A Tribute to Father Eric Hodgens – friend, pastor, priest
In my distant memory, when in 1960, I was a grade 2 student at St James’s Primary School in Gardenvale, I have a vague recollection of a newly ordained priest coming to visit the school and talk to us. I also have a similar recollection from 1959, in Grade 2, when Michael Parer likewise had come back to his old parish. The first mentioned must have been Eric Hodgens, although I couldn’t remember his name that far back. At the time, Paul Willy, of YCW fame, was the parish curate, and much later Brighton postman! I certainly can remember his friendly and engaging nature, coming to talk to us, and giving me a kick of the footy at Elsternwick oval, as I had no interest in violent engagement of contact sport, being one of the smallest in the class!
My first personal encounter with Father Eric Hodgens was only by phone, in late 1969, when I had just turned 17, having completed Matriculation. I expressed to my concerned parents, a wish to enter the diocesan seminary at Corpus Christi Werribee, in order to study for the diocesan priesthood. Mum had recently done a primary catechist’s course in the parish, and she suggested I talk with the priest who had given the talks, as she thought he made a lot of sense, and could perhaps talk me out of going into the seminary at such a young age.
And so I rang Eric, who, believe it or not, was about to embark on his first, but certainly not last, overseas trip, so he passed the buck to his companion Father Tom Doyle, as both were sharing a house in Flemington, whilst pursuing fill-time studies at Melbourne University, with the approval of then Archbishop James Knox. I met with Tom, and he firmly recommended I gain some broader experience by attending Melbourne University at least for 1970. With some reluctance, I recall, I agreed to do so, and completed the first year of a science degree. During that year, I met up with Eric and Tom at their home, after lectures, and helped as a St Vincent de Paul volunteer at Ozanam House, next door.
Eric recommended me to do some wider reading, and my eyes were opened to the complexities and intrigues of Church history, the book being “The Papacy in the Modern World” by Karl von Aretin. Meanwhile, I remember complaining to him about what I considered an unfair mark in a Psychology I lab report, as he was a tutor in the department at the time. No change was made!
From there, Eric completed his Arts Degree and Diploma of Criminology, then obtained an MA in 1972, the title of his thesis being “The Discipline of Priestly Life” , wherein he examined the changing priesthood in the post-Vatican II Church, with extensive research of diocesan and religious order priests throughout Australia. It was also a sociological project, looking at the broader Church as well, and the changing attitudes of Catholics, engaging with the modern world.
Meanwhile, I had entered the seminary in 1971, spending 2 years at Werribee, before the new regime was instituted at Corpus Christi Clayton, the objective being two-fold, to engage students preparing for priesthood with a less monastic regime, and with increased pastoral involvement in parish life along the way, as well as an opportunity being provided, for students to pursue an Arts degree at nearby Monash University. And, coincidentally, Tom Doyle was appointed first academic dean at Catholic Theological College, newly established, and attached to the seminary campus, with Father Kevin Mogg, also recently deceased this year, as the first diocesan priest rector.
Having completed his university studies, Eric was a mobile curate, being moved from West Preston to Elwood to East Melbourne, in short time, prior to being appointed the founding parish priest of what was to become Holy Saviour Parish, North Glen Waverley, in January 1974, at the age of 39, 14 years after his ordination in August 1960. He was given the task of building a parish community, with 9 acres of vacant land, and residency in the Glen Waverley presbytery. He purchased a house within the new parish in Crusader Crescent, and the action took off from there, building first community, and then planning for a primary school, then presbytery and parish facilities with Mass centre.
Eric consulted his new parishioners, researched demographics, and then proceeded with plans to establish a vibrant and thriving faith community, school being opened in 1977 at what was then More College, then moving to the new facilities on the parish site later that year.
