Robert Francis Aitken was one of four children born to Winnifred (nee Grealy) and Raymond, a brother to Margaret and Sr Robert (both deceased), Peter and Don.
The family lived in Goodwood and Robert attended Sacred Heart College for two years during which time he won prizes in Christian doctrine, English and French.
His devout nature was noticed by the parish priest and when he was 14 his mother received a letter asking if Robert would consider the priesthood.
In 1943 he joined St Francis Xavier Seminary in Rostrevor where his mother would visit him once a month. During the holidays he worked at the jam factory to help support his family.
Robert completed his theological studies at Corpus Christi College in Werribee, Victoria. He was ordained a priest in St Francis Xavier’s Cathedral on July 22 1952.
His first appointment later that year was as assistant priest at Croydon where he was well known for riding his bicycle around the parish and was chaplain to the Young Christian Workers Movement.
In 1957 he was appointed assistant priest in the Adelaide Cathedral parish and thus began his long association with the Cathedral. Ten years later he was appointed administrator of St Francis Xavier’s Cathedral, a position he held for 30 years, including when he was appointed Vicar General in 1980.
The same year the Pope bestowed on him the title of Monsignor, for his services to the Archdiocese, and was declared a ‘Protonotary Apostolic’, the first Australian priest to receive this honour.
During his time at the Cathedral Mgr Robert demonstrated great hospitality at the Archbishop’s House, West Tce, welcoming many visiting clergy and frequently hosting local priests.
He would invite his family to the House for Christmas lunch and anyone who came to the door was given a meal that he had asked the kitchen to make the day before.
Much admired for his preaching, he gave great attention to preparing his homilies and was able to incorporate many quotations from history or literature.
He was celebrant at numerous weddings and had a reputation for excellent marriage preparation and instructing those who wished to become Catholic. At the invitation of Archbishop James Gleeson he began an annual series of lectures in the faith.
Mgr Robert was proud to have Dame Roma Mitchell as a parishioner for decades, including when she was Governor of South Australia and would walk from Government House to the 9am Cathedral Mass. He set up the ‘Governors Seat’ for her at the front.
After his appointment as Vicar General, a position he held for nine years, Mgr Robert took on many commitments and was helped by Josephine Riordan, Joan Coad and countless others. At the end of the day they would share a glass of wine, paid for by Mgr Robert who always wanted to show appreciation for people’s efforts.
His generosity knew no bounds and doing God’s work was his priority, whether it be saying the Mass, school chaplaincy, supporting Sr Janet Mead’s Romero Community, helping the homeless or visiting the sick. He had a 60 plus year association with Christian Brothers College and supported religious Brothers and Sisters living in the city.
His way of taking a break was to play golf once a week at Kooyonga where he made many life-long friendships. He travelled to England to visit family and later with his fellow priest and golfing partner Mgr Brendan Bowler.
His time as Cathedral administrator came to an end in 1997 when he was appointed parish priest at Dulwich/ Burnside where he quickly endeared himself to the people of that parish.
In February 2002, no doubt because of his great sense of hospitality and care for other priests, he was asked to care for the wellbeing of sick and retired priests of the Archdiocese.
Retiring in 2004 he took up residence at Glenelg and continued to be available for Masses, funerals and visiting the sick as well as celebrating Mass for the Josephite Sisters at Kensington, the Mercy Sisters and the Dominicans at Cabra. This often involved two Masses a day. He also continued his lectures in the Catholic faith.
At his 90th birthday celebrations in 2020, members of the Cathedral parish said he was admired as ‘a preacher, a lover of fine liturgical music, a priest dedicated to the sick and dying’.
Delivering the homily at
Mgr Robert’s funeral Mass in the Cathedral, Fr Peter Zwaans and said he was a pastor ‘close to the people’, especially the homeless who he treated with “love, kindness and respect”.
In her eulogy, niece Fiona Lardner said ‘Uncle Bob’ had a “tireless capacity to help people and he was genuinely interested in them”.
“I wish I had his eloquence, his skill for words, to communicate all that he was,” she said.
“When faced with someone who has so many fine qualities it’s hard to distinguish what they give us most.
“I think he saw the uniqueness in every person and treated them with humanity and compassion. This informed his whole life.
“By doing this he followed the example of Jesus Christ. We have been truly blessed to have had him in our lives and so it is only fair that God has him in his life now.”