Minister helped Ash Wednesday fire victims heal

On the afternoon of February 16, 1983 – Ash Wednesday – Reverend Frank Tate heard there were bushfires heading towards his community of Timboon in south west Victoria and drove towards the smoke to see if there were people he could help.


The dangerous hours that followed were full of flames and heartbreak. As the fire approached he was asked by a young mother to evacuate an elderly relative who was home alone without transport. Shortly after collecting the old woman, the inferno was upon them. After finding shelter at another nearby farmhouse he attempted to deliver his passenger to her family member, only to discover the young woman’s burnt out car and her remains on the road back into town. No one in Frank’s immediate family could doubt the shock and grief that he suffered in the days that followed, but like the blackened bush he looked to regrowth and renewal as a way to make sense of the losses suffered by the farming community that he so cared about.

He was appointed convenor of the Uniting Church’s Bushfire Relief Committee and worked with others to enable longer term pastoral care for affected families. The 18 months of non-stop work took its toll and ultimately marked the end of his time in the region and set him on a new path.

Robert Frank Tate was born in Mitcham and attended school in Vermont after the family moved to a small farming property at Narre Warren North. The seeds of his later call to the ministry were planted by a family tragedy when an elder brother drowned at the Dandenong baths.

The traumatic event had a lasting impact on the health of his mother and Frank spent many hours in his teenage years caring for her, while also leaving school to work in the poultry industry.

Having been encouraged by a local minister to complete adult matriculation, Frank – with the support of his wife Janice – studied theology at Ormond College and was ordained in the Presbyterian church in 1970.

His initial posting at the outer urban Epping parish was somewhat fraught as his opposition to the Vietnam war and progressive views on social inclusion rubbed up against the innate conservatism within the Scottish church.

In 1972 he accepted the call to the south-west, arriving on unsealed roads with Janice and three young children to be told that in the dairy region “it rained nine months of the year and dripped off the trees the other three”.

Between three Sunday services at different ends of the parish, births, marriages, funerals and hurried trips to Melbourne to watch his beloved Bombers, life was busy and never dull. He helped establish the Timboon meals on wheels service and despite never being a snappy dresser had style enough to win the ‘best beard’ competition at the town’s centenary celebrations in 1975.

In 1978 Frank conducted a dawn memorial service at Port Campbell’s Loch Ard Gorge marking 100 years since the famous shipwreck. Held on the beach, the event was expected to close with a demonstration of rescue rockets shooting into the sky. Instead, the out-of-practice rocket crew let off the big bang halfway through Frank’s epistle, with the rockets shooting into the Gorge, almost decapitating the big crowd. Few public speakers could have kept order, but Frank managed to get the excited gathering back on track.

Referred to by friends and family as the “the late Mr Tate” long before his passing, Frank also found infamy in the late 1970s when The Truth newspaper published an article under a headline “The day the minister missed the funeral”. Frank had agreed to officiate at the burial of an elderly local at an old bush cemetery, but then realsied he had double-booked. The old gentleman was interred with words offered by the undertaker. Frank had no comment for The Truth but was mortified in private at his mistake.

After the Ash Wednesday fire ministry and more than 20 years in Timboon, Frank sought a new direction and undertook a 12-month chaplaincy education placement at the Peter MacCallum hospital in Melbourne.

The experience was a challenging one and his children noticed a distinct change in their father’s emotional openness and connectivity. Frank returned to parish life in the difficult environment of Broadmeadows, where his work was still defined by a willingness to work alongside people of diverse backgrounds to achieve tangible outcomes.

While in the parish he met and married his second wife, Patricia, who shared his love of football and (eventually) the Essendon Bombers. The couple took another church settlement in Nathalia, before retiring to a small property in Euroa in 2003. It was there that Frank finally had time to put his bush mechanic and Magpie whispering skills to their best use and enjoy a growing number of grand children and great grandchildren.

After being diagnosed with advanced prostate cancer in 2009, Frank settled in Ballarat where he remained involved with the Uniting Church at Redan and expressed a desire to live long enough to see the Essendon drugs scandal play out and the club be competitive again.

In his final days Frank awoke one afternoon to be told that Essendon were being beaten soundly by the West Coast Eagles in their final pre-season match. He nodded, closed his eyes and said: “rebuilding”.

Source: SMH