized. The lives of each of us leave an influence on others whether we know it or not. Pondering that is quite humbling. We hope that this influence is for the good, but it is nonetheless true. It brings to mind a time I was walking along the beachfront at Manly when a young mum with three kids came up to talk to me. 'Sir, you haven't changed a bit'. It turns out she was a pupil from my teaching days. I would tell my classes, 'My name is Mr Robson, but you can call me by my first name, which is 'Sir''. This mum said, of all the teachers I had, I remember you most. Fr Bill's influence went beyond anything he could have imagined. Moving the school site from near the church at Woy Woy over to where it now stands was bold and visionary. In 2 years' time there will be three streams of classes from K to 6. It is growing. I do wish that some of that growth would translate to this part of the parish. Fr Phil, Fr Tim and I will keep plugging away, hoping to inspire parents in their faith enough for them to hand the faith on to their children. Fr Bill, servant of God, priest, man, we remember. He was subject to our same frailties, yet he devoted himself and his life to the service of God and to you, the people of this parish.'
Fr Bill was a tall gangly man, who walked with a loping off-centre stride. He had a booming voice, a crooked smile and a heart of gold. He had no time for airs and graces, and many a time his shirt needed tucking in again. After he gave up the 'coffin' nails' (cigarettes) he would walk and walk in his white shirt with the gold crosses on the collar and black trousers. There were lots of 'God luv ya nows' and invitations to trust 'in the good Lord and His blessed Mother'. Homilies were short and pithy, with no highfalutin language.
One parishioner was surprised that one of the hymns for Fr Bill's funeral wasn't the Galilee Song, because one of her strongest memories of him is him processing down the aisle of the church, swinging his arms to the rhythm of the beat and belting out 'So I leave my boats behind, leave them on familiar shores. Set my heart upon the deep, follow you again my Lord.' (The hymns we did have at the funeral were 'Will you love Me?', 'Gentle as Silence', 'Strong and Constant' and 'Here I am Lord', with 'Bridge over troubled water' as background music to the slideshow.)
Another lady of Asian descent spoke movingly of how Fr Bill was a rock for her when her husband was diagnosed with terminal cancer, and her children were still in primary school. He helped her through not only her husband's death, but dealing with life and grief afterwards.
Another mum's life fell totally apart when her teenage son committed suicide. All of us worried at how tempted she was to do the same. But Fr Bill's prayers and support got her through the worst of it and now she's in a place where the light of Jesus beams from her face.
Someone else shared with me 'out of the blue' how much Fr Bill's sense of inclusion meant to her when she was a young mum with children at St John's. At the school Masses he would always particularly welcome the mums who weren't Catholic and made them feel for the time of that Mass that they truly belonged.
Fr Bill could talk to anyone, especially those who were doing it tough. The precursor to Mary Mac's Place was The Cottage where people could drop in for a cuppa or a meal and be accepted without question. Its founders could not have made it happen without the support and inspiration of Fr Bill. The Cottage being next door to the presbytery, he would drop in too for a yarn. He'd sit down next to someone, size up the situation pretty swiftly, join them in conversation and then lean over and say, 'You know being on the turps isn't good for you mate.' Sure enough, in the next week or so that person would find Fr Bill and open up their hearts to him, and find the grace to start changing their lives.
Here's a few comments that were made online about Fr Bill:
One of his signature calls was ' God loves you no matter what.'
He always took time to be present to the school kids, and to remember their names with a 'G'day ……..'.
'What a great man he was! With his gruff manner, when he first arrived at Woy Woy I thought he was sent to the wrong parish. Maybe he should have gone to some country town in the outback. Those thoughts soon passed on. He was the most compassionate priest anybody would ever meet.'
'What lovely childhood memories I have of this man including gathering the children around the altar to tell stories like Jesus did. I often think of him and his gentle loving ways.'
'He was amazing, he was so caring. He made everyone feel special. There will never be another like our Father Bill'.
'Fr Bill was an inspiration to me by way of his living example of humility, compassion, simple lifestyle and living example of a true priest of Christ.'
'The most down to earth Priest I've ever had the pleasure to meet. He will be sadly missed.'
Fr Bill was first and foremost a man of prayer, and a man of prayer that got his people praying too. Before every Mass either Morning Prayer or Evening Prayer was prayed. He wanted that atmosphere of prayer in preparation for Mass. He would join in, and go and get vested as the Benedictus ended. As he sat on the end of a pew, there would often be an interruption from a person seeking a blessing, sharing a confidence or wanting absolution. After morning Mass was the rosary, and he stayed as often as his duties allowed to pray it with his people.
