Shop floor priest


Jesuit Social Services CEO Julie Edwards and Fr Ian DillonFr Ian Dillon (pictured with Jesuit Social Services CEO Julie Edwards), who died recently at the age of 85, lived an unobtrusive Jesuit life. But his story is of wider interest because it reflects some of the central changes in society, church and the Society of Jesus during his lifetime.

Ian's father was Joe Dillon, the personnel manager and trouble shooter for General Motors in Melbourne. Industrial relations, particularly in a company with its head office in the United States, were robust and often confrontational. Joe Dillon had a wide reputation for being tough, but also fair.

That was also Ian's reputation as a teacher. I first met him after I had joined the Jesuits and he had been ordained. He came to the Melbourne funeral of his brother, Alan, who was my father's partner in their medical practice. Alan, whom I had known as a softly spoken and gentle man, died of leukaemia at the age of 31. At that time Ian spent much time with Alan's wife, Jean, and her young family. He was practical and forthright, as rugged as Alan was gentle. 

At that time Ian often told colourful stories about his experience in schools as student and as teacher. He portrayed teaching as a power struggle, in which the students and teachers were naturally pitted against one another. 

As a boy he had studied at Xavier College during the early 1940s. Many of the students' fathers were away with the armed forces, to which the boys themselves might expect in their turn to be called. The mood of the school was boisterous and edged. Disorder could break out at any time.

Ian recalled with a participant's enjoyment the mini-riots in the school hall. The teachers were unable to quell them, until Fr Tom Montague, a diminutive priest, entered the hall, stood and surveyed the scene and its actors. The boys melted away. Fr Montague was Ian's model teacher, a man who wordlessly projected power. 

I later taught with Ian. He was nicknamed Matt, after Matt Dillon the TV sherriff. He was strict and direct, but well accepted by the students, especially the mischievous and headstrong. They sensed his respect for those who played their part in the adversarial game. But he made sure that he won.

I found him warm and supportive when I asked him for advice, a man of firm and practical faith. But as a beginning teacher who lacked all confidence in this contest of wills, I also found his strength and certainties intimidating.

In 1967, after seven years teaching, Ian was asked to go to Papua New Guinea as student chaplain. He stayed there in various capacities for 15 years.

The change was a blessing for him. He and his world would have narrowed had he continued, and he may have struggled to adjust to the rapid changes in education and society. In PNG he was not in a position of power, and was able to associate convivially with a wide range of people including those who had power unjustly wielded over them. 

It was not easy for him to return to Australia in 1985. In PNG he had found freedom from the sharply defined institutional forms of living and working that had been characteristic of the Catholic Church and of its religious congregations. His taste for freedom was by then widely shared among Catholics. He was also reluctant to take positions of institutional responsibility in church or among the Jesuits that might have forced him to see himself as a company man.

In an inspired move, he became a chaplain with the Industrial Trade and Industry Mission. He moved easily on the shop floor, ate and drank with the people among whom he worked, and for some years lived in an industrial suburb where he became well known at the Rising Sun Hotel. He spoke directly with people about faith and life in his no-bullshit style.

He still described his environment in terms of adversarial power, but he no longer represented the bosses but the workers. He flourished, and enjoyed criticising those in power at any level of state and church. His stories would end with a laugh, and his exclamation of delight, 'They really haven't got a clue! Not a bloody clue!'

Within Catholic and Jesuit circles, Ian's move can be seen as part of a more general desire at the time to make an 'option for the poor'. This involved imagining life and the world from the perspective of the deprived and not of the comfortably off. This change of perspective inevitably involved changes of living style and of work commitments. Ian was not a theoretician. For him the change was visceral, a place of freedom. 

In 1998 Ian became chaplain at Jesuit Social Services. Despite a succession of illnesses, he was always available, always encouraging, always inviting people to focus on what really mattered. He still resisted any temptation to become a company man, still enjoyed his contemplation of the powerful who didn't have a clue.

In this last stage of Ian's life I increasingly looked forward to chatting with Ian at the Jesuit events he so enjoyed. He still played the old game of adversarial power, now from the underside, but what mattered to him was simply people.

Even though I knew that in Ian's terms I really didn't have a clue, I always felt encouraged. He was interested in what I was doing, noticed and appreciated anything I had done. More preciously, though, Ian had that rare gift of making me feel a fellow conspirator with him. I went away enlivened for the next small battle. And I was just one of many whose lives he touched in these simple ways.

In many worlds and with many people, Ian kept faith. 

Andrew HamiltonAndrew Hamilton is consulting editor of Eureka Street.

Topic tags: Fr Ian Dillon, Jesuits, Society of Jesus, Joe Dillon, General Motors, adversarial power, catholic church



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Existing comments

Rightly we mourn the departure of such unique men as your mentor Father Ian as we in N/Qld did of another giant of that generation in Father Peter Green .Your Jesuit culture seems to nurture you into fearlessly maintaining your uniqueness.

The daunting thing is that you & others of your vintage are now "elders" & I am confidant that you & others of the tribe with whom I am more aquainted ( Frank B , Pat Mullins etc)can readily fill the breach to help us lesser mortals maintain our faith

John Kersh | 15 April 2011  

I remember Ian with affection from his teaching days at SAC in Sydney. He was a wonderful teacher & friend - my brothers & I did enjoy him. May he rest in peace.

Peter Quilty | 15 April 2011  

In many ways Father Ian "Matt" Dillon was a company man - a company of Jesus man. By this time, in faith we trust, he will have heard this greeting promised by Jesus: "Come, you that are blessed by my Father! Come and possess the kingdom prepared for you ever since the creation of the world." Matt 25:24 from the b

Uncle Pat | 15 April 2011  

Dear Andrew, THank you for that heart-warming appraisal of Ian. ANd thank you for all the thought-provoking articles you publish in Eureka St. They really are a blessing to me. shalom Jean

jean SIetzema-Dickson | 16 April 2011  

This time of Ian's death is a good time to remember his life, and I remember his witty observations that kept us enthusiastic in ITIM and the various industrial missions in which it immersed us. I am grateful to Ian for his forthright, no nonsense way of relating and his integrity in the mission of Jesus in the workplace.

Anna Killigrew | 18 April 2011  

Dear Ian attempted to provide solace to the 'abandonned' faithful in Kilmore for years. Thank you. Bernard and family.

bernard ryan | 20 April 2011  

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