Much-loved College Chaplain Father Gavin Foster SM recently celebrated 40 years in the priesthood, a remarkable achievement by a man whose pleasant manner and dedication to spreading the Gospel is an example to us all.
It is a familiar sight: College Chaplain Father Gavin Foster SM chatting and laughing with students as he goes about his busy daily schedule.
Whether celebrating Mass, teaching religion or coaching rugby, Father Gavin’s comforting presence around the school has been a feature of Joeys life for the past nine years.
Last year marked his 40th as an ordained priest; a tremendous milestone the College recognised at a recent headmaster’s assembly where he was presented with a commemorative Marist heart and plaque.
A Kiwi by birth, he spent his high school years at St Patrick’s College Sliverstream in Upper Hutt, a small city in the Wellington region of New Zealand. Run by the Marist Fathers, Silverstream was an inclusive school with a healthy interaction between priests and students.
What particularly impressed Father Gavin was the Fathers’ sense of humility.
“They were young men not much older than ourselves and they were extremely gifted teachers and happy, even though materially they had very little,” he says. “It had a big influence on me and my peers – that sense of having nothing but being happy.”
Father Gavin’s family was not overtly religious although Catholicism was a central pillar of their lives. They expressed their Catholicism more through works, and in gatherings – for example, his Dad would help repair the church roof and his Mum would hold Catholic Women’s League meetings at their house. It fostered in him the sense that faith was something that had to be lived, not only preached.
His decision to enter the priesthood at the end of his school years was a natural progression stemming from the respect he had for the priests that taught him and his growing faith.
“I really admired the Fathers at our school and becoming a priest felt natural. Looking back I can see that the seed was being sown there and in the home living in a Catholic environment.
“I wasn’t sure if I would make it through eight years at the seminary but I had to find out.”
Father Gavin found his new home at the Marist Seminary in Greenmeadows, Hawkes Bay, a friendly, welcoming place. Starting each day with Mass and theology classes, the afternoons would be devoted to manual work in the garden or vineyard. It was a down-to-earth lifestyle that appealed to Father Gavin’s Marist sense of simplicity and resourcefulness. He also enjoyed the challenge of learning theology and integrating it into the world around him. He came to believe that “ministry is not where you lock yourself in the Church and come out only for sacraments; you have to learn to walk with people in their shoes”.
Solemn duties: Father Gavin blesses Joeys’ fallen WWI Old Boys during a special Remembrance Day ceremony on the circular lawn.
Indeed “faith in action” has been a hallmark of Father Gavin’s ministry since he first entered the priesthood.
Ordained in 1981 at St Joseph’s Church, Upper Hutt, he worked as a priest on staff at various New Zealand schools where he taught religious education and English, looked after dorms and coached sporting teams – engaging with students wherever possible in an attempt to build empathy and see the world through their eyes.
In the early 1990s he was enjoying life as chaplain of St Patrick’s Wellington but felt challenged to spread the Gospel abroad through missionary work.
He duly accepted an appointment to Davao in the south of the Philippines, where he ran the Priestly Formation Program for nine years.
Working in a third world country amid abject poverty was complete culture shock. He learnt Cebuano, the local language, and Tagalog – so that he could get closer to the people and better understand their problems – and became familiar with their culture.
“Seventy-five per cent of people there live below the poverty line,” he says. “So what is important to them may not be of the same importance to us. You have to have the courage to say ‘I don’t know anything’ in a situation like that. You have to ask people what God means to them and start opening doors for them, rather than imposing your own values.”
“Ministry is not where you lock yourself in the Church and come out only for sacraments; you have to learn to walk with people in their shoes.”COLLEGE CHAPLAIN, FATHER GAVIN FOSTER SM
It was a receptive way of relating to people that bore fruit – especially when he was helping out at Davao Psychiatric Hospital.
The conditions of the patients were harsh. They lived crammed in small rooms, wore rags and barely had enough food to keep themselves alive.
Because of the stigma attached to mental illness in the Philippines, many patients had been abandoned by their families. Father Gavin set about restoring their dignity.
He organised new, clean clothes and regular meals. Many had no medical records, so he gave them birthdays.
One of the biggest challenges was changing staff attitudes.
“I would ask the staff to treat patients like they were their own brother or sister and that way they would get a more positive interaction.”
He also arranged for patients to go on excursions – some had not experienced the outside world in decades.
“I took them to our home at the Marist Fathers’ house, and one man, who was about the same age as me, said he hadn’t seen birds and grass for more than 20 years, and he was overcome walking around, touching plants and trees. It was very moving.”
When Father Gavin returned to the Antipodes in 2013, he had been in the Philippines for 19 years. He spent a year at Villa Maria in Hunters Hill processing all that he had experienced in Davao because he didn’t want to fall into the trap of judging Western life based on the values he’d absorbed in another country.
“It gave me perspective,” Father Gavin says. “It’s tempting to become judgmental because we seem to be much better off and our world can seem indulgent, but when you are in a new environment you have to adapt.”
In 2014, he accepted Headmaster Ross Tarlinton’s offer to become school chaplain. He immediately set about becoming a chaplain students could relate to and engage with. He instigated the Acolyte and Liturgical Leaders Program which enables boys to take on service roles within the faith life of the school, and immersed himself in College culture.
After almost a decade at Joeys, Father Gavin has become a much-loved figure; a man students and staff alike can go to for spiritual and social guidance – and a good old chat!
He is, he says, privileged to minister at Joeys, and believes the family atmosphere the College cultivates leads to many positive outcomes for the boys. He is particularly encouraged by their spirit of giving.
“They are generous with each other,” he says. “If their mates are in trouble they are there to help and give of themselves. Even when they leave College, they support each other. They think beyond themselves and that really gladdens me.”
Typically humble, he insists that clocking up 40 years in the priesthood is not a moment for self congratulations. Rather, he is more concerned with spreading the word of the Gospel and continuing to promote faith in action at Joeys.
“I don’t see God as somewhere else up in the sky,” he says. “I see God here all around us and in people.
“God is not separate from us and that’s what I want the boys to understand.”