The late Fr Michael Wheeler, a final year student of Parade College in 1954 and the founding parish priest of St Justin’s Church in Wheeler’s Hill, has been remembered with affection by those with whom he shared close ties for many decades.
News of Fr Wheeler’s recent passing at the age of 82 was conveyed by an old College contemporary, Fr Brian Glasheen, who shared his recollections of a friendship first forged almost 70 years ago.
“We both met up in 1952 when we were classmates in Proficiency at the ‘Old Bluestone Pile’ in East Melbourne. We were together in subsequent years - 1953 in Intermediate and 1954 in Leaving,” Fr Glasheen said this week.
“Mick was a handy footballer. He was part of Parade’s 1st XVIII team of 1954, which also included Sergio Silvagni and John Benetti, and he may also have represented the College in cricket. He also represented Alphington YCW for many years.
“I think Mick left after Leaving and became a Customs Officer, while I carried on and did Matriculation in 1955.”
But the Old Paradians’ pathways would again cross almost ten years later.
“We met up again on February 29, 1964 on the first day of the new year at Corpus Christi Werribee . . . and together we were ordained on May 22, 1971 at St Patrick’s Cathedral, East Melbourne.”
Picking up on this story was Bishop Terry Curtin, who delivered the homily at Fr Wheeler’s recent Requiem Mass at St Justin’s.
“Mick and I met for the first time at Corpus Christi College in 1964 . . . to start our studies and preparation for the priesthood,” Bishop Curtin said in a live webcast of the mass.
“There were so many of us that we had to share rooms for the first two years and he and I were placed together - me, 18, naive and straight from school, and him, 26, coming from full-time work as state secretary of the YCW.
“The move to the seminary and its then monastic routines was not easy. I saw some of that in the length of time Mick spent kneeling beside his bed at the end of the day. At times I found myself thinking, ‘Come on, Mick, get into bed!’.
Bishop Curtin also reinforced Fr Glasheen’s observations of Fr Wheeler’s football prowess.
“He was a good footballer, a rover darting in and out of the pack in games that certainly weren’t for sissies! In later years, he paid the price for this with hip and knee replacements, several times over,” Bishop Curtin said.
“Archbishop Mark Coleridge recalls his favourite memory of ‘Wheels’ as a footy coach for a Theo-Phil match when the theologians played against the philosophers. There was one half-time when we (Theology) were well down and Mick was giving us a blast. Brian Glasheen then appeared with a tray of cups of tea . . . you should have seen the look on Mick’s face and heard the blast he gave ‘Glash’ . . . who then beat a very hasty retreat! (Sorry, Glash, but that had to be told!).”
Ordained in 1971, Bishop Curtin recalled that Fr Wheeler, Fr Glasheen and himself were “children of the Second Vatican Council”.
“In the words of the Council, ‘The joys and hopes, the grief and anguish of the people of our time, especially of those who are poor or afflicted, are the joys and hopes, the grief and anguish of the followers of Christ as well. Nothing that is genuinely human fails to find an echo in their hearts’. Eleven of us remain still active in that ministry,” Bishop Curtin said.
“After ordination the appointments as assistant priest were not always easy, but there were constants that remained throughout coming from his experience and continued involvement with the YCW. The picture of Cardinal Cardijn hung on his wall and there were the continuing bonds of friendship with those who had been with him in the YCW.
“The regular reunions, the New Year’s Eve party down Dromana way were all important. The mark of his ministry was that he had a heart for people. People mattered and they had a dignity and worth that was to be protected and encouraged. And so they found their way to him and they were not forgotten. You as family were important to him and I know chocolates and generous gifts made their way south with him on any visit to ‘Tassie’.”
Then there was Wheelers Hill and Fr Wheeler’s appointment as the founding parish priest of St Justin’s Parish.
“Someone asked me the other day, ‘Was Wheelers Hill named after he went there?’. No, but there surely was some humour in appointing a priest named Wheeler to Wheelers Hill,” Bishop Curtin said.
“At the start there was a small school, a block of land for a church and presbytery and Michael lived up the road in a small unit. He brought to the task a pastor’s zeal and enjoyed the challenge.He was practical and hands on. He also brought to Wheelers Hill his own special gifts; look around and you see them.
“The banner behind the altar has the parish emblem, which surprise, surprise, was also the YCW emblem! Nazareth College, the regional college for the area, was to be established and his support was constant. The presbytery has a large dining room, not for a personal palace, but because it was important to be able to offer hospitality joyfully and generously. ‘Pasta with the Pastor’ was a way to build the parish as a community.”
Bishop Curtin also noted Fr Wheeler’s capacity to encourage the young.
“There will be some watching who remember great trips north along the east coast of Australia. He would still tell stories of those times and was always pleased when paths crossed in later years,” Bishop Curtin said.
“On one of our holidays up north above Cairns we had a big search among the tourist souvenirs at Kuranda to find a sign saying ‘Downunder’; and we did. This was to go on the door of the big room under the presbytery which was for the young people of the parish and youth activities. The presbytery was also a place to welcome seminarians, especially those from overseas who lacked a place to stay during the holidays; though he did discover on one occasion that phone calls home to Myanmar were expensive! Young priests have told me of his ready acceptance and encouragement.As one of our young Vietnamese parish priests said to me, ‘He was inclusive’.”
Mick enjoyed being a priest of the archdiocese, in sharing the company of other priests “and regularly turning up to whatever was on” according to Bishop Curtin.
“There was also a quick wit and sense of humour that he liked to use to keep you on your toes; he loved listening to The Goons,” Bishop Curtin said.
When retirement came to Fr Wheeler, Justin Villa, according to Bishop Curtin, was first seen as a stepping stone until he could find a parish where he could best assist.
“The frustration came with his state of health stopping him from being active and doing things,” he said. “It was important to him when he was able to again celebrate Mass at Justin Villa and be the main celebrant, remarking to me, ‘I think I’m the only one left standing!’.
“To come back to our gospel. Michael Wheeler accepted the call, remained true to it, and lived that ministry of mercy in over forty-nine years of faithful service. All this, of course, brings hope and numbers him and us among those who long for the Lord’s coming, our Saviour who rose from the dead.
“In faith we look forward, not backward. Thomas Merton, the Cistercian monk, put it this way, ‘I think today it’s more important for us to so let God live in us that others may feel God and come to believe in God because they feel how God lives in us’. That’s what I saw in Mick.In God’s love and mercy may that life now flourish to the full in Michael Wheeler, good and faithful priest of the archdiocese of Melbourne.”