Fr Gregory Jacobs SJ, Parish Priest, Holy Family Parish, Mount Druitt
Holy Family Parish in Mt Druitt resides in the largest urban Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander community in Australia. Fr Gregory (Greg) explains how God ‘nudged’ him to become its parish priest.
Fr Greg is full of optimism. His parish is one of the most disadvantaged in Sydney, but he sees hope.
He explains a sign of this is the sudden drop in graffiti in an area of his parish where he’s working with other agencies on initiatives to connect with the community.
It was as simple as helping the young people of the area record their rap music. Suddenly, they felt listened to. Then they started feeling pride for where they lived and wanted to make it better. The graffiti stopped.
Fr Greg is a Jesuit priest. Unlike some priests who felt they knew the Holy Spirit was calling them to their vocation, Fr Greg openly admits the Holy Spirit operated through other people, starting with his parents.
“When my brother told them he wanted to become a priest, my parents said: ‘But we think Greg would be the one better-suited to be a priest’,” he says.
Fr Greg pondered on that, eventually looked into it, and joined the seminary where he studied for 12 years. It meant he had to give up a girlfriend, a job that he loved and a senior volunteer role with St Vincent de Paul.
At the time, he says, all he could do was “trust the process.” For him, this meant listening to the people around him who somehow seemed to know what he should do.
Into the margins
Jesuits go “into the margins” and “be where they (marginalised people) are”. That includes areas you don’t expect to see a priest, including in science.
Fr Greg has six degrees including a Bachelor of Science and a Master of Science. His first job was as a chemist in agriculture, separating lanolin from wool in Wagga Wagga, where he grew up.
Having spent time in Brisbane as an assistant priest, he was urged to take the role of parish priest at Mt Druitt. Like all his other moves, he hadn’t counted on being successful or even liking this role, but again he trusted the process. Now he’s certain. “This is the path for my life,” he says.
The Mt Druitt parish leases six charitable businesses on site. Managing the business side of this fills his hours alongside parish work, aided by volunteers with senior business backgrounds. He is also grateful to have been able to study leadership through the international Jesuit formation program. He calls on these skills to deal with the complexities of his parish, but could still use more hands-on help.
Knowing what it’s like to struggle leads to greater generosity
The suburbs of the parish are home to the largest urban Aboriginal community in Australia, with the lowest median house price of anywhere in Sydney.
Some of the issues he sees are high unemployment, mental illness, health issues, domestic violence, low literacy and truancy.
At the same time, his parishioners who stem from many different cultures, tend to out-do more affluent parishes with donations and food drives. “They have a better understanding of what it is like to struggle financially,” he explains.
The field hospital
The COVID-19 lockdown gave him a chance to read more of Pope Francis’ works and reflect on the role Holy Family Parish can play. “We are the ‘field hospital’ Pope Francis talks about,” he says. He’s aiming to put together strategies for children aged under five and their parents, as this is a good place to start for lasting change.
He also hopes to encourage those without jobs to volunteer to get the sense of satisfaction and purpose volunteering brings.
In the meantime, his outreach, which gave him a crash course in rap music, shows him how working with other agencies can yield positive results. “We can achieve so much more when we’re not working as silos,” he says.
If you have business experience and would like to help Fr Gregory manage an aspect of the work at Holy Family Parish, he’d love to hear from you! Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
This article was originally featured in the Ordinary Time/Winter 2021 Edition of the Catholic Outlook Magazine.