Peter Robinson

Peter Robinson in his early days as a priest.

Cheeky, much-loved priest a champion fundraiser

By Dom DiMattina

Peter Robinson January 13, 1933-March 14, 2020

Activist priest Father Peter James Robinson, awarded an Order of Australia Medal for his outstanding work with people with disabilities, was a shrewd, down to earth, very Australian Catholic priest. Sympathising much with those on the margins, rules and regulations never sat well with him.

I was privileged to count Peter as a dear friend for almost 70 years. Throughout this time, I witnessed the impact of his generous heart and spirit, buoyed by a great sense of mirth and mischief, on the disabled and disadvantaged of Melbourne.

Peter was educated in the 1940s by the Brigidine nuns, the De La Salle Brothers and the Vincentian priests of Malvern. On leaving school at 15, he was introduced to the charitable and social work of the Young Christian Workers movement, then recently established in Melbourne. The YCW had a particularly vibrant branch in the Malvern parish.

In the early 1950s, shortly after my family moved to Malvern, I was invited to a meeting of the Malvern YCW and introduced to its president. “Robbo”, as everyone called him, was welcoming, but somewhat surprisingly, kept a respectful distance.

Some months later he explained, rather embarrassed, why he had been cautious meeting me that night at the YCW. He had been told by a parishioner: “The Dimattina family had come to Malvern. They are the family with Chicquita.” Thinking Chicquita was probably an exotic Mexican disease, he had thought it best to give us a wide berth. At the time, he was not the keen horse racing enthusiast he later became, and so the name of one of Australia’s champion racehorses of the day meant nothing to him.

Robbo’s infectious sense of humour, derived from his Irish roots, was strongly influenced by his mother, Emmie (a member of the Cahir clan of Kilfenora in Ireland’s County Clare). A memorable nod to his quick wit was his response to a discussion, on his 85th birthday, about Pope Francis entertaining thoughts of married clergy. With his rascal smile he shook his head, remarking, “Now he tells me…”

Throughout his early work years, first at the taxation department, and later with the Department of the Army in Canberra, Robbo was inspired by leaders in the YCW movement. Eventually, he went to work full time for the YCW.

At 23, he decided to become a priest, going to St Bede’s in Mentone to study Latin and prepare for his eight years at the Werribee and then Glen Waverley seminaries. On the first day at Werribee, when fellow students were sharing what they had done in their lives, he offered “Well, I was a cockatoo”. His explanation (that a cockatoo was the man posted as lookout in case the police attempted to raid the local SP bookmaker) kick-started his reputation as a real priest of the people, with a flair for seeing the cheeky side.

Even in those early years, Robbo made an extraordinary impression on everyone he met. This led to an unusual first appointment, following his ordination in July 1964, as assistant priest at St Patrick’s Cathedral. Once there, he immediately set about making a difference, orchestrating an appeal for people to donate blankets for the homeless and needy around Fitzroy and Collingwood.

By then he had developed a keen interest in horse racing, notwithstanding the regular clash with his priestly duties on a Saturday afternoon. He admitted to me his quiet pride in his ability to perform five marriages at St Augustine Bourke Street one notable race day, while still able to tune into the 3UZ broadcast and not miss a race.

In 1970, while serving as chaplain to a large congregation of nuns at the Good Shepherd Convent (at the site now occupied by Chadstone shopping centre), he was given an additional post as chaplain to the Catholic Deaf of Victoria, a role he embraced with gusto. He soon became proficient in Auslan, the sign language used by many in the hearing-impaired community.

By 1972, I had invited Robbo to become a member of the Lions Club at the Wholesale Fruit and Vegetable Market of Melbourne, which Pat Lamanna and I had established that year. This launched him into a new and completely different world.

He was soon overwhelmed by the spontaneous generosity of the thousands of daily users of the wholesale market – growers, wholesalers and retailers alike. They, too, quickly warmed to this jovial cleric with a captivating personality who moved easily among them in the early hours of the morning, canvassing support for the Lions’ many charitable projects.

During this time, with the support of the Lions Club, he began his famous antique auctions, conducted by his great friend, Graham Joel (head of the notable auction house, Leonard Joel). Robbo’s novel idea was to write to hundreds of parishes, convents and brothers’ houses throughout Victoria, as they held many beautiful items of 19th century antiques. He invited these custodians to send antiques they did not need to him, to be auctioned to raise funds for the hearing-impaired community he served. The significant funds raised through this initiative allowed Robbo to fulfil a burning ambition to establish a dedicated centre for the hearing-impaired; what would become the John Pierce Centre for the Deaf, in Elsternwick. The grateful hearing-impaired community of Victoria always responded warmly to Robbo’s energetic advocacy on their behalf.

Arguably his finest fundraising feat was in 1976, after the Melbourne Markets Lions Club elected him as president. The Lions’ national administration had offered thousands of dollars to the club selling the most Christmas cakes in its annual Christmas fund-raising drive. With a record 7000 cakes having been sold by another Lions Club in 1975, Robbo proposed our club try to sell 15,000 cakes. These were delivered by semi-trailer into the giant concourse of the Melbourne wholesale market.

The club arranged to have then Richmond coach Tom Hafey, captain Dick Clay, star forward Barry Richardson and Brownlow medallist Keith Greig photographed by The Herald, unloading the cakes. The picture and accompanying free ad made the front page of The Herald and, within a few weeks, the job was done. Robbo sold 11,000 cakes himself. The club sold the remaining 4000. The prize was ours, and the John Pierce Centre was up and running.

In 1982 he introduced his great friend Father Ernie Smith to the Lions Club. Ernie was looking for support to establish his Sacred Heart Mission in St Kilda. The club duly bought a two-tonne trailer and every Friday filled it with donated fruit and vegetables for use at Sacred Heart Mission, which is still flourishing today.

Some years later, Robbo met Moira Kelly, who had adopted several abandoned children with serious physical disfigurements. Supporting Moira and the outstandingly successful operation on her conjoined twins, Trishna and Krishna, subsequently became an important project for Robbo and our Lions Club.

In recent years, despite his failing health, Robbo and I regularly attended the wonderful grape harvest charity dinner, Festa Della Vendemmia, under the vines in Mildura. He was too ill to accompany me this year, but on my return, I went straight to see him in hospital. As he lay peacefully, I whispered “a lot of people were asking after you in Mildura, Robbo”. His eyes shot open, and with a grin he asked: “Do I owe them money?”

His special brand of humour was there until the end. A true Lion of our times, Robbo will not be forgotten by the countless people whose lives he enriched.

Dom B. DiMattina, OAM, was a friend of Father Robinson’s for almost 70 years.