On a personal note, I had completed a Science degree from the seminary, and had decided to take a year off to consider my future in 1976, when I completed an Honours degree in Chemistry, living back at home with my family. It was at the end of that year that I ran into Eric, who suggested I come and work with him at Holy Saviour, if I was to continue to priesthood, which I ultimately decided to do, given I hadn’t found a potential partner and chemistry was too dangerous for me!!
And so our friendship and working relationship developed over that year of 1977, where he had me organizing a parish youth group and also, of all things, a parish choir, even though I couldn’t sing, but could play the piano!
The parish centre was opened officially in November 1977, and I was ordained a deacon there a week later. In that year, Eric gave me great insights into pastoral care, general ministry and preaching. He had the primary school staff meeting with him regularly, to discuss church history, art and the like, to broaden their vision as well. The parish continued to thrive and grow, almost exponentially, as the school population exceeded something like 600 by mid-1985, expanding with portable classrooms beyond the central core, as Eric had projections of the changing demographics all through, always planning for the future.
During that time, in 1977, Eric was also appointed as Director of Pastoral Formation for Priests in the Archdiocese of Melbourne, a task he took to with energy, flair and determination. From 1977 to 1983, he co-ordinated in-service training for priests, engaging the top scripture scholars from around the English speaking world, well known names from the Scripture commentaries. To name a few, they ranged from Eugene Laverdiere to Jerome Murphy O’Connor to Raymond Brown; then there was Ron Lewinski , an expert in the field of RCIA, the Champlin brothers, in the field of marriage preparation and parish renewal. The seminars organized were run over 2 weeks, and provided much appreciated input for the local clergy, who learned much from these conferences, as well as the camaraderie which went along with it all.
Eric also revelled in the field of IT, even writing his own parish database programs, and was at the cutting edge of computer technology, as it rapidly developed through the 1980’s and 1990’s. He engaged, encouraged and delegated his parishioners all the way through his parish life. In particular, he encouraged capable women to step up in their roles in parish ministry, and for many to pursue further studies in theology and ministry, such that up to 10 parishioners graduated with Theology degrees over the years he was there.
In January 1993, after nearly 20 years of building the parish community at Holy Saviour, Eric accepted a move to St Bede’s Parish, North Balwyn, where he continued parish pastoral ministry until his retirement in 2007. Following this, he continued to read widely and write regularly on contemporary issues relating to faith, life, and the Catholic Church and its place in the modern world. He was always thoughtful and challenging, speaking truth to power, as trhey say, without fear or favour.
Coincidentally, along with some encouragement, I accepted appointment as Eric’s successor at Holy Saviour on 17th March 1993, and for the next 5 years, worked at keeping up the spirit of engagement and involvement of parishioners, while I continued lecturing in Canon Law and working in the Melbourne Tribunal. The way in which Eric had set up the parish and enabled parishioners to take responsibility for many and varied ministries, meant that I could continue to enable others to support me, as Eric had, in providing pastoral and sacramental preparation and care.
Eric had an engaging personality and a great sense of humour, but could be a little abrasive at times, particularly when it came to dealing with lack of common sense, refusal to be open to change, or resistance to knowledge, interpretation and subtlety!
Skiiing and travel were passions of the younger and older Eric as well. It was he who led me astray on the ski slopes of Vail, Colorado, in January 1989, where I did a head over heels tumble to snap my ACL, a la AFL footballers! The hip replacement came later in 2004!! All thanks to Eric, and his enthusiastic encouragement, but all worthwhile too!! He came to my doctoral defence in Canon Law in March 1986, in Ottawa, Canada, as a support, not to forget the fringe benefit of snow skiing there as well!
Eric was a great long term friend and mentor to so many, in addition to being a loving brother, in-law, brother-in-law, uncle and great uncle in his own family. Farewell, Eric, faithful servant of God, as priest, pastor and friend. Thanks for the many happy memories, good times and the friendship and fun throughout a life lived so well. We won’t forget you!
John Hannon (Parish Priest of St Therese’s Essendon) 5th June 2022