Father John: building connections in a time of coronavirus

8 April 2020
Father John Petrulis

In times like these, the world is reminded of how much we need rare gems like Father John who connects with people experiencing homelessness; earning him a Hall of Fame award. He’s utilising his time in self isolation and reaching more people by streaming his church services on YouTube for the first time.

Our streets may not hum like they used to but the heart and soul of people still pulses. Before the coronavirus pandemic, Father John, a favourite local in St Kilda, could often be found dropping into our Dining Hall, residential services at Queens Road or Sacred Heart Community; meeting with people who at times felt life had given up on them. But Father John never did.

“I see people with great hearts,” Father John says.

“They’re waiting for the right opportunity to show their hearts, and it highlights how important it is with people, to look beyond the exterior and see the wonderful person they are inside.”

Over the last 13 years, he has found his home at Sacred Heart Mission, sharing in the hardships, pain and happiness of people experiencing homelessness or disadvantage. Many regard him as a lifelong friend or like family.

“I once met a man who had been sleeping in his car after feeling immense loss when his mother passed away, and I walked with him in his grief, while he sought support from the Mission,” Father John says.

“He now has his own accommodation and in his first few months, he invited me to his home to bless it and he is a valued part of our church community; I really admire that resilience.”

Building connections in a time of coronavirus

Sundays at Father John’s services were often a big community event, where everyone was invited. Now the coronavirus measures have restricted church services, Father John wanted to emulate a sense of belonging for those feeling lonely or needing support, and has made his masses available online and on YouTube. His friends in our hostel, our residents, now stream his sermons on YouTube and listen to his messages of hope when they need it.

Father John keeps striding ahead in his ministry work, even picking up a Hall of Fame Award from his secondary school, which he accepted with quiet humility.

“So, to me, the school’s honouring of me is more around the spirit of service. I’ve been very gifted with lots of great things that are for me to have that heart of service,” he said.

A shared humanity

From an early age, Father John grew up in a spirit of giving; leaving an indelible mark on him. He watched his parents, who were refugees from Lithuania and Ireland, overcome immense challenges to forge a new life in Australia.

“Actually, my parents met in St Kilda and my father was in a boarding house and he had lost all connection with his family, even as a refugee and due to the post-second world war; he had a very difficult journey, and would have known the spirit of homelessness,” Father John says.

“My mother came searching for a new life after living in poverty in Ireland, so they both didn’t have a lot of support but they found their way and developed really good friends and community. They always treated the person who was struggling, with great welcome and generosity.”

He has encountered many more ‘heroes’, as he calls them, in his extraordinary journey.

The beloved priest is making no plans to slow down at the Mission just yet; there’s still time to keep bringing people together.