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Walking alongside those in need

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Whether it was helping street kids in the Philippines, holding the hands of dying homeless men in Melbourne or teaching students in Adelaide how to play Aussie Rules footy, Fr Stan Lim SJ says in his 50 years of ministry he has always felt he was “where I was meant to be”.

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Now living back in Adelaide where he is an assistant priest at St Ignatius parish, Norwood, it has been an interesting and well-travelled journey for the 82-year-old Jesuit.

Born to Chinese parents who met in Singapore, Fr Stan said he may not have had the opportunity to serve God at all if events in his early days had played out as they were meant to.

His father, who was fluent in English, Japanese and several Chinese dialects, was working for the British Army in Singapore when World War II broke out. As the Japanese army began advancing through South East Asia, his family – which included three siblings – were directed to relocate to India for their safety.

“We left two days before Singapore fell in February 1942 but in all the confusion we took the wrong boat and ended up in Australia,” he said.

“My oldest brother was six at the time and when we had to go to the wharf he couldn’t be found because he was mucking around with some friends. Eventually we all jumped in the car and went to the wharf and by that time all the ships had cast their moorings and were out in Singapore Harbour and there were Japanese planes overhead.

“Dad asked a harbour policeman in a little boat to take us out to the nearest ship…some time later when we were on board we learned we were on the wrong ship and were going to Australia. The ship we were supposed to take was sunk by the Japanese.”

Fr Stan with his family after they settled in Melbourne (child on far left)

Arriving in Perth as war-time refugees, the family was soon sent to Melbourne where the Australian Army settled them in a house near Brighton beach. The children were sent to the nearby Kostka Hall primary school, run by the Jesuits, and this was to have a lasting impact on young Stan.

“Our family wasn’t Catholic but I guess the beginnings of me joining the priesthood started at that little primary school.

“Most kids back then would have thought about the priesthood, even if they put it away quickly…I remember being inspired by one of the Jesuits who was going to India on missionary work.”

When his family did convert to Catholicism later, his parents decided their children should take on Anglo Saxon names. Once again the school had an influence – with Fr Stan being named after St Stanislaus Kostka.

On February 1 1957, Stan entered the seminary in Melbourne, alongside 13 others, including two well-known Jesuits, Fr Andrew Hamilton (Eureka Street writer) and Fr Brendan Byrne (scripture scholar).  While their ministry has taken different paths, the three still share a close connection today.

Admitting that academia wasn’t really his thing, after his ordination in 1970 Fr Stan embarked on a ministry that has taken him from each side of Australia, to New Zealand and throughout South East Asia. Initially he taught at a Jesuit school in Perth, before moving back to Victoria to work among seminarians in the Melbourne Archdiocese.

In 1977 he was appointed to St Ignatius’ College at Athelstone, where he taught chemistry to senior students and coached Aussie Rules football.

“But I always had a nagging call to go to China so after that I went to the Philippines for six months before going to Taiwan to study the Chinese language.

“It was a bit embarrassing in a way – here’s a bloke who is 40 and he speaks Chinese like a little baby. I can get by now, I can speak basic Chinese and even read a little bit.”

In the end, venturing into China at the time wasn’t a realistic option so instead Fr Stan spent just over three years in Taiwan, learning the language and teaching English conversation in a Jesuit high school.

After returning to Australia for a few years he went back to the Philippines where he was involved with a Christian Life Community, working with street children and also active during the People Power Revolution that saw the ousting of Marcos and the installation of Aquino.

“I got involved with a lot of the younger Filipinos in the Christian Life Community, which the Jesuits sponsored, and we were election watching, and it was a bit hairy at times. Fortunately nothing bad happened to us but we saw a lot of vote buying and sadly the people were getting paid with counterfeit money.”

Returning to Australia, this time to support his ailing father, Fr Stan was then sent to Wellington, New Zealand, to serve as a university chaplain for three years. This was followed by 15 years supporting homeless men, many of whom were alcoholics, at the Corpus Christi Community on the outskirts of Melbourne.

“I always had a feeling for being with the down and out, the people who are poor,” he reflected.

“That’s what attracted me to the Philippines and the street kids, but also to these guys, I felt quite at home with them.

“You’ve got to be a friend first of all. Understanding that these blokes are in their 50s and 60s, their lives are a mess, their relationships have all crashed. They are not going to give up the grog but they need to control their lives, because they don’t want to be sick all the time and they don’t want to live in the gutter.

“We made a commitment to the blokes that if possible, we’d be there when they died, we wouldn’t let them die alone…so I’ve sat by the beds of maybe 20 blokes who have breathed their last and it’s very moving. I remember after they turned off the machine on one bloke just bawling, because they mean something to you.

“I also remember being with one bloke, we were at the supermarket buying something and a flash car went past and I might have made a comment like, I should have been a doctor like that fellow. And he said, very seriously, ‘no you should have been a priest’. And that was very affirming, because that was who I was to him.”

At age 70, Fr Stan knew it was probably time for someone else to take his place at Corpus Christi and since then he has continued his life on the road, moving from parishes at Richmond, Western Sydney, Brisbane and now at Norwood.

Celebrating his 50 year anniversary on December 12, Fr Stan said there was no need for others to make a big deal of it, as he is the one who has been honoured to be a follower of Jesus, a Jesuit priest, and privileged to be in companionship with others for so many years.

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