On 13 November 1932, Hilton Forrest Deakin was born in Seymour, in northern Victoria, to Arthur and Ruby (nee Ricardo), but spent most of his early childhood in the small Riverina town of Finlay in New South Wales, where his family moved when economic hardship forced them to sell their farm.
Three of his brothers died before the age of three, leaving him as the eldest sibling of sisters Nanette and Valarie (who became a sister with the Good Samaritans) and brother Robin. The hardships his family experienced in the Depression years left a strong early impression on him, and the ‘swagmen’ who would travel through town looking for work—and for whom his mother would always keep a pot of soup on the hob—provided an early lesson in showing solidarity with those on the margins. ‘Seeing their desperation left a deep, deep mark on me,’ he would later recall.
It was also in Finlay that he befriended the children of an Aboriginal family who lived on their street, kindling an abiding respect towards Aboriginal people, and sparking a deep interest in their rich history and culture. ‘Friendship was the soil in which the idea of “culture” was planted in my mind,’ he later said, although it ‘would take some years to germinate.’
Encouraged by his mother, the young Hilton was an early and enthusiastic reader, receiving his first formal education from two Mercy sisters at the tiny St Joseph’s Catholic school in Finley. When the family moved to Melbourne during the war years, he was enrolled at Our Lady of Lourdes, Thornbury, where one of his teachers discovered that he could sing with perfect pitch, urging him to audition for the Cathedral Choir. This led to choral scholarships at St Patrick’s, Fitzroy, and then at Parade College, East Melbourne. His years in the Cathedral Choir, under the direction of choirmaster Dr Percy Jones, instilled in him a lifelong love of music, as well as a strong work ethic and an early grounding in Latin. He would go on to study piano at the Melbourne Conservatorium, and only gave up playing when arthritis made it impossible to continue.
It was during his school years in postwar Melbourne that he was first exposed to Catholic Social Teaching and to various expressions of Catholic Action. He sold the Catholic Worker on the steps of Flinders Street Station on Saturday afternoons, visited sick children and the elderly with his school St Vincent de Paul group, helped his parish priest deliver food parcels and even mounted a soap box at Yarra Bend to speak on behalf of the Catholic Evidence Guild—a daunting but formative experience that honed his public speaking skills and forced him to examine the foundations of his Catholic faith more deeply.
At the age of 19, encouraged by the Christian Brothers at Parade College, he entered Corpus Christi College Seminary, then in Werribee. They were challenging years as he struggled to adjust to an approach to education and formation very different from what he'd previously known. Despite some frustrations, his vocation was sustained by his growing interest in Catholic Social Teaching, and especially Aboriginal affairs (nurtured on visits to various Aboriginal communities around Australia), the discipline of regular prayer, the friendship and intellectual stimulation offered by fellow seminarians, and a sense of excitement as Catholic biblical scholarship opened up to new approaches and insights in the 1950s.
Ordained to the priesthood by Archbishop Justin Simonds on 27 July 1958, he would serve as an assistant priest at St Monica’s Moonee Ponds, where he developed media skills, presenting reflections on Channel 9’s Epilogue program; at St Augustine’s in central Melbourne, where he worked with the homeless and took an interest in the Eastern churches, forging a particular bond with Ukrainian Catholics; at St Francis Xavier’s, Box Hill, where in the years after the Second Vatican Council, he experienced ‘the excitement of engaging with the new ideas and perspectives’; and at St Roch’s, Glen Iris, where he served while studying anthropology at Monash University.
In 1968, aware of Fr Deakin’s interest in Aboriginal affairs, Archbishop James Knox had invited him to undertake undergraduate studies in anthropology, in preparation for the upcoming 40th International Eucharistic Congress, to be held in Melbourne in 1973. The hope was that Aboriginal people would play a central role in the Congress, and Fr Deakin was being prepared to facilitate this. Supported by Archbishop Knox and with the approval of Rome, the work he did to develop an ‘Aboriginal Mass’ for the Congress—sensitively and meaningfully incorporating elements of Aboriginal spirituality and culture—broke new liturgical ground and inspired other indigenous Catholic communities around the world.
After the Congress, he would go on to complete a PhD in anthropology at Monash, based on fieldwork with the Kwini people of Kalumburu in far-north Western Australia, setting him on a path as a priest-anthropologist that would lead him into challenging but rewarding territory in the years to come.
On completing his PhD, he continued to teach anthropology one day a week at the University of Melbourne, while also serving as the first parish priest of the newly established parish of St Thomas More in Mount Eliza. During the seven happy years he spent there, the parish expanded rapidly.
Throughout the 1980s he became increasingly involved in broader archdiocesan affairs, being appointed Vicar General in 1986 under Archbishop Frank Little. Shortly after his appointment, he experienced an aneurism of the aorta and was rushed to hospital for surgery. During the procedure, one of his vocal cords was inadvertently cut. After three anguished, prayerful months, and despite being told that he would probably never speak again, he eventually regained his voice. It was a life-changing experience. Convinced he’d been given a second chance to live his life well, he resolved ‘to speak out, both as matters required, and as the need arose’—a resolution that would have far-reaching consequences.
In 1991, during his time as Vicar General, a group of East Timorese arrived unannounced at his office to ask him if a memorial Mass could be celebrated at St Patrick’s Cathedral to mark the 16th anniversary of the Indonesian invasion of Dili and to remember those whose lives had been lost. Only days after this meeting, however, Indonesian troops opened fire on a procession of mourners at a Dili cemetery, killing 293 people, including school children. In light of the ‘Dili Massacre’, and at Fr Deakin’s suggestion, the commemorative Mass became a funeral Mass that was attended by around a thousand East Timorese, along with many of their supporters.
For Fr Deakin, it marked the beginning of a long, passionate and very personal commitment to the people of East Timor—a commitment that would take him regularly across the Timor Sea (sometimes at great personal risk) and make him a close confidant and advisor to many of the leaders of the movement for independence, as well as a bold and influential spokesman for them in Australia and internationally. (The remarkable story of his involvement in the struggle for East Timorese independence is explored in his memoir Bonded through Tragedy, United in Hope.)
Named as an Auxiliary Bishop for Melbourne (Titular Bishop of Mortlach) on 30 December 1992, and ordained on 3 March 1993, Bishop Deakin went on to serve under three archbishops over a period spanning more than 30 years.
Over the years, his ministry to the Archdiocese of Melbourne was broad and rich, including appointments to the Pastoral Leadership Board, Personnel Advisory Board, College of Consultors, the Diocesan Finance Council, Catholic Capital Grants (chair), Mannix College Council (chair), Priests’ Retirement Fund, and the Council of Priests (ex-officio). He was also appointed as Episcopal Vicar for Migrants and Refugees, forming deep friendships among a number of Catholic immigrant groups across Melbourne, including in the rapidly expanding Chinese Catholic community.
His background in anthropology, experience in Aboriginal affairs and commitment to social justice led to various international projects and roles, including that of President of Caritas Australia and Vice President of Caritas Internationalis, where—alongside his ecclesial roles in Melbourne—he dedicated himself to alleviating the suffering of those experiencing poverty, conflict and injustice in places as far flung as Rwanda and West Papua, as well as at home in Australia.
In recognition of this extensive work, Bishop Deakin was awarded a Member of the Order of Australia in 2003, along with the Centenary Federation Medal.
Retiring on his 75th birthday in 2007, he was appointed Bishop Emeritus, and in 2008 he celebrated his Golden Jubilee, receiving a congratulatory message from His Holiness Pope Benedict XVI. In 2019, he celebrated his Diamond Jubilee.
After a brief period of ill health, Bishop Hilton Deakin died peacefully on Wednesday 28 September 2022, aged 89 years.
In the foreword to Bishop Deakin’s memoir, Xanana Gusmão, the first president and former prime minister of East Timor, paid tribute to his friend, describing Bishop Deakin as ‘a man whose life embodies the best of Catholicism; an intelligent spirituality, a commitment to social justice and a genuine love of people’—gifts that he shared generously, enriching the Church and improving the lives of countless people over the course of a remarkable and faithful life.
May he rest in gentle peace.
Archbishop Peter A Comensoli will celebrate the Pontifical Requiem Mass for the repose of the soul of Bishop Deakin at St Patrick’s Cathedral on Thursday 13 October 2022 at 10.30am.
A Vigil for Bishop Deakin will be held at St Thomas More’s Church, 313 Canadian Bay Road, Mt Eliza, on Tuesday 11 October 2022 at 7.30pm.
Fiona Basile30 November 2022
Melbourne Catholic30 November 2022