Written by Bernard Toutounji
25th July 2023

Remembering my Parish Priest – Fr Carl Ashton – 1937 to 2023

Early in the morning of Thursday 13 July 2023, after a short time of illness, Fr Carl Ashton went to his eternal reward. Fr Ashton baptised me, gave me my first holy communion and prepared me for confirmation, but more than that, he imparted to me a love for the Catholic faith and a desire to put it first in my life. Fr Ashton was – and I believe will be – the most influential priest in my life.

It was Fr Ashton who encouraged me to enter the seminary, a period of years that were truly transformative. In the seminary and following it, I spent a decade undertaking academic theological study, but it was Fr Ashton who laid the foundations with our first communion classes when I was eight years old – six months of weekly classes, two hours per class, along with homework and exams. Then there was the preparation some years later for confirmation, again it was comprehensive, and every lesson delivered by him personally (he was the only sacramental coordinator I knew). There is little that was taught to me in philosophy, systematic theology, scripture, or moral theology that did not have some genesis in Fr Ashton’s teachings, either in the aforementioned classes or via listening to hundreds of his homilies. He would begin or end each of those homilies with the words ‘My dear people’, and while they may not sound like much, those words were the mark of affection he had for us, we were his people and we were precious to him, even if he would never of course say that.

In truth, any parishioner knows that he also turned away quite a few people; he offended some and could have worked harder to build bridges with others. He, like all of us, was not perfect and I pray the Lord have mercy upon his faults. But like no one I have ever known, the words of St Paul can be said of him, “I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith”. Fr Ashton was a priest for more than 60 years and he was the Parish Priest of Sacred Heart, South Mt Druitt for 42 years. The only reason he retired in late 2021 was because his voice gave way, and it became difficult to hear him. When I saw him for the last time only one month ago, he was certainly frail, as many 86 years olds are, but to me he was not old, yes, he spoke quietly, but he had the same dry wit, the same conviction, and the same curiosity as always.

Fr Ashton was not a man swayed by emotion. When he was encouraging me to discern the priesthood more than twenty years ago, he emphasised that we only have one life, and that in the priesthood one could certainly do much to extend the reign of Christ and the Church. Of course, he was right, and he has been an example of that. Fr Ashton has been criticised by some as being ridged or conservative, but I think it was fairer to say that he was tough. He was tough because he knew that the call of Christ was a high call, he knew that the road to eternity – as the Lord Himself said – was a narrow road. As such, the people of Sacred Heart Parish were always aware of what they needed to do to get to heaven. We were aware of what would get in the way of us meeting Christ. We were aware that we came to Mass to receive our Lord. We knew we were Catholic, and we knew what that meant. I have had the privilege to know many good and holy Catholic priests in my life, but I can call none of them ‘Father’ in the same way I might call this priest my truest spiritual father.

The Father Ashton I recall is very much of the 1980’s and the 1990’s, it was a time of much debate and discussion in the Church. The waves of change were still choppy following Humane Vitae (1968) and the Novus Ordo (1969). The 80’s and 90’s were years of liturgical experimentation and theological novelty but for reasons that I don’t think anyone truly knows, Fr Ashton never played that game. I don’t mean he didn’t know why he maintained a traditional path, but rather why did this one priest – in many ways not an impressive or imposing figure – keep the faith and ensure that his people kept the faith? Many clergy, religious and laity who were also formed in a pre-conciliar Church quickly embraced novelty and experimentation. Fr Ashton just quietly got on with the job. He was charged to be the pastor of the people of Sth Mt Druitt, and he simply did that task. Like a soldier on duty, he stood at the door, rain, hail or shine until he could stand no more. He did not seek accolades – in fact he was repulsed by them – nor did he seek to turn away from imparting the faith that had been imparted to him. I believe that Fr Ashton put his own clerical reputation on the line to ensure that the people of his parish were protected from what he deemed to be bad for our spiritual health. For that courage and conviction through his life I cannot but commend him.

Fr Ashton loved the Church – dilexit ecclesiam – he loved her hierarchy, her order, and her beauty. He remembered with fondness his own days in the seminary from 1955 to his ordination in 1962. In the 1990’s, as the St Patrick’s Seminary in Manly was closing, he would take parishioners on bus tours to the grand old building and recall with delight this place on the hill that stood for 100 years as a sign to all of a Church that was strong and faithful.

As a teenager Fr Ashton thought he would enter the world of science, but towards the end of high school he was struck by a short film on electricity shown in his school class. There was a momentary scene of some monks chanting. That scene and that chant stayed with him and when a priest asked him to discern the priesthood, he did so. It was all very matter a fact for him, the priesthood was a way he could faithfully serve our Lord.

He entered the seminary, was ordained, went where he was stationed and taught the faith until the Lord called him home. In essence his life was really that simple, nothing more, nothing less. I am reminded of the Lord’s parable in St Luke’s Gospel. The Lord asks the question as to how the master ought to treat one of his servants. After a day of working in the field is it not right that the servant will also prepare his master’s supper, and only then, rest himself. Christ then turned to his hearers and said, “So you also, when you have done everything that has been asked, you should say, ‘We are unworthy servants; we have only done our duty.’” That may not be the flavour of faith that many embrace, but it was Fr Ashton’s and I pray it will be mine. He was simply responding to the call of the Lord and for that he expected no earthly reward. But of course, we pray that he also now hears the words of his Master, “Well done, good and faithful servant”.

