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Monsignor Peter Jeffrey: A life answering the call

By John Lewis

In the 1950s, while Elvis fever electrified young people across the world, a teenager in Bendigo was mesmerised by a rather different American.

US Catholic Bishop Fulton J Sheen delivered his half-hour television program on moral issues of the day to millions every week.

Bishop Sheen's hips did not swivel and he had no guitar, but his brooding hypnotic gaze and disarming smile were more spellbinding than any rock and roll singer for a young Peter Jeffrey.

The distinctive red-brick tower of St Mary's parish church in Mooropna was built in 1936.

“As a kid I used to go down to a café not far from home — TV had just come in and we didn't have one — but the café did,” Monsignor Jeffrey says.

“It was right up high, and it was all flickery, and his program Life is Worth Living was on every Sunday night.”

He adds with a guilty chuckle: "They had to keep the shop open because I'd buy a milkshake and I'd take a long time to drink it while I listened to what the bishop had to say.”

Today, the man known to many as simply "The Mons" sits in an armchair in his presbytery office opposite Mooroopna's St Mary's Catholic Church.

The room is flooded with natural light. On the walls are pictures of his many postings, and a table is scattered with newspaper clippings, more photos, books and writings — reminders of a long life spent in many locations at the service of ordinary people, his church and his faith.

Mons Jeffrey was born in Bendigo in 1938 to parents Tom and Rene Jeffrey. His father was a transport operator who ran Buckell and Jeffrey's transport and storage business in the city.

Monsignor Peter Jeffrey is at home in the simple surroundings of St Mary's Catholic Church in Mooroopna.

He remembers driving a little green Vanguard utility around central Victoria delivering vital supplies to customers while he was training to be a priest.

“The farmers at Dunolly and beyond, if they had a puncture they would want something there yesterday,” he says with his familiar gentle laugh.

From his childhood as an altar boy at Bendigo's Sacred Heart Cathedral through watching Bishop Sheen's Sunday broadcasts, the priesthood always loomed large in his career choice.

He said there was no "road to Damascus" in his calling to follow his faith.

“It is a gift and a call, not so much something you choose,” he says.

“It grows, very gently. The Holy Spirit whispers. For St Paul of course, it was a sudden thing but for me it was a gentle whispering. Fulton Sheen provided the nourishment, but the seeds were already there."

He said on finishing school, he faced a choice of either law or the priesthood, and the decision seemed to have been made when his application to enter the seminary was knocked back.

“In my dad's family, there was a brother who had epilepsy,” he says.

“At that time epilepsy wasn't able to be controlled the way it is now and the risk was that you might be offering mass and have an attack or something.”

He said fortunately, his bishop was able to present a case on his behalf to show that epilepsy was able to be treated — so at the age of 18 he entered the seminary at Werribee and later at Glen Waverley.

Eight years later he was ordained at Bendigo Cathedral in July 1963 and so began his solo life of moving from one parish to another. Cohuna, Beechworth, Heathcote, Rutherglen, Cobram, Euroa, Nathalia, and, of course, Shepparton and Mooroopna have all benefited from Mons Jeffrey's wise and gentle presence.

The garden at St Mary's parish church and school is carefully maintained.

At 81, Mons Jeffrey wears the deep convictions of his faith lightly. He talks of being a "joyful witness" to the message of hope that Christianity brings, particularly at Christmas.

However, when the conversation turns to the sex abuse scandals that have rocked the Catholic church in recent years, his mood is sombre.

“I think it has put a dent in people's minds about the Catholic church,” he says.

The Mons lets out a deep sigh.

“There has always been a psychological assessment of people coming in to the seminaries, but it hasn't always picked up a tendency towards paedophilia. I think the regime of screening people is getting tighter.”

He says he is glad the emphasis is now on counselling for the victims.

“That's the important thing, the care for the victims,” he says.

In between ministering to the communities of northern Victoria, Mons Jeffrey has spent years training priests at Corpus Christi Provincial Seminary in Melbourne, at the Pacific Regional Seminary in Suva, Fiji, and most recently at the Holy Cross Seminary in Auckland.

A cancer diagnosis while in New Zealand brought him back to Mooroopna earlier than expected in 2014. Now in recovery, he still dons the robes for Sunday mass at St Mary's in Mooroopna where he is the much loved and treasured parish priest.

Speaking in the quiet of his presbytery office, with the red-brick facade of his church visible through the window, The Mons seems like a man whose favourite place is wherever he happens to be.

Which is just as well for someone who has spent his life on the move, answering the gentle whisper.