March 31 – Fred McKay

These weekly “People to Commemorate” posts are a kind of calendar for the commemoration of the saints, reproduced here from a Uniting Church Assembly document which can be found in full here. They are intended for copying and pasting into congregational pew sheets on the Sunday closest to the nominated date.

Images (where provided) are of icons by Peter Blackwood; click on the image to download a high resolution copy of the image.

Fred McKay, faithful servant

Fred McKay was a great Australian with a record of achievement and service, both within the life of the Church and across the wider Australian community, that would be difficult to surpass.  Like Rev John Flynn before him, Fred became a legend in the inland for breaking down the vast ‘tyranny of distance’ for people living in isolation. Whereas Flynn became known for creating a “Mantle of Safety” across the inland, McKay became known for creating a “Mantle of Caring”.

When Flynn died in 1951, Fred succeeded his old boss as Superintendent of the Australian Inland Mission of the Presbyterian Church (AIM), and served in that role for 23 years. His achievements in that time were incredible! Among them included the personal supervision of the building of the three main Uniting Church facilities in Alice Springs – the John Flynn Memorial Church, St Philip’s College and the initial building of the Old Timers Aged Care Home. There were nine new hospitals opened throughout these years, as well as pre- schools and hostels, and he played a major role in the planning and developing of Karratha in Western Australia, as the AIM sought to find creative ways of ministering to the burgeoning mining communities of the Pilbara.

He was Moderator of the Presbyterian Church in NSW and in 1970 began a three year term as Moderator General of the Presbyterian Church of Australia. When the Uniting Church came into being in 1977 he played a critical role in resolving some of the thorny property issues in NSW and with the division of assets of the AIM. Together with a team of negotiators he travelled to many locations in the state helping to determine which property would become part of the Uniting Church and which would be part of the Continuing Presbyterian Church. It was a tough time and called on all of Fred’s considerable negotiating skills.

Throughout his long life Fred McKay was regarded as a friend and confidante by thousands of Australians from all walks of life. He died aged 92 in March, 2000, in Richmond, NSW, and at his funeral service, and at subsequent memorial services held across the country, he was honoured by Prime Ministers and Governors General, parliamentarians, corporate and ecclesiastical leaders, battlers from the Outback, as well as members of the Australian Armed Forces who served overseas in World War 2. All regarded Fred as a personal friend, and he was their friend too, for he had genuine love of people and the great gift of making a person feel like the most important person in the world.

A great Australian he might have been, but he first and foremost a ‘man of God’. Born in 1907, one of nine surviving children, he grew up on a sugar cane and dairy farm near Walkerston in North Queensland. Throughout his life he had a strong sense of destiny and a powerful awareness of the Call of God on his life. When he was six years old he suffered a ruptured appendix and developed peritonitis which the doctor said was inoperable. His mother begged the doctor to operate and leaning over the bed said, “God, if you let my boy live, I will make him a minister for you”. Fred survived the complicated surgery and never wavered in carrying out his part in the covenant his mother made with God.

He attended Thornburgh College in Charters Towers, becoming school captain, and then attended Emmanuel College within the University of Queensland in Brisbane, graduating in 1932 with a Bachelor of Arts and a Bachelor of Divinity. He had the opportunity of studying for his Doctorate at the University of Edinburgh, but his destiny took a dramatic turn after meeting John Flynn. While working as a Home Missionary at Southport on the Gold Coast in 1933 he was visited by Flynn, and while sitting on the beach sifting sand through his fingers and talking about the Flying Doctor, Flynn famously said: “You know, Fred, the sand out at Birdsville is a lot lovelier than this!”

After much soul searching, he agreed, thus beginning one of the great stories of Christian ministry in inland Australia. He was ordained in December, 1935, and appointed to the vast Western Queensland Patrol centred on the Flying Doctor Base at Cloncurry, a patrol area of 452,000 square kilometres, and covering some of the toughest and most inhospitable country in Australia. Fred cut his teeth in ministry here!  He arrived in Cloncurry in April 1936 and on his first patrol conducted an informal Church service to 17 perspiring shearers in a woolshed on Devoncourt Station. Fred would later say that he had no church, no home and no set program, but if someone died, or needed help with their children’s lessons, he would get a call on the radio and respond. He came to love the people!

Fred married Margaret Robertson in 1938 and together they forged one of the great ministry partnerships, with ‘Meg’, as she became known, bringing her own gifts and abilities as a nursing sister whenever they went