As mentioned already, Fr Ashton was tough, and he expected (perhaps not always correctly) that everyone else should be just as tough. Even though there were ceiling fans and later air conditioning in the church, he rarely, if ever, could be convinced to use them. He would operate with the most minimal amount of lighting possible. He was not any sort of climate warrior, but he just didn’t see the need for too much comfort. I recall the many hours spent in that church, boiling in summer, or freezing in winter. It didn’t matter to me so much (not in my early years) as we were offering the sacrifice for Christ.

I didn’t realise at first that a Sunday Mass of almost 1.5 hours was not so normal, he led the liturgy carefully and slowly but that was his Mass; if one didn’t like it, there were always other churches. Father always exercised what I would call liturgical solemnity. He led the Stations of the Cross in Lent with a seriousness befitting the occasion. He would tell us each Good Friday that the ceremony had unfortunately fallen short of the three hours which Our Lord spent on the Cross. We would never speak casually inside the church when Our Lord was present in the tabernacle. Parishioners would enter, genuflect, and pray quietly. If there was ever repair work or some non-liturgical activity taking place in the church, he would remove the Blessed Sacrament. He did none of this for show, he did it because he always gave due reverence to Our Lord.

As an altar boy, Father Ashton trained us well. He taught us to genuflect properly (the right knee always touching the ground in line with the back of the left foot. He taught us to bow at the waist after presenting the water and the wine at the altar. He taught us to bow our heads at the name of Jesus. Mind you though, Father Ashton was never one to throw around the name of ‘Jesus’ in his sermons, it was always Our Lord. Why? Because he knew that Jesus Christ was first and foremost our Lord and God, not just another mate. As a priest he was only seen in his black shirt and clerical collar, or in his white shirt with gold collar crosses. He wore clothes until they were thread bare and even then, he would patch them and keep going. He was always ‘Father’ and nothing else; even his first name was a mystery to many. I recall once the bishop came for a confirmation and at the end he thanked ‘Fr Carl’. We looked around wondering who he was talking about.

Fr Ashton quietly supported many good movements and groups, both in and outside the parish; Legion of Mary, St Vincent de Paul, Schoenstatt, Family Life International, the Cardinal Newman Catechist Centre, Alliance of the Two Hearts, the Billings Method, and Aid to the Church in Need, to name a few. He brought in very gifted priests to fill in any time he was away (which was not often). He would bring Catholic books to the parish for sale and encourage everyone to buy one and read a page a day to grow in their love and knowledge of the faith. Father supported any initiative that would help people live their Catholic faith. He would personally attend faith talks held around Sydney with his trusty tape recorder, so that he could both listen to it again and pass around a copy to others. Each year he would take the year six pupils of the primary school to Mt Schoenstatt for a retreat day and enrol them in the scapula. He personally taught weekly scripture classes at the local state school. In no way was he an office bureaucrat, he lived to impart the faith.

I speak of course from my own experience, but I can add into that the experience of my family. Why did my parents move to Sth Mt Druitt in 1978 – the same year Fr Ashton arrived in the parish? There is no answer to that, they saw a house that fitted their budget, but I like to believe that in the scheme of providence, us being in that parish was an unmerited grace. What would our faith look like if he had not been our pastor? What would we have believed? Would we still be faithful today? What would I be passing onto my own children? Of course, I don’t know the answer to those questions, but I am happy to give thanks to God for that gift.

Fr Ashton was parish priest of Sth Mt Druitt for 42 years; we could say that he covered two generations, but really it was so much more. While I was a baby when he arrived, others like my parents were newlyweds starting to raise families, others were children needing formation, others were elderly people seeking consolation. He brought the faith to all of them. He was the hand and the feet of Christ for a number that no one could count. I know of course his parish was small, one of the smallest in the diocese, but I would say that his reach has been more profound than many other parishes, as wonderful as they may be.

Father Ashton brought and maintained faith in the lives of not just the people who knew him, but those who they went on to encounter. Ten years ago, I got married and Jane and I now have five children from nine years down. My wife will tell you how oft I have spoken of Fr Ashton (possibly about his toughness as much as his faithfulness) but that faithfulness is what is now being passed onto my children. Our eldest two children attend a PARED school, and it is easiest to describe those schools as independent schools teaching the Catholic faith. For various reason these schools attract a very high percentage of families who put faith (or family) at the very top of their priority list. The focus on faith and virtue in the school is the reason we attend. I have come to know a number of these families and children and teachers, and while many of those children may not know it, the faith they know is part of a harvest that was nurtured and prepared by Fr Ashton. Their parents or grandparents were formed at Sacred Heart and their progeny are Fr Ashton’s spiritual children, just as my own are his spiritual children, and I pray that my grandchildren will also form part of his fold, though they may never know it.

There is much I could write about Fr Ashton; these are just a few thoughts, but I very much wanted to put into writing some simple form of tribute and thanks to this man who I have known my entire life. Apart from my parents, I know there will be no more influential soul that God will place into my life. I can only be grateful for what he provided to me and the example he set. He died as he lived, in simplicity and with little fuss. He wouldn’t care much for my words here but perhaps a slight smirk would emerge in knowing that I thought he had done a worthwhile job. I will miss you Fr Ashton and I will never forget you. Thank you for everything. May your memory be eternal and may you rest in peace. Pray for us.

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