Vale Bishop Hilton Deakin

Funeral Details

Concelebrated Pontifical Requiem Mass for the repose of the soul of Most Reverend Emeritus Bishop Hilton Forrest Deakin will be offered on:

Date: Thursday 13th October, 2022
Time: 10:30am
St Patrick’s Cathedral
1 Cathedral Place|
East Melbourne

At the conclusion of Mass the cortege will proceed to the Melbourne General Cemetery for entombment.

No flowers by request, donations in lieu to the St Vincent de Paul Society would be appreciated, envelopes will be available.

Vigil Prayers
Date: Tuesday 11th October, 2022
Time: 7.30pm
St Thomas More’s Catholic Church
313 Canadian Bay Road
Mt Eliza

A Tribute to Hilton Deakin

This tribute was penned by Jim and Therese D’Orsa in honour of Bishop Hilton Deakin whom they worked with over several years recording his involvement with the people of Timor-Leste in their struggle for self-determination. A substantial memoir resulted. Entitled Bonded Through Tragedy: United in Hope it also contains information on Hilton’s life as an Australian, a Catholic, and a priest. It was released in 2017 by Garratt Publishing.

In these few words we try to capture something of our experience in working with Hilton, and perhaps go some way in sharing why we found it an exceptionally life-giving assignment.

Because Hilton’s life was strongly characterised by solidarity with those whom society pushes to the margins, in preparing this tribute we wish to put the spotlight on this defining aspect of his Christian life and leadership.

We met with Hilton at his home on a fortnightly basis over several years, and little by little ‘Hilton’s story’ unfolded beginning as a lad growing up firstly in Finley NSW, followed by his time as a secondary student in Melbourne, and his days in the diocesan seminary at Werribee (where, on bidding him farewell, the rector warned him that ‘he would come to no good’). After ordination came his time as a curate, as a TV personality on Channel Nine’s Epilogue program, as a highly regarded parish priest of the newly established parish of Mount Eliza, and vicar general. He spoke with joy of his share in establishing the Aboriginal Catholic Ministry.

Hilton was born in Seymour Victoria in 1932 to Ruby and Stan Deakin. On his mother’s side he inherited strong Christianity via Methodism, and there were Jewish roots as well. On his father’s side, staunch Catholicism. His siblings are Nanette, Robin, and Valerie.

When Fr Bruce Duncan, Director of the Yarra Institute for Religion and Social Policy, invited us to work with Hilton to tell ‘Hilton’s story’, we knew very little about him beyond the fact that his work in Timor-Leste was occasionally addressed in the press in terms that were not always flattering! However, having met Hilton at his home in Brunswick, we enthusiastically got to work. We soon realised it would be both a privilege and a challenge to work with Hilton on the Timor-Leste project, which initially involved sorting and cataloguing hundreds of documents that he had meticulously collected over the years. We learned early on that Hilton’s involvement in the people’s struggle for justice was a very serious affair. His impressive library was a valued resource of information on the country, its people, and their struggles.

The discussions we had over draft material for the memoir were animated, and generally accompanied by lunch that Hilton prepared. He obviously loved the freedom of his little home in Brunswick, and the capacity it allowed for hospitality. His home featured a beautiful collection of icons, a sign of his involvement with Christians of the Eastern churches where he had some deep friendships. We would bring a few flowers from our garden for his shrine of Our Lady of Walsingham. Hilton was after all, of English descent, even if his priestly life in Australia was lived out in a very Irish Church. He used to say, with appreciation, that the Vietnamese priests were the ‘new Irish’, and it was obvious that he meant they were making a big impact on the Australian church.

Sometimes we wondered whether we would ever finish the project, whether we might even get to the starting block as the memories and opinions flowed! This was because, for Hilton, there were many prequels to his involvement in Timor-Leste to be covered – including especially – Hilton’s time growing up in Finley where, for the first time, he met local aboriginal people in their humble home located not far from his. As he said, ‘We were poor. They were very poor’. He engaged them in many discussions. Hilton was obviously curious, gregarious, warm, and forthcoming from an early age; he liked to listen to people, and to make friends.

We learned of the family’s move to Melbourne when Stan returned home from the war. We listened as Hilton spoke lovingly about his family and the additional members born after the move south. He spoke with appreciation about his education firstly with the Mercy sisters at Finley, the Good Samaritan Sisters at Thornbury and the Christian Brothers at Parade College. He relished his time as a member of St Patrick’s cathedral choir under the direction of the famous Dr Percy Jones. As he grew older, Hilton loved to spend spare time in St Vincent de Paul work and with the Little Sisters of the Poor at Northcote. He even engaged in speaking publicly about Christianity on the banks of the Yarra. He put in many hours at the State Library of Victoria even claiming that, when he went to university to study, there wasn’t much of the literature on Aboriginal Australians required for his anthropology courses that was unfamiliar to him.

Hilton was unique as an Australian bishop in that he spent a good deal of his time fighting in the public square for people assigned by society to what Pope Francis calls ‘the periphery’. He paid tribute to his fellow bishops and other clergy whose generous support on the home front allowed him to be involved in the struggles of the East Timorese for justice and self-determination, and through Caritas to serve the desperately poor of the world in their never-ending attempts to secure the necessities of life. He spoke with deep appreciation of the way the Salesians supported him in his efforts in Timor-Leste and in terms of his wellbeing back home.

