Finding sanctuary

The image of Cardinal Karol Wojtyla with kangaroos at Healesville Sanctuary in 1973 is a famous one, reproduced many times. The memorable moment took place because the future Pope sought a brief break from a busy schedule in Melbourne.


By David McMahon, Communications Manager, Society of Jesus in Australia

He’s coming downstairs. Not the normal way, though. Fr Wieslaw (Tony) Slowik SJ is still recovering from recent spinal surgery and is resting in his first-floor room. But he’s been told that I have a question for him and instead of saying, “Tell him to come upstairs to talk to me”, he’s coming down carefully.

Make that very carefully. He has his left hand on the wooden banister while his right hand grips the walking stick that he’s using during his recovery phase. One step at a time. The left hand moves down easily on the banister, but it takes longer for his right hand to transfer the walking stick from one step securely down to the next. It’s slow going, and just to complicate things, the staircase has a 90-degree turn halfway down.

I offer to help but he’s determined to do this on his own, without any assistance. He negotiates the 90-degree turn expertly and then he’s on the final stretch of the downward journey.

You’re wondering why his left hand is on the banister and his right hand is guiding his walking stick? You think I’ve got the descriptive details mixed up in a mirror image of reality?

No. Trust me. The details are right. I said he was doing it “not the normal way”, remember?

Fr Tony is coming down backwards. It’s called commitment.

He’s been told I want to talk to him about a framed photograph of Cardinal Karol Wojtyla with kangaroos. The large photo dominates one wall of the Polish House in Richmond and as soon as I spot it, I try and analyse as many details as I can. It’s in full sun but it’s not a midday photograph, because the shadows are longer than they would be with the sun directly overhead. It looks like a summer day, because the only other person in the frame is clad for comfort and is wearing a white hat with a brim and a black hatband. The sunlight is strong on the grass and on the foliage of the Australian native trees. Similarly, the sun falls intensely on the Cardinal’s hair.

Cardinal Karol Wojtyla.

There’s no caption to the photo. No little brass plaque with a date or any information about where it was shot.

There are two kangaroos in the foreground of the shot. The one on the left has either moved away as the photographer has hit the shutter, or the photographer has decided that the animal is just a peripheral detail. Neither kangaroo has their tails or even their hind legs in the photo. The other kangaroo almost looks supplicant. Its short forepaws look as if they are folded in reverence, and its head is tilted backwards as it accepts some form of edible treat from the future Pope’s right hand. It could almost be the animal kingdom equivalent of receiving a Communion wafer.

What’s the story behind the photo, I ask Fr Mariusz Han SJ.

He smiles. “Ask Fr Tony,” he replies. “He was there that day.”

And that is precisely why Fr Tony is heading carefully down the stairs, in reverse gear.

He settles into the nearest comfortable chair, which just happens to be conveniently placed below the framed photograph in question. The alignment, albeit unchoreographed, could not be better.

Exactly half a century ago, the Polish Cardinal had travelled to Melbourne for the 1973 International Eucharistic Congress, as well as the blessing of the Polish Church in Essendon and the ordination of two Polish Jesuits, Fr Tony and Fr Leonard Kiesch. During his time in Melbourne, he lived in the Richmond home occupied by the Polish priests and their visitors.

Fr Tony remembers the day’s events clearly. “The photo was taken by Mr Tadeusz Dobrostanski and as it turned out, the image became quite popular. He wasn’t a newspaper photographer. I think he worked at a dental hospital.”

Fr Wieslaw (Tony) Slowik SJ. Photo: David McMahon.

So I decide to do some research of my own. If Mr Dobrostanski was an established photographer at the time, he was probably in his late thirties or early forties, which would mean he’d be in his late eighties or early nineties now, at least.

But because it’s an uncommon name, I type it into the search option in LinkedIn to see what happens. One name comes up – Izabela Dobrostanski. I note where she works, and look up the number of the organisation. I ring the number and when a switchboard operator answers, I explain succinctly why I’m trying to get in touch with her. Obligingly, the operator puts me through to her direct line. Her landline rings. And rings. And rings.

When it eventually goes to the voicemail option, I leave a message but my hopes are fading at this stage. I mean, who checks their voicemail on a landline? But in less than ten minutes, my mobile rings.

It is Izabela Dobrostanski. Yes, she is Tadeusz Dobrostanski’s daughter. Yes, he is alive, but is now 90 years old. Yes, she has heard the story about the picture. No, they don’t actually  have a copy of the photograph on their walls at home. And then comes the unexpected revelation: Tadeusz Dobrostanski didn’t actually take the photograph! He had a full work schedule that day, so he asked his brother to do the Healesville shoot instead.

When I express surprise, Izabela tells me that she will speak to her father and get some answers to my questions. A few days later, she tells me: “My Dad had to work that day, most likely doing some additional commercial photography such as a wedding. So instead he sent his brother Jerzy, who took his wife and their daughter (my first cousin) who was only nine years old at the time. I know that the people who accompanied the Cardinal that day had a picnic at Healesville. As far as I know, there were only about eight to ten people in that group and there was no security at all, which seems strange in the present era.”

Fr Tony with the prominent photo. Photo: David McMahon

That aspect of the story is confirmed by Fr Tony. “At Healesville Sanctuary that day there were no media photographers or reporters and so the Cardinal was able to move around freely. He enjoyed being at Healesville. He loved being close to Nature.

“The Eucharistic Congress went from one Sunday to the next but he did say that the program was perhaps a bit too tight and that he didn’t even have five minutes to view some Australian landscapes or to see a kangaroo. So that was when we decided to take him to Healesville Sanctuary in the middle of the week, even though the weather forecast was for an incredibly hot day, above 40 degrees Celsius.

“That morning, before I drove him to Healesville, I went upstairs to his room to make sure that he was ready. I knocked and he came to the door. I was aghast to see he was wearing his black cassock! I laughed and said, ‘You must be crazy. It’s going to be more than 40 degrees’. Of course, I knew him from my time in Poland, because he used to come to our chapel for Jesuit students. I was really concerned that maybe he didn’t know what the changeable Melbourne weather was going to be like that day.

“He didn’t say a word. He just raised his cassock and I could see that he wasn’t wearing trousers. With a smile on his face, he just said, ‘Let’s see who’s going to be more comfortable in the heat. You or me’!”

Read our earlier story about how Cardinal Wojtyla, the future Pope John Paul II, made an extraordinary offer to be Fr Wieslaw Slowik’s stand-in father before his ordination in 1973.