20 May 2024

A man and tome of many chapters

FR JEFF FOALE headshot new.jpg

The Southern Cross | May 2024

Last month was a particularly busy one for Passionist priest Fr Jeff Foale as he celebrated not only his 91st birthday but the launch of a book at the Vietnamese Catholic Community – a project he worked on for nine years.

Pierre Lambert de la Motte: The Father of Modern Missions is the story of the man who became the first Bishop of Vietnam, a country close to Fr Jeff’s heart and the place he now calls home.

“When I discovered the biography of Bishop La Motte in French I was hooked and set out to translate it in my spare time,” Fr Jeff (pictured) explained during a relaxed chat with The Southern Cross at The Monastery.

“I felt that the world needed to know the dramatic story of this steadfast visionary leader and lover of the Cross, who generously carried his own cross.

“At times it seemed like the translation from French to English was going to take forever, and it almost did!”

Many would consider taking on a project of that magnitude in your eighties to be slightly ambitious, however after spending some time chatting to the man who grew up on a farm near Pinnaroo, it is clear he has always been up for a challenge.

The fourth child and oldest boy in a strong Catholic family of 10 children – with the late Sr Marie Foale RSJ the oldest – Fr Jeff said life on the farm was hard but faith was central to their existence.

“We actually didn’t see much of Pinnaroo… growing up in the war years we only had enough petrol to get to town twice a month for Mass,” he said.

At 12 his life took a new direction when he “suddenly decided” to be a priest.

He completed secondary school in Sydney with the Passionists and took his first vows in 1953.

On March 8 1958 he was ordained a priest in Adelaide, taking on the religious name of ‘Fr Cletus’ and later reverting to ‘Fr Jeff’.

“The only thing Passionists ever dreamed of was preaching missions, so I was trained to preach missions,” he said.

His first year as a priest was spent training in writing sermons and public speaking. He preached missions around Australia, then volunteered with delight for the new Passionist Mission to begin in New Guinea, arriving in January 1961.

Over the next decade he established the Catholic Church’s presence in three locations, with Stone Age people under very harsh physical conditions.”

“The level of communication was utterly minimal, dealing with many different languages, but I would say Mass every day and soon set up a school and an aid post,” he said.

“I never imagined that I would do anything else in my life but I burnt out big time. It took me years to recover.”

The physical toll was due in part to his personal involvement in helping to build four airstrips in the remote locations. While three were “simple”, the fourth was a major undertaking.

“Thanks to Australian Catholic relief I was able to buy a tractor delivered in bits by the Mission Cessna to the nearest airfield 14 kilometres away,” he explained.

“With incredible effort, the men of Kamberatoro carried it to us through the jungle. A volunteer mechanic came in and put it back together, adding a bulldozer blade. For a whole year a Dutch volunteer and I drove it every daylight hour until planes could land. 

“In each of the places I served, I designed and built churches, classrooms, medical aid posts and houses, all made of raw unsawn timber straight from the forest, by totally untrained workers under my leadership. I taught them how to do truss roofs and was pleased to see that every house in each village was later constructed in that way.”

There are many fond memories of his time in PNG but one in particular led to the next phase of his ministry.

In the middle of the huge effort to build the Kamberatoro airstrip close to the Dutch border (later the Indonesian border), a party of 80 people walked onto the mission “looking very dusty, hungry and exhausted”.

“They were refugees, and they were running for their lives,” Fr Jeff said.

“I sheltered them in the mission school and we fed them. Then I walked to a neighbouring village for Mass, only to be devastated on my return next day to find that, on orders from Australian authorities, those unfortunates had been marched back across the border into the arms of the very people they had been escaping from.

“That planted something in me. That’s why I got involved with refugees here in Adelaide.”

Back in Australia and after regaining his health, Fr Jeff returned to Adelaide to look after the retreat house at The Monastery.

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