Over the years Br James Cronly, a lay brother, was born in 1939 and professed Simple Vows in 1990. He has lived in Plumpton, Leichhardt, Newton and Hawthorn. For a number of years he was the provincial bursar and Mission Office Director at Leichhardt, and is now in the Hawthorn fraternity and engaged as a spiritual assistant to the secular Franciscans. The interview below was conducted in the mid-2000's.
I was born in Hobart on the 17th May 1939, the eldest son of Patrick and Phyllis (nee Mathews) Cronly. Mother was descended from a persons who arrived in Australia in 1790, from England. Father’s family came from Ireland in the 1850’s. We were six generations Tasmanian. I was educated by the Sisters of St. Joseph and the Christian Brothers. I was baptised in July in 1939 in the Hobart Cathedral. After I was baptised Justin Simmonds, the then Archbishop of Hobart happened to be passing through, and picked me up and held me in his arms, blessed me and said: "This child is for God's work. My mother told me this later on. From then on my family thought that I was to be a priest. This was always in the back of my mind, all through my life at school. This is when my life became calm and serene and I knew that I had made the right decision.
When I was a little child I went to school at the local convent school – Sacred Heart, New Town. I think I must have been in the year two when on a visit to the church; beside the Sanctuary there was this big crucifix that you can touch. I can remember in getting in very serious trouble with one of the Sisters. I went in there I stood in front of the cross and kissed the feet and said: "I am going to take those nails of your feet". One of the girls reported that I wanted to take Jesus off the cross. When I explained to the Sister what I was trying to do, she put her arm around me, kissed and said: "That is lovely, dear." That was one of the things that I remember distinctly as a child. The most important event of those years was when I received my first Holy Communion in 1946 on the Feast of the Guardian Angels. Also about that time I saw my first Franciscan. He was giving the nuns a retreat. I could not believe how tall this man looked. He had no shoes on and that made a remarkable impression on me.
So I went through school, struggling all the way, almost missing out in getting into the class to learn Latin until on desperation I wrote that I wanted to be a priest and. I got my place in the Latin classes. I struggled and struggled all the way through the years of school. At the end of the school I saw the Archbishop who said that my Latin was not strong enough to be accepted as a diocesan priest. A Josephite Sister said to me: "Have you thought about being a religious, go and see the Missionaries of the Sacred Heart at Moonah". I went out and saw them and a month later I was studying with them at the Apostolic School at Douglas Park.
I studied for two years in the Apostolic School at Douglas Park (junior seminary). In 1960, I started my novitiate, after a month as a postulant. I made my first profession on 26th February 1961. I was sent to Canberra to study philosophy, Scripture, Hebrew, Greek and some sciences. The three years were completed with a Solemn Oral examination in philosophy. The four professors sat around the table. You entered in one by one and they would say: "Good morning" and continue in Latin. They asked if I wished to reply in Latin or English. I replied English as my Latin was not good. This meant that I automatically lost 10- marks. I struggled through this philosophy exam and gained fifty eight per cent. In the mean time, I had made my final profession with the Missionaries of the Sacred Heart in Canberra . I went to Croydon in Victoria. Eighteen months I was ordained to the Minor Orders by Archbishop Simmonds, the very one who had blessed me as a child. Then I went to Croydon in Victoria to study Theology and Scripture. This was the time of the Vatican Council and things got all up side down, some of the teachers were leaving, so I left too.
I went to work with the Commonwealth Government in Hobart and tried to settle down. I dated a few women and bought a house in Hobart. I was involved in the Church and Community. But, at times I was lukewarm with my religion, and sometimes fervent. In 1983, I was asked to move to Canberra. I stayed in a flat in the suburb of Curtin, which was only a grassy paddock back in 1963. I made some friends among the people there. I began to buy a house in Kambah. In Canberra I was lonely. The only friends were the ones at work. The loneliest time of the week was going to Mass on weekends, as nobody spoke to you. Eventually the parishioners organised a questionnaire in the parish; there were other people like me, feeling the loneliness after Mass so they worked to change it around. The parish became a model, it was much more welcoming to people and still is.
In this Parish there were several Secular Franciscans. One of these came to me and asked me if I had any thoughts of joining the Secular Franciscans. They tried to explain what it was about, and invited me to their meetings. I was very impressed with what I saw; what I was hearing. I was hearing about St. Francis for the first time, that he was somebody that I was longing for years to find and I had not realised
There was a retreat given by Br John Cooper. Between that time and the retreat next year, which Br Paul Hanbridge gave, I had the distinct impression that God wanted me to become a friar. But I did not really want to follow this path. I actually thought that to get this voice out of my head I will write to the Franciscans. I had three letters. The first one that I opened was from the Franciscans telling me that they were not interested as I was too old. They advised me to join the Secular Franciscans. I had written to them that I already was a member of the SFO, obviously they did not read my letter. the second letter was a bill. The third letter was from the SFO's telling me that Br Paul was to give the retreat. He wanted to know a little bit about people on the retreat. So I wrote to him. I thought that certainly was something that I should heed. I wrote to Br Paul and made an appointment to talk to him during the retreat. In the mean time I had a serious of dreams and this is very spooky. The dream was of a beautiful green pasture with a yellow road going through it and on this road there was a figure in a brown habit. I presumed in my mind that the dream that that was St. Francis, when the figure turned around it did not have a face. This was an ongoing phase in which I did not know what I wanted to do. Months later I had exactly the same dream including the friar with no face. I was accepted by the Capuchins and had the dream the third time and this time when the figure turned around had my face! I knew that I could not accept what God was asking me to do. Here I was holding a job in Canberra which was the secretary to the Central Trade Committee which was a tripartite group set up recognised trade qualifications of migrants from other countries. They were the top men in their fields, the type of people that the press would have go to for an interview during strikes. Some of them became my friends; so when I had made the decision and I was accepted by the Capuchins I went to see few of them and they were very exited and this surprised me how they were happy, even at work they were pleased. One of my bosses was a Catholic and at my farewell dinner he said: "I do not know what it is about me. I am beginning to wonder - this is the fifth person that I have sent to join the Church".
I suppose the most significant things in my childhood and my whole life where God actually touched me so hard that I could not listen to Him, because most of my life I used to go around with fingers in my ears so that I would not hear God. What He was asking me to do was too hard; I did not want to hear. It was funny because I was never quite happy, I would get involved in the church in doing a dozen things like in my last parish before I became a Capuchin. I was a member of the choir, a member of the Liturgy group. I trained a hundred and twenty alter servers. I did the setting up of the church. I belonged on another half dozen committees. I just did more committees because it was part of the job as I did not want to hear God and by keeping busy I thought I would not hear Him.
But God had a very powerful way in making listen to Him. When I bought the house in Kambah, everything was comfortable. But than there was the huge rise in interest rates as the interest rates increased, wages did not. Every month I would be able to keep my nose just above water. I could survive if I cut back on things - cheaper cuts of meat etc. One of the most important things was the bus pass, my only means of getting around. This gave me unlimited travel for a month for $42. All through the month I would save and save so that I could have the $42 to get the next pass, to get to work. On morning, I lost the bus pass, and it was only the second day of the month. I knew I had bought home. I knew that it was in the house, but I could not find it. I was getting more and more angry. All of a sudden I dropped into a chair that was in my bed room. I sat there and I started to weep, frustrated and angry with God: "Alright you win, God if that’s the way you treat your friends, I’m glad I’m not your enemy". I felt a great calm come over me and I had a funny feeling in my stomach and I was still shaking.
As I got up from the chair there it was the bus pass on the floor. I had been walking over it in my anger. I still was not sure of what God wanted. It was not until a quarter of an hour later when I was walking to the bus stop that God indicated: "I want you to be a friar". I can remember as if He was standing next to me and saying it. I shook all the way to work. Than I went through the process including the dreams that I had described earlier.
As I told people of my decision, they thought that when I said that I was going off to be a Franciscan, that I was to be a priest. Without realising it, I took this aboard. When I went into the novitiate and I had more time for prayers, there was something that did not gel, something wrong. I spoke of this to Novice Master. We sent down and discussed the different reasons needed for becoming a priest or a brother. Then, I realised that God did not call me to become a priest but a brother. John asked me to come back in a week's time, and when that week was over I returned with the assurance that I was to become a brother.
I was professed on 8th July 1990; and took my Solemn Vows on 21st January 1996.