Fr John Cooper was born in 1946, professed his First Vows in 1971 and was ordained to the priesthood in 1978. He has lived in most fraternities over the years. He has been guardian, parish priest and provincial minister. He is currently at Leichhardt and is the director of the Mission Office, assists with the Development Office and is National Spiritual Assistant to the secular Franciscans. The autobiography below was written in the late 2000's.
My uncle Frank, my mother's only brother, did not come home from the war. He had died in France as a bomber pilot after winning the Distinguished Flying Cross for bravery. They named me "Francis" after him.
I was born on Wednesday the 13th of November 1946 on the Esplanade at Southport on the Gold Coast, Queensland. The hospital has long since been recycled. We lived in Ocean St., Mermaid Beach not far from the ocean.
We moved away from the coast and the ocean receded from my memory and the country took over. We moved to different places, but settled for a while in Milbong, which was a little place, just the other side of Ipswich. In those days of dirt roads it had only one school and a general Store - ours. It was the first school I remember. I always came third in my class - there were only three of us. My older sister was much smarter; there was only one in her class. At this time I was so skinny my mother took me to a doctor to see what was the matter with me.
At Milbong, we came under the pastoral care of the Parish Priest of Boonah. He came all the way to our little state school to teach us the fundamental truths of life that all Catholics must know: "Who made the world? Why did God make me? To know him, to love him, to serve him in this life and to be happy with him forever in heaven!" It was 10 or 14 miles in any direction to the nearest Catholic Church so we did not go to Mass very often.
In 1955 we moved to Maryborough and I went to the Marist Brothers Catholic School for one year. There I learnt to play marbles and to make visits to the Blessed Sacrament. In my memory I always think that there were 74 kids in our class, but it must have been my imagination surely no class was that large? In 1956 we saw the Olympic flame as it passed through Maryborough on its way to Melbourne. After that we moved to Brisbane.
I went to Milton State School and was fortunate to have a 39-year old Catholic teacher called Miss Birmingham, who had silver hair, teaching my class. She used to get me to carry her bag over to the tram, because I had to go home in that direction. It was on one of those afternoons, as her personal porter, that she asked me if I had made my first Communion. Many years later I went looking for Miss Birmingham to thank her for all she had done for me, but they said she had died when she was about forty. As a family we did not practice our religion very much and the years passed with all sorts of family confusion.
We moved to Wynnum the day after the ?Star Theatre? burnt down. I had been to seven schools by the time I reached High School. There I found that having a number of different teachers gave the impression that no one cared anyway. We had a really cute female teacher for Chemistry, who never, ever, wore the same dress twice and I topped the class for the first time. I left school at 16 and became an apprentice Carpenter.
Then a Capuchin priest, Fr Benedict OFM Cap, who had taught RE at our school came and visited my mother and asked if we wanted to be confirmed. I remember odd things about my Confirmation. My grandfather's best Spanish suit was sent to a tailor and remade to fit me. It had a vest and hidden pockets. Confirmation changed everything in a way that is hard to describe. My mother told me many years later, that right after she was confirmed and went back to her seat, it was as if a warm blanket had been thrown over her. I don't remember anything like that, but I became calmer and more focused. My fits of frustration and really bad temper disappeared. We had been taught that the seven gifts of the Holy Spirit would grow in us especially if we remembered them, and they did.
The Carpenter's Apprentice
By the time I was 18, I had been going to Mass on Sundays for some time. Then one day at work another Carpenter?s Apprentice and I began a heavy conversation about religion. I explained the Eucharist so well that he said if I really believed that God came down upon the altar every time a priest said Mass, then I should be going to Mass each day. It was a challenge that struck home and I began to get up earlier and walk to Mass each morning.
The Pious Bogie
The young priest, Fr Peter Kennedy, in the Parish began to notice that I was coming to Mass each morning and although he considered me "a pious bogie" (his words) he asked me to join the Young Christian Workers group in the parish there at Manly where we were then living. YCW opened up the Gospels for me in a systematic way with very intense discussions each week. The Gospel became the criterion for every attitude. It was at the heart of the YCW Method of SEE, JUDGE, ACT. The YCW also taught me how friendship could influence young people. It struck me as the key to evangelization. After a while I was elected President of the group at Manly.
Then in 1967, I had to put my name in for National Service Training. I was very worried about going to Vietnam and having to shoot people. On a YCW President?s Weekend held at Southport I went to the Surfers Paradise Church on the Gold Coast and before the big crucifix there near the confessional promised God that I would do 2 years of work with the YCW if I did not go to Vietnam. I was asked that very weekend to join the YCW Executive. I was not called up for National Service and I was on the state executive for two years.
St Francis of Assisi
I had been reading the lives of the Saints during these two years and because I was called "Francis" in baptism, I picked up a Life of St Francis of Assisi to read. The personality of St Francis electrified me. His struggle with his parents spoke to my struggle with mine. His struggle with the lepers challenged every relationship I had experienced. His bittersweet joy in overcoming each challenge by dying to self challenged the very way I related to people. His ecstatic response to the crucified Christ made the Christ of the Gospel utterly transparent and allowed his love to flood into and challenge every aspect of my life.
The Capuchin Friars
During that time the YCW State President organised a weeklong retreat in the Capuchin "Monastery" at Wynnum North. We went to work each day from the friary and returned in the evening. The Capuchin "Monks" staying there at the time were Br Felix de Candia OFM Cap and Br Claude Moscatelli OFM cap. They said Mass for us each evening. It was my first real introduction to the Friars. Their grasp of the Gospel, in a simple way of daily living, amazed us all. We had three retreats over the two years for the YCW at the friary at Wynnum North and it was there that I first heard about Padre Pio.
At that time Fr Andrew Hrdina OFM Cap, was the parish priest of Wynnum, and I asked if I should join the Third Order of St Francis instead, which is made up of lay people. That left open the possibility of marriage. He suggested that I go to night school and study English and prepare myself to be a friar. The big question, for me, was would they take me. My family background wasn?t so good and I was only a Carpenter. My lack of education did not recommend me. Fortunately, Fr Charles Bugelli OFM Cap was the Vocation Director at that time and he accepted everyone who applied. To me he wrote, "The fruit is wripe and ready to be offered to the Lord." His spelling was not so good, but my internal bell went off and I said, "Yes!"
Eleven of us entered the Postulancy that magic year of 1969, when trams stopped running in Brisbane and the Apollo Space Mission landed on the moon. Fr Joseph Oudeman OFM Cap, now Bishop Joseph, had to cope with the chaos of our formation as Postulants, but along with the stress there was also a great deal of humour and we made many special memories in that year.
I was ordained with Fr Julian on the 7th of January 1978 and was sent to Adelaide. By some sense of divine irony, I am presently back in Adelaide as Parish Priest at Newton. I do not regret for one moment my decision to join St Francis and follow his way of fraternal, Gospel Life. It has been a challenge, but it has also been rich in blessings that I am certainly unworthy of.