Finding Kolkata – Michael Walter

Brother Doug Walsh fms is showing me around his place, an old house in Heidelberg West. The brothers’ house. On his table is a letter from the St Vincent de Paul Society about the soup vans. A meal is brewing in the slow cooker.

On his way back from a course in Europe, Br Doug decided to pay a visit to Calcutta (now known as Kolkata)

I was probably in my late 30s. Myself and my companion came back to the convent and I remember knocking on the door of the mother house, where Mother Teresa lived. So I knocked on the door and a little nun came and I said, “I’m Reverend Brother”, and she said, “Oh, Reverend Brother!” (She probably thought I was a monsignor or something.) She said she’d go and see if Mother was available. In those days we would have been fairly clerically dressed, white shirt, we would have looked like priests I’m sure. Anyway she came out and she chatted to us for half an hour. And then she invited me to go with her brothers (who were teaching in the slums). These young guys, they went out to the slum areas and I watched them teach and helped them to teach. I came back to thank Mother before I left (I was only there for a week). “Ah” she said, “your heart is here, isn’t it?” And I said, “Sure is” and she said, “Many Australians are like that” and she said, “I want you to go back to your own country and find the poor.”’

‘So. I went to Traralgon and I enrolled a young lad into Year Seven. No other school would take him. And he lasted in the classroom three weeks, I had a special lady who looked after him and eventually I needed to help him. His name was Johnny. Johnny came with me everywhere, and about four or five weeks later that got impossible because my secretary said, “The school needs you, you’re not running the school, you’re looking after this kid full-time, you can’t do it because it’s an injustice for all the other kids.” So I said goodbye to him.’

‘I came to work on the soup van … I was a Wednesday night person, I’m still here. And one cold night at a place called “The Gill” there was this bearded fella came to me. This boy said, “Brother Doug, how are you?” And the university students I was with, looked at me and I looked at this guy and he said, “You don’t remember me, do you? I’m Johnny from Traralgon.” And I said, “Johnny, how are ya?” He said, “I wanna thank you, you looked after me, you were the only person who took me in.” And I said, “Johnny, it didn’t last.” “That’s OK, you took me in.” I said, “How ya been?” He said, “I’ve been in and out of jail … but I’m doing OK and I’ve got a girlfriend.” It immediately came back that 12-year-old, and you wouldn’t believe it, I went back to Kilmore where I taught, and said to the Provincial, “No, I think I’m going to move into welfare.” He said, “Br Mark Paul has just finished his social work degree and we’re starting Marist Education Welfare Service.” And I came to Melbourne to help out with that.’

Br Doug has bright blue eyes with the spark, energy and curiosity of someone who has lived life to the full.

‘There were two things connected’, he said. ‘That I took him in and he lasted five weeks and The Gill was a place the Salvation Army run and that was for out and outers. And for him, for him to acknowledge me, fifteen, could be twenty years after, as a little 12-year-old boy – he would have been 30 too – and all I could see was that 12-year-old face.’