In that pursuit of justice, during his time as Deputy Chair of Caritas Internationalis, Hilton’s little team was early on the scene bringing financial assistance and a glimmer of hope for reconciliation and reconstruction in post-massacre Rwanda. His account of that trip and the situation was deeply affecting.

Hilton was a formidable speaker at public rallies and made many friends across the political spectrum. He valued networking and was prepared to work with anyone of goodwill to get the job done.

At the invitation of Archbishop Knox, then archbishop of Melbourne, Hilton engaged in part- time university study, which he relished, and eventually was ready to enrol in a PhD program in anthropology at Monash University, then a hotspot for student dissent. His course required three years fieldwork among indigenous people at Kalumburu, a Catholic mission in Western Australia. This was an unusual assignment for a diocesan priest, to say the least. It did not come out of the blue, however, as Archbishop Knox had gotten wind of Hilton’s life-long great respect and deep interest in Australia’s first nations people via a publication written by Hilton that he, the archbishop, had stumbled across.

Whilst he was researching at Kalumburu, Hilton asked the local people to help him learn their language. He recalls one saying that this was the first time a white person had ever asked to be taught anything!

In pursuing his PhD work, the stakes were high in terms of Hilton’s capacity as a leader - Archbishop Knox wanted to have genuine aboriginal involvement, including an indigenous Mass, in the program for the 1973 Eucharistic Congress in Melbourne. He wanted this to be authentic, and meaningful for all present. This was no small challenge for Hilton and the team of aboriginal people who brought this dream to life. The Mass certainly made a deep impact on many including some of the visiting Church dignitaries, and remains a source of pride among Aboriginal Catholics who, even to this day, value the ABC videotape recording of this milestone.

All stories have a pivot point that early events lead up to, and that shape later events. In Hilton’s case, the pivotal event occurred when urgent surgery went wrong, resulting in him being unable to speak, due to the rapid speed of insertion of a breathing tube. When the horror of his situation became clear, Hilton retreated to the bush where he stayed by himself trying to come to grips with a rather bleak future – life in which he could not speak.

One day, while shaving, Hilton nicked his face and the blood flowed. In frustration he yelled ‘bugger’, and realised that his voice had returned, despite the medical advice that this could not happen. Further expletives followed expressing joy and amazement that he was on the way back! It took further medical attention and therapy, but he could speak, and speak he did. Having ‘found his voice’ Hilton resolved that he would henceforth use it to good effect as an advocate for those on the ‘periphery’. And, as the saying goes, ‘the rest is history’.

One day Hilton received an official-looking letter from the Papal Nuncio’s office. Assuming it was a reprimand, Hilton put it in his pocket and forgot about it for a while. Some days later he came across it, opened it up, and read it. It was an appointment as auxiliary bishop in Melbourne.

As bishop, Hilton discovered he had the persona needed to work effectively in the public square. He had a big voice and a personality to match it. People noticed him and would work with him, even when they did not agree with him on many things. In fact, at a time when most of the Australian bishops followed the Vatican diplomatic line that East Timor should stay as part of Indonesia on the grounds that it was too small to become a viable nation, Hilton was an advocate for self-determination. He believed that it was the people who had the right to decide.

Hilton made many visits to East Timor during the years of Indonesian occupation. On these visits he was constantly watched by the Indonesian authorities, but rather like the Scarlet Pimpernel, he had the ability to arrive at places undetected and to meet key people in the resistance movement. On these trips Hilton maintained a diary of the people he met, what they had to say, and his assessment of them. Much of this was written in Latin because he rightly surmised that he was unlikely to be detained by anyone who could read Latin. Perusing these diaries many years after the events they describe demonstrated for us the risks Hilton took on these visits, and why people in East Timor hold him in such high regard. Among the great joys of his life was receiving the medal signifying the highest honour bestowed by the new nation of Timor-Leste, and to be similarly recognised by the Church of the fledgling nation.

Hilton had a very active mind even in his 80s. He was a great reader and it was a real disappointment for him when his eyes began to give him trouble. Typically, however, he pressed on. One day, with his faithful dog Cobber holding vigil at his feet, we came across him studying material on West Syrian Aramaic that he had sourced from somewhere. When we asked why on earth he was doing this, he replied that when he arrived in heaven he wanted to be able to address Jesus in his own language.

Hilton was a man of strong opinions on Church affairs. Whatever side of an argument Hilton was on, as we left such discussions, we felt that his love for the community and institution we call Church ran very deep.

A respected authority on the involvement of the Australian Catholic Church in the public square, Fr Bruce Duncan has placed Bishop Hilton Deakin with Bishop Wilson, the first bishop of Hobart who was deeply involved in working to halt the transportation of convicts to this country, as the two Australian Catholic bishops who stand out historically for their sustained and effective commitment on behalf of the public good. Their deep involvement was in matters beyond simply Catholic wellbeing. Like Wilson, Hilton had the personality, talent, and sensibility, not only to be so involved, but also to be very effective. May he inspire many others.

Hilton was an extra-ordinary churchman. We may not see his like again any time soon, but we hope that we do.

Vale Hilton!

Emerita Professor Therese D’Orsa and Associate Professor Jim D’Orsa


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