A bushranger remembered

A service at St Patrick's Church in Wangaratta is held for Ned Kelly after he was hanged in 1880.
A service at St Patrick's Church in Wangaratta is held for Ned Kelly after he was hanged in 1880.

WHY bother to hold a funeral for Ned Kelly?

That was the burning question Monsignor John White tried to answer for 450 people at the bushranger’s Requiem Mass.

In short, he explained, it was God alone who would finally judge men, not us mere mortals.

At least half the mourners had flocked to St Patrick’s Church at Wang­aratta because they are proud descendants of Kelly’s siblings.

The rest were a mix of Kelly fans, local parishioners and people who came just out of plain curiosity and a rare sense of occasion — a moment in Australian history that was 132 years in the making.

The Mass lasted barely an hour and inside the L-shaped church was almost as hot as the outside temperature of 39.5 degrees.

Soft music played as Kelly family members filled into the old nave, a structure that young Kelly himself saw taking shape in 1869 and where he may have possibly worshipped at times.

Non-family folk were directed to a modern church wing, which happens to display an large marble plaque bearing the Ten Commandments, including a couple that Kelly broke more than once.

As the organist played If you ever go across the sea to Ireland, a man in a green Irish cap strolled in, and a few like Jason McCormack wore Ned Kelly T-shirts.

Monsignor White was a fitting choice to preside, being a son of Jerilderie, which the Kellys once held up, and a past priest at Euroa, where the Kellys robbed a bank in 1878.

He still conducts Masses at Glenrowan, just around the corner from the siege site in 1880.

“As a small boy I was fascinated by the story of Ned Kelly,” he said.

“I feel humbled and privileged to offer the ritual of the Catholic Church.”

He acknowledged the Kelly story still divided Australia — “some are for him and some against”.

And he revealed he had received abusive phone cals and emails attacking the holding of Mass.

So why hold a Mass for Ned Kelly now?

Monsignor White explained that Kelly became “a child of God” when baptised at Beveridge in the summer of 1854-55 and ended his short life attended by priests at Old Melbourne Jail.

Yesterday Monsignor White sprinkled holy water on the coffin containing the bones of Kelly, though not his skull, as a preparation for the family burial service tomorrow.

“The life that Ned lived is not the point today,” he said in his homily.

“We are not celebrating the man, but celebrating the merciful love of God.

“We don’t make judgments — we leave that to Almighty God.”

Monsignor White said a delay of 132 years didn’t matter, and it was important for the family who loved Kelly as one of their own.

“His body was denied to his family and his mother Ellen — imagine how she would have loved to receive his body,” he said.

“Today we are righting a wrong, if you like. Let me remind us all that we have a church of saints and sinners and we are not here to say which category Ned fell into.

“We cannot refuse to pray for the dead, and we leave (the rest) to God.”

Fathers John Ryan and Frank Hart assisted, but there was no eulogy apart from Monsignor White’s homily.

As six family members carried out the coffin under a bouquet of Australian natives, the congregation rose and sang In the sweet by and by, We shall meet on that beautiful shore.

It was Ned’s favourite hymn, which he sang in his cell on his last night.