Vale Dom Michael King OSB (Fr Ernie)

Dom Michael. Photo Courtesy ABC Radio

Vale: Dom Michael King OSB

Dom Michael King OSB – Father Ernie as I knew him – will be welcomed to the heavenly choir. Ernie was blessed with a beautiful voice and perfect pitch. He could gather a note that had been played 10 or 15 minutes earlier. ‘How can you remember the pitch of a note from the end of the opening hymn to singing the Alleluias for the Gospel?’ I asked him one day. ‘I don’t,’ he said, ‘I hear it reverberating round the building. The last note’s still there.’ And he’s right. You have to learn to listen before you can sing as beautifully as Dom Michael. The angels will love him.

From this Benedictine, I learned my first real lessons in Franciscan poverty and community. It was rumoured that Fr Ernie (as I knew him) had given away to those in need all his stipend, and often much of his clothes, by each month’s end. There was a proto-community of about 15 living in the Fitzroy Vicarage, and only a few of them were working and able to pay their way. Mainly due to Fr Ernie’s generosity and wise cooking there was a nightly feast not just for the resident community but for hangers-on like me.

The most interesting facet of community I learned from Fr Ernie was an endless capacity for failure. Often he would invite newly-released prisoners to join the community as part of their release program. These young men sometimes worked out. On other occasions, their thieving and other anti-social behaviour tested the community to its limits. Fr Ernie believed always that there was hope for them.

On Sundays, Fr Ernie celebrated two large Parish Masses and then served a roast lunch for up to 30 people. He put the meat on before the early Mass, checked it between services. After the second Mass, we would gather in the vicarage’s backyard to drink Cinzano on ice before a long table was set for the meat and roast vegetables.

It wasn’t just the Cinzano: there was always much laughter in the Vicarage, and much mutual caring. When I heard some years later that Fr Michael had set up the community at Camperdown, I wasn’t surprised that he wanted to live in a more structured community. I was surprised only that he left inner-city Melbourne for the rolling downs of prosperous dairy and fat lambs country out of town.

Fr Michael is remembered by the secular press for his work at the monastery.

For me, as a student placed for Sundays and three or four weekdays in 1974, Fr Ernie’s parish was an ideal environment to learn what Fr Ernie called ‘Anglo-Catholic’ ministry. I came to love visiting the high-rise social housing with their broken lifts and broken windows and non-functioning playground equipment. Single mothers struggled in those miserable flats. We were, Fr Ernie told me, like Father James Adderley and other early Franciscan priests in 19th Century East London.

I learned the respect Fr Ernie had when I walked around Fitzroy at night in a cassock. The winos and druggies called me ‘Padre’. Without the priestly ‘uniform’, I would most likely have been mugged.

Fr Ernie’s mentoring style was encouraging. He sent me out to the high-rises and the back lanes on my own, but was always ready at the vicarage to debrief and teach. When people came to the vicarage door begging, he kept me with him so I could learn to respond like him with love as well as money to the needy of Fitzroy. Like the pitch of the last note of the previous hymn, ministry for Fr Ernie was about listening to the faint reverberations. He had a sensitivity to pain and need that others easily missed. If you listen, the last note is still sounding.

Author: Ted Witham

Husband and father, Grandfather.Franciscan, writer and Anglican priest.

18 thoughts on “Vale Dom Michael King OSB (Fr Ernie)”

  1. Ted

    I wonder if you were the student who kindly filled in in the unforeseen absence of our organist at our wedding on 28 August 1974 at St Mark’s Fitzroy? If so, we would like to thank you!

    There is an interesting story there, but better shared verbally!

    What a coincidence – that our dear friend should depart this life on our fortieth Wedding Anniversary!

    Ernie was deaconed by my maternal uncle, Hector Gordon Robinson, Bishop of Riverina.

    I first came to know him at St Peter’s Eastern Hill, where I sang in the choir. I was among a small group of friends who ‘hung out’ with him, but not one of his inner circle.
    Our friendship continued socially and at St Mark’s, and for a very short time I did a bit of typing for him. Time slips by, and apart from a couple of brief visits to Camperdown, we drifted apart.

    To take a different tack, I was a Franciscan Tertiary for almost twenty years, but withdrew in 2011.

    Pax et bonum, Helen Barnard

    1. Dear Helen,
      I recognised your name from the Third Order list. I’m sorry you withdrew, but I’m sure you had good reasons. Our life journeys do change, and sometimes it’s important to know when things have ended.

      It’s quite likely I played at your wedding, as I did fill in on a number of occasions. I look back with some embarrassment, as I played for your wedding and others without time for practice, and the result was less than professional! It’s indeed a small world.

      Congratulations on 40 years of marriage!

      Peace and joy


  2. I first met Fr King when he came as the Parish Priest to the Hillston Anglican Church. There were times when I was his alter boy. It must have been more than fifty years ago. I think the last time we were in contact he told me of Brother Placid’s 50th year since his profession. I knew Brother Placid as we were at SSM’s college those years ago. Placid went of to Nashdom at the time. It was a surprise and shock to learn of his passing. Those who knew him will remember him well.

  3. You don’t have any old photos of dear Father Michael when he was at St Marks Fitzroy e.g celebrating Mass,etc

    Can you remember how many were in the community when they moved to Camperdown?

    Father Michael was a very kind priest and monk.He is missed.

    1. Chris, sadly no. I’ve never been a photographer, and I like to rely on my memory. I’m not sure who could help you with photos of Fr Michael, but it is possible that the Sisters at the Community of the Holy Name may have some photos. During the 70s they had a house in the parish and worked closely with Fr Michael.

      When I left Melbourne, there were about 16 or 17 living in the house, but whether you would say they were members of the community or not, I’m not sure. Fr Michael deliberately kept the house inclusive, so anyone staying there was part of everything that happened. There were probably only 4 or 5 really core members. WHen they moved to Camperdown, I was long back in Perth, and I think there were only 4 in the original community at Camperdown, but I could easily be wrong on that.

      Father Michael was indeed an extraordinarily generous man in every way. I was glad that I was able to catch up with him many years later when we both serving on the same committee.

  4. Thank’s I will contact the sisters.Do you have any idea when Father Michael started to have heart troubles and had bypass operations?

    Yes,he was a man of True Faith.

  5. Thank you so much for your replies to my questions.As a matter of interest,you said in those early days Father Michael said two Sunday Masses at St Mark’s Fitzroy.About how many lay-people attended on a Sunday and during the week.Did any other priests help out.Did you ever keep the early editions of the monastery newsletter from Camperdown?God bless,Chris

    1. We hope the Community at St Marks Abbey will publish a special newsletter at the end of the year giving details,photos,etc about the early days to mark their 40th Anniversary.Father Michael was a very kind priest and monk.He must of helped many lost souls.May he rest in peace and rise in glory.God bless you and your website.

    2. Chris,
      Sorry to have missed this post. My memories are pretty faint at this distant, but there must have been over 100 in attendance at the two Masses. Fr Bill Hunter lived in the house. He was old and quite frail, but he would occasionally celebrate and preach. As a student, I preached once a month or so. Fr Alan Pattison (I think) helped out on weekday Masses and at Thursday Benediction – which was a very beautiful and reflective service. The priests from St Peters Eastern Hill must have had some involvement, but I’m really struggling to remember who they were.
      Of real interest was the fact that St Mark’s shared its space with the Serbian Orthodox parish. After the second Anglican Mass, a portable iconastasis was erected at the sanctuary rail and the Orthodox liturgy went from about 11 a.m. to 1 p.m. This was at the time of heightened tensions between Serbs and Croats. One morning the Serbian Arhcbishop visited and a Croat approached the church with a gun in his coat. We watched aghast from the parish hall as he approached the church, not knowing what to do. The Archbishop turned around and saw the gun and raised his hand. It may have been in fright or shock, but it certainly looked like he was blessing the gun-man, who knelt and crossed himself, and turned on his heel and run away sheepishly.

  6. Hi Ted

    Thanks for your comments.What happen to the other monk who was clothed in the habit back in 1975.I believe he was a doctor(?)I enjoyed reading the early accounts of parish life written by Bishop Lindsay Urwin when he was there.Did Father Hunter move with Father Michael to Camperdown in 1980?

    Did you visit the Abbey often before Father Michael died.I love the peaceful Church.

    1. Dear Ted

      Do you know Brother Leo Anthony SSF?I believe he had known Father Michael quite well.He was over in New Zealand for many years but is back in the USA.

    2. Now you’re asking well outside of my time in Melbourne. I’m pretty sure Fr Hunter died before the move to Camperdown. As to a doctor who was one of those originally clothed, I don’t know who that would be. I remember a medical technician who was part of the Fitzroy community. He was always a layman, and remained so after the move. He did not move to Camperdown.

  7. Have you heard if anyone has entered the Abbey since the death of Father Michael?It would be very sad if the place closed.We need monastic orders.

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