21 May 2012
Inspired by Don Ritchie, the 85-year-old known as the "Angel of the Gap" who died on Sunday, 13 May, Fr Paul believes it is important not only that the man credited with convincing more than 500 people from jumping off Watson's Bay's notorious cliff face in a bid to end their lives, be remembered but that the personal presence and gentle compassion he offered is continued.
"Along with the signs and phone numbers for Lifeline and the fences and phones now posted at the Gap, it is vital there is also a human presence at the Gap," he says. "We all want to be loved and needed and wanted, and Don was someone who really cared. For almost five decades he brought a human presence to the place and his genius was that once he realised someone was in trouble, he opened his heart and offered them friendship and a bridge back into the world," he explains.
Although Fr Paul is with the Archdiocese of Melbourne, he is temporarily in Sydney to help out at St Mary's Cathedral and the surrounding parish.
"I had never been to the Gap when I arrived here just over three weeks ago, but I learned about Don Ritchie through a family whose teenage daughter recently attempted suicide. She is being treated at St Vincent's Hospital and when I offered her and her family pastoral care and support, I became thrust into the world of the Gap," he says. Inspired by the stories he kept hearing about Don Ritchie, he made a point of driving to Watson's Bay hoping to meet him.
"I went to his house which overlooks Gap Park to introduce myself just a couple of days before he died. By then he was in hospital but I met with Moya, his wife who recounted how she and Don were married at St Mary's Cathedral just over 60 years ago and how they had celebrated this milestone anniversary just six months before."
When Don Ritchie died less than a week later, Fr Paul travelled to Watson's Bay to offer his respects to Moya and the couple's three daughters, Jan, Donna and Sue who were delighted at his visit and shared many stories of Don's selfless compassion and his belief in helping others.
For sixty years Sydneysiders knew the "Angel of the Gap" however when he passed away his story was recounted in newspapers around the world. Don's funeral was held last Friday at the HMAS Watson Naval Chapel, near to the home he shared with Moya for 48 years.
"Don was originally in the Navy and the small chapel was filled to overflowing. It was standing room only and I am sure among the many of those present were many of the people he helped save," says Fr Paul who describes Don as his "role model."
But in a world where the strength found from a trust and belief in God increasingly takes a back seat and where modern technology has created a world of virtual friends rather than real ones, Fr Paul says a human presence and someone to talk to has become more important than ever.
"We can talk about all the causes of attempted suicide but deep down there is no real mystery to it. Like everyone they want to be loved, cherished and to belong. Don always understood this. But he never forced himself on people. Instead he would watch them through his window and keep an eye on them, a bit like the Prodigal Father at the door. But after awhile, believing the person might be contemplating suicide, he would take his dog for a walk which would help him spark up a casual conversation with them, which more often than not ended up with him taking them back home for a chat and a cuppa."
According to his daughter Sue Ritchie Bereny as often as not Don would open the conversation with "is there something I can do to help?"
"My ambition always was to just get them away from the edge, to buy them time; to give them an opportunity to reflect and give them the chance to realise things might look better in the morning," he confided last year when he was named Australia's Local hero in the 2011 Australian of the Year Awards. "You can't look at someone in trouble and not do something," he said.
While Fr Paul will return to the Archdiocese of Melbourne and his Victorian home within the next few weeks, Don Ritchie has further fostered his determination to help those in such despair that they have lost the will to live.
"I keep thinking if my niece or nephew or relative became so unwell that they were beyond caring for themselves, I would know that in their right minds they would expect me to do what I could to help them. To do what they seem unable to do mired in confusion and illness," he says and quotes Don Ritchie's explanation for doing what he did.
"After leaving the Navy Don worked in the insurance industry and would later tell friends of those he helped that he'd been a salesman for most of his life, and what he did at the Gap was to sell them life."