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A Blessed Tale: The Story of Father Edward O'Sullivan Goidanich

Father Paul Mercovitch laying a poppy on the portable altar, Patchewollock 2015  Diocese of Ballarat
First World War (1914-18)
By Lisa Cooper
Father Goidanich [second from left] standing with Australian soldiers, Egypt c 1915 photographer W A S Dunlop  National Library of Australia (6414098)
Father Goidanich [second from left] standing with Australian soldiers, Egypt c 1915 photographer W A S Dunlop National Library of Australia (6414098)

A native of Queenstown, County Cork, Ireland (known today as Cobh), Edward O’Sullivan Goidanich arrived in Victoria in 1891 to serve with the Catholic Diocese of Ballarat. Father Goidanich spent time between the Charlton and Swan Hill parishes, his duties taking in the whole of the Mallee in northern Victoria.

At the age of 48 years, Fr Goidanich enlisted in the Australian Imperial Force (AIF) in April 1915 and was appointed Chaplain 4th Class, equivalent in military rank to Captain, with the 6th Infantry Brigade. He embarked from Melbourne in May 1915 on board the HMAT Afric. Enlisting for continuous service, he was bound for the battlefields of the First World War.

With him was a portable wooden altar box which, when opened, would fold out and included receptacles for candleholders as well as copies of prayers attached to the inside of the lid. A compartment underneath could hold a priest’s vestments, hymn books and sacred vessels.

Spending some time in Egypt before arriving at Gallipoli in the first week of September 1915, it was there Fr Goidanich learned that work as an army chaplain was more than merely tending to the living.

A chaplain has a lot of ‘undertaking’ work to do always at night, the stretcher bearer and myself had to get down into the grave with the dear dead to avoid snipers…only once was I nearly hit; it was shrapnel, about 16 inches stood between me and instant death.

T Johnstone, The Cross of Anzac

On 8 November 1915, Fr Goidanich was not as lucky. Following his Sunday morning Mass at White’s Gully, the troops and Fr Goidanich returned to their dug outs when a shell landed where they had been gathered. He received wounds to his head and leg and was evacuated from the battlefield and eventually to the No.1 Australian General Hospital in Heliopolis, Egypt.

Recovering from his wounds, Fr Goidanich returned to service, this time embarking for France in March 1916. He served during some of the fiercest fighting on the Western Front. At an Anzac Day Requiem in Melbourne in 1918, he said of his time at Pozières that he and Reverend Francis Clune, of the 5th Brigade, were engaged on the Sunday in hearing confessions and giving Holy Communion to the men.

Practically every Catholic in the two brigades received the Sacraments that day before going into the firing line. A fourth of the men who received Holy Communion on that day were dead within a fortnight.

It was in September 1916 that Fr Goidanich was recommended for the Military Cross; which he was later awarded, For consistent good work throughout the operations of the 6th Aust. Infantry Brigade in France from  26 March 1916 onwards.

Suffering the effects of his injuries from Gallipoli, Fr Goidanich returned to Australia in 1917 acting as ‘Chaplain on board’ the HMAT Ulysses. But his war proved difficult to leave behind. Fr Goidanich is still remembered today for travelling between the isolated settlements in north-west Victoria visiting the families of the fallen.

He spent a great deal of time visiting the families of soldiers that he’d ministered to, explains Marie Shaddock, member of the Ouyen parish of the Diocese of Ballarat. These [were] really remote places, many of which don’t even exist anymore, and he went to those places with his horse and cart to give comfort to the parents and the families, telling them ‘I was able to hear your son’s confession’ or ‘I spoke to him before he went over the top.’ He was an amazing man.

It was Marie Shaddock who, in 2015, found herself intrigued by this mysterious portable altar box she had heard about from other parishioners.

The altar was always in Patchewollock which is part of our parish, said Marie. It was left there for visiting priests to use and looked after by the local families.

I heard about the mass box and was intrigued. It still has shrapnel and burn marks on it, it’s quite incredible.

People knew it was significant but they didn’t know much about it. No one here knew it may have been to Gallipoli. So I decided we should do something about it.

Father Paul Mercovitch laying a poppy on the portable altar, Patchewollock 2015  Diocese of Ballarat
Father Paul Mercovitch laying a poppy on the portable altar, Patchewollock 2015 Diocese of Ballarat

 While it is believed that Fr Goidanich used this altar box to celebrate Mass during his travels around the Mallee, it is yet to be confirmed whether it is the same altar box he used during his service in the war.

We had two priests who returned from serving in the war as chaplains who served within the same parish after the war, Fr Goidanich and Fr Thomas Wood, said Michael Taffe, Archivist for the Catholic Diocese of Ballarat. So the altar could have belonged to either one of them, we just don’t know.

Aside from visiting the families of the fallen, Fr Goidanich corresponded with official historian, Charles Bean, urging Bean to consider including more of the work of chaplains and doctors in his future editions. Upon reading Bean’s first volume, Fr Goidanich wrote, I have lived once more in Gallipoli... such is the effect your work has had on me.

He also corresponded with his friend ‘Birdie’, none other than Lieutenant General Sir William Birdwood, who congratulated him on his good work in the field.

Fr Goidanich was reportedly one of the first Victorian priests accepted as a chaplain in the AIF. Overall, 414 clergymen served in the AIF from various denominations, earning 72 honours and awards including 23 Military Crosses. The altar box attributed to him today remains in safekeeping with the Catholic Diocese in Ballarat.