Review of Dear Mother Dear Father: Dear Father: Letters Home from John Corcoran Wallis 1927-1949

Monday 7 October 2019

Gabrielle McMullen AM

Sixty people gathered at Yarra Theological Union, a campus of the University of Divinity, on the evening of 2 October for the launch of Dear Mother Dear Father: Letters Home from John Corcoran Wallis 1927-1949. This significant volume makes available letters of Fr Wallis covering two decades of his younger life. They offer a window into another era of the Australian Church and, in particular, into a man who would make a unique contribution through the founding of the Missionary Sisters of Service. The book is the result of the vision, scholarship and dedication of Sr Bernadette Wallis mss, Missionary Sister of Service and niece of Fr Wallis. Its publication is one activity marking 75 years of the Missionary Sisters of Service.

The publication of letters has particular value ― thus, Blessed John Henry Cardinal Newman wrote to his sister:
... the true life of a man is in his letters ... Not only for the interest of a biography, but for arriving at the inside of things, the publication of letters is the true method. Biographers varnish, they assign motives, they conjecture feeling ... but contemporary letters are facts [Newman to his Sister, Mrs John Mozley, 18 May 1863].

In ten chapters, Dear Mother Dear Father assembles 100 letters into sections marking significant stages of John Wallis’ life up to his late thirties, including:

• Entering St Columba’s Seminary in Springwood at 16 years of age
• Progressing to St Patrick’s Seminary in Manly
• His ordination year
• His early years of ministry in Tasmania
• Testing his vocation as a Columban missionary
• Returning to Tasmania, and
• Founding the Missionary Sisters of Service (or the Home Missionary Sisters of Our Lady as they were called initially).

Sr Bernadette provides a brief introduction to each of the ten chapters as well as setting both the family and historical context prior to reproducing each letter. She writes: “My hope was to find [in each letter] a gem or gems that energised the life of the young” John Wallis [p. xiv]. Readers will discover that those gems are present in abundance.

At the conclusion to each chapter, Sr Bernadette has invited a pertinent Church figure to write a reflection on the preceding letters ― in his foreword to Dear Mother Dear Father, Professor Frank Brennan SJ AO describes the inclusion of these reflections as “a brilliant flourish” on Bernadette’s part. Thus, this volume includes significant reflections by Emeritus Archbishop Adrian Doyle, Frs Austin Cooper OMI, Edmund Campion and David Ranson, and Sr Corrie van den Bosch mss, amongst others.

Let me briefly quote some of their commentary as a means of profiling this fine volume. For example, Fr Edmund Campion observes: “The letters are a rare window into the spiritual life of Catholics in this period” and “are remarkable in the way he [John Wallis] shared with his family ... his deepest thoughts on religion and his vocation” [p. 110].

Emeritus Archbishop Adrian Doyle reflects as follows:
My first impression from the letters was the depth of the relationship between John and his “dearest mother”. He was most open in relating to her all the challenges of his ministry … One can only imagine the concerns, which would have arisen in the heart of his mother when she became aware of some of the difficulties her son faced … I note a very deep sense of urgency in the description of his ministry … and a deep concern for those who lived in remote places. [p. 314]

The latter was the motivation for the 33-year old Fr Wallis’ visionary founding of the Missionary Sisters of Service, which is also captured in the letters. As you read this book, you follow the development of John’s vocation and then his priestly ministry, letter by letter. Significantly, Fr David Ranson sees in Fr Wallis “an understanding of priesthood that will be echoed 80 years later in Pope Francis’ metaphor of mercy as the key to priestly life, understood as passionate involvement with those who find themselves on the margins” [p. 383].

The importance and quality of the book are reflected in its publication by Coventry Press and I acknowledge the foresight of the publisher, Hugh McGinlay. It is a handsome volume, enriched by photographs, an extensive index, informative footnotes, a timeline of events, and the great love which went into its preparation.

From the 100 letters, let me quote from one to give a flavour of John Wallis’ correspondence. Having had the honour to launch the book on 2 October 2019, I have chosen a letter from the first week of October 1932. Thus, the twenty-two-year-old John Wallis wrote to his mother shortly before his ordination as follows:
I may not have many years in God’s service but I hope to make the best of them ... The more I think of the work ahead the more I realise that after all I am but the instrument in God’s hand: I can water or sow but God must work by his grace in the souls of men [and women]: He must give the increase. Now how is this increase to come but by prayer and sacrifice ... So now dear Mother I am going to rely very, very much on your prayers ... We are all called to be saints ― to grow daily in the love of God, of charity, the spirit of prayer and patience. [pp. 127-128]
The letters came to light in 2014 in the Missionary Sisters of Service archives in Hobart. The correspondence had been placed there in 1966 by John’s brother, Fr Brian Wallis, who had requested that the letters be kept secret until after John’s death. We can be grateful that they were preserved. We can be especially grateful to Sr Bernadette and Coventry Press that they have now been professionally published. Like Fr John himself, this book is a special gift to the Australian Church.

Gabrielle McMullen AM
Emeritus Professor, Australian Catholic University
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