At some point before my time Fr Bill had organized a vocations crusade. He asked everyone to commit to coming to Mass an extra day a month to pray for vocations, and after each Mass we would pray the parish prayer for vocations together. We still do. And people still keep that commitment, one lady I know shows up for her day every 17th of the month. This is that prayer:
Prayer for vocations
Lord Jesus Christ, You said ‘The harvest is great but the labourers are few. So pray to the Lord of the harvest, to send workers into His harvest’. I pray to You now Lord, at this my daily/weekly/monthly Mass for Vocations: In Your gracious goodness, gift our community with worthy Priests and Religious. May those You choose recognise Your call and respond with a generous heart. And may they always remain true to Your name. Fill with Your strength those who serve us now and remind us to encourage them so that by their happy lives, they will inspire others to follow them. Amen.
You won't be surprised to hear that the diocese went through a very dry vocations patch for some 15 years, and that the only young man ordained in that era came from Woy Woy.
We had a parish prayer too, which was prayed at the end of every Sunday Mass. It still gets incorporated every so often into the prayers of the faithful.
Father pour out Your Spirit upon the people of this parish
And grant us a new vision of Your glory
A new experience of Your power
A new faithfulness to Your Word
And a new consecration to Your service
That Your Love may grow among us
And Your Kingdom come
Through Christ our Lord. Amen.
Every 5th Saturday of the month had Morning Mass praying for married couples, and especially for married couples going through rough patches.
Fr Bill was one of those priests that could be seen walking up and down the presbytery driveway or the verandah of the hall praying his breviary.
He was a very good confessor.
He was also well ahead of his time before 'inclusion' was a buzz word. At every Sunday Mass he would always begin by 'welcoming any visitors and people not of our faith.' In the same way he was ahead of his time in putting on an annual Christmas Eve Mass at the parish school, where lots of those who would have felt uncomfortable about going inside a church were happy to come, and the children could sit down the front near the altar and pay as much attention as they were capable of.
Anything that curbed him from helping people as he saw they needed helping (bishop's decisions, bureaucracy, Catholic Schools Office etc) he was impatient with.
Only a few months back there was a parish meeting with our new bishop. He asked us what was good about our parish, and over and over again Fr Bill's name came up as the person who had engaged them in parish life and called forth gifts in them that they hadn't recognized in themselves.
The Rosary Makers who get together each Tuesday morning to pray and to make rosary beads and scapulars probably started in Fr Bill's time too, and he most definitely encouraged them. Only God could count the number of rosaries that have gone off blessed to mission lands abroad and to catechist classes close at hand.
He organized bus loads to go down to Randwick for the beatification of Mary MacKillop in 1995, and kept the spiritual temperature of the parish healthy with parish missions from the Redemptorists and from Fr Aub Collins MSC.
He was generous with practical wisdom too. If a couple came to him preparing for marriage, he'd tell them to start with a simpler honeymoon than they were planning and to go for a better holiday together some 6 months down the track when they'd enjoy it far more after all the initial awkwardness had worn off.
In his time the 50th anniversary of the parish came up. He knew what to do, worked out the parishioners who had the ability to get things done, put them in a room, gave them a few parameters and watched them work out the jobs that needed doing and each one volunteered for the parts that appealed to them. Every fortnight or so until the celebration events were over, the group met to checked in with each other on progress. Never, ever have I seen a team work so well, so productively and so happily as I saw that team do. We had a parish celebration dinner at a local club, a big celebration Mass at the school, a parish history booklet printed, and commemorative bottles of port.
Lest you think it was all roses, there were thorns. One parishioner still goes to sleep by counting curates rather than sheep. The parish needs two fully gung-ho priests for it to hum, and so often Fr Bill would be given someone to work with who was only capable of shouldering 50% of the weight they needed to. There were health issues too, and recovery from a serious car accident. God alone knows what he had to deal with long term after an inmate knifed him in prison. To those close to him he would share the grief he had over the ignoring of his recommendations for choosing which of the teachers on the shortlist who would be best able to help the children. Because he cared what happened to people, he sometimes had to use the whisky bottle to calm down after bureaucratic frustrations. He kept his distance from bishops, and always sent someone else out to welcome them and look after their requirements.
Each of his parishioners knew that they were loved by God, and by him. No one since has yet been able to love the parish into life like he did.
May the Master he served so well, show him the full extent of His Mercy and grant Fr Bill all the eternal rewards he so richly deserves. Amen.
If you knew him (or even if you didn't) and want something to remember him by, here are some bookmarks (below) arranged on an A4 page. You will need 160-210 gsm paper to print them on.
St Mary of the Cross MacKillop, pray for him.