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Social activist will be sadly missed


‘Charity is the Samaritan who pours oil on the wounds of the traveller who has been attacked. It is the role of justice to prevent the attack.’

- Blessed Frédéric Ozanam

Tony Thornton, former National President of the St Vincent de Paul Society in Australia, died suddenly on Saturday 11 July 2015.

He was a great lover of humanity, a great fighter for social justice. The persistence of poverty and homelessness in prosperous Australia affected him deeply. He was never willing to accept a status quo that included the wholesale rejection of people who were made to feel the sharp edge of inequality.

Some people look at charity as a means of assuaging their consciences in the face of social injustice. For Tony Thornton it was a sign that something was profoundly wrong when people were forced to rely on charity rather than being able to count on justice. Deeply respected not only in the St Vincent de Paul Society but throughout the not-for-profit sector and beyond, Tony was distinguished by his integrity. His analysis was disarmingly bold and simple. He passionately argued that we are failing people who are pushed to the margins. More than that, we actually make things worse for them with policies that punish them for being poor.

Tony saw everything as connected to everything else and was not afraid to roll up his sleeves and throw himself into the work that needed to be done to address the injustices that made his blood boil. He felt deeply the pain inflicted on the First Peoples, asylum seekers, single mums, young unemployed, older unemployed, people with a disability, people experiencing homelessness, the low-paid and insecurely employed and anyone else he came into contact with who was struggling. As a member of the St Vincent de Paul Society he regularly visited people in their homes to give them material assistance but he never walked away without being touched, and educated by, their stories of struggle and pain. He recently expressed his horror over violence against women and had decided to throw himself into this cause as well.

For those who did not know him, all of this might make him sound like an angry prophet, and in some ways he did follow the prophetic vocation of the likes of Isaiah who railed against the politics of cruelty: ‘Woe betide those who enact unjust laws and draft oppressive legislation, depriving the poor of justice, robbing the weakest of my people of their rights, plundering the widow and despoiling the fatherless!’ (10:1–3)

But he was anything but an angry man. He was the epitome of gentleness and kindness. His anger against injustice was part of something generous and expansive, as in the formulation by Augustine of Hippo: ‘Hope has two beautiful daughters. Their names are anger and courage: anger at the way things are and courage to see that they do not remain the way they are.’ Such was his anger. It was always coupled with courage and in the service of hope.

His vision exceeded the bounds of the context he worked in. Once, when asked in a public gathering whether he thought there should be more charities and more support for charities, he shocked his audience by saying that he actually thought there should be less! And that our long-term aim should not be to strengthen charities but rather to change society so that people wouldn’t need to rely on charities! Which is why, despite being someone who believed that his beloved Vinnies existed for the people rather than the prelates, he felt a strong affinity with the pronouncements of Pope Francis who, just before Tony died, and to his great delight, said: Let us not be afraid to say it: we want change, real change, structural change.’

Anthony Thornton was born in Shanghai on 10 June 1937. His parents were English, his father directing a large technical training college in Shanghai. Tony always spoke with pride about his father’s bravery in choosing to stay with his students while Shanghai was besieged and then taken over by the Japanese military administration. He lovingly kept an invaluable collection of memorabilia from this time, including the letter sent to his father ordering his imprisonment, his father’s prison diaries, and a newspaper clipping from the Straits Times picturing baby Anthony as a young refugee as he and his mother were evacuated to safety.

Little wonder then that he felt such a sense of solidarity with, and compassion for, the people who seek refuge on our shores today. Tony and his mother found their way to Australia where they waited to be reunited with his father following the end of the war. Growing up in Balgowlah, Blayney, Moruya, Woodford in the Blue Mountains, and Wollongong, Tony went on to join the RAAF at the age of 15 as a junior trainee, retiring 24 years later as a Squadron Leader. He served in the Equipment Branch, saw service overseas and was awarded an MBE in the Queen’s birthday honours in 1970, for service to the RAAF.

It was in his early years in the Air Force that he won the heart of Aileen Murphy, the love of his life, a young woman from Wollongong who was to become his wife, his closest friend and confidante, soulmate and chief combatant in the glorious battle of wits distinguished by a matchless display of dry humour and very human love. On one occasion during their long-distance courtship while he was stationed in Laverton in Victoria, he wrote to Aileen declaring ‘for two pins I’d come home this weekend’. Aileen immediately sent him a envelope containing nothing but two pins, and sure enough he hitchhiked from Laverton to Wollongong to see her!

Following his time in the RAAF, Tony spent from 1976 to 1982 working at the Canberra Deep Space Communication Complex as the administrator for the Tidbinbilla and Honeysuckle Creek tracking stations. From there he worked in the Commonwealth Public Service, mainly running the promotions and appeal secretariat, until his retirement in 1994. In 1982 he joined the St Vincent de Paul Society as a conference member but had to leave after a few months because of work commitments. In 1994 he started working in the not-for-profit field as a volunteer. Initially he started with the Victims of Crime Assistance League (VOCAL), and with Vinnies in the Diocese of Canberra/Goulburn. He stayed with VOCAL as their treasurer and office administrator on a part-time basis for four years. During this time he also worked with the Society in the Curtin Centre.

From this point on the St Vincent de Paul Society became his full-time cause. He stepped up, always with incredible modesty but never with any hesitation, to volunteer for whatever job needed doing. Before long he was put in charge of the Vinnies Centres in the Canberra-Goulburn Archdiocese, then was made President of the Archdiocesan Council, during which time he patiently but doggedly pursued, and achieved, the Council’s independence within the Vinnies Federation.

Following this, he was appointed National Secretary and then was elected as National President in 2011. This position took him all over Australia and, indeed, the world, spending time and being present with his trademark simplicity and humour, with members of the St Vincent de Paul Society and the people they stood with. He revolutionised the way the National Council looked at itself, instilling and driving a vision for unity in persity.

He always said that his greatest experience was the simple joy of working alongside ordinary Vincentians, young and old and in-between, in the service of the poor and excluded. He was impelled by a hunger for social justice, a love for humanity and a conviction that his God was to be found not in pomp and splendour but in the poor and oppressed.

Tony loved his family. For him, there was never a shortage of love to be shared. His simple love for people was of a piece with his love for his family. He is survived and tenderly remembered by his wife, Aileen, his children Mary, Peter, Philip, Kathryn, Michael and Damien and their families, including 17 grandchildren and eight great-grandchildren, and by all whose lives he touched across the Canberra community, the nation, and beyond.

Dr John Falzon is the Chief Executive of the St Vincent de Paul Society National Council of Australia.

Topic tags: John Falzon, Vinnies, Tony Thornton, poverty, obituary



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Existing comments

A beautifully written account of this very worthwhile human being, who aspired to love in a practical way those in physically and mentally hard places. Why is our news filled so often with despair, when we all would be uplifted and inspired by news of this man's life.

Linda Rees | 23 July 2015  

A few years ago I had the pleasure of staying with Tony and spent many hours looking through his vast collection No doubt( as pointed out) these early formative years filled him with compassion for the dispossessed. Modest, gentle and kind.... those words sum Tony up nicely for me. I will miss him. Thank you John Falzon

Pete Lyall | 23 July 2015  

Thank you for this beautiful obituary. What a compassionate person and a life full of loving, caring and sharing. Isaiah 10: 1-3 is particularly relevant to our present government and a leader whose religious background should have taught him to know better. Vinnies volunteers and clothing stores, and Ozanam House, saved my family from extreme hardship on many occasions. You have reminded me that kindness is still alive and thriving in an often hard and judgmental world. :)

Annabel | 24 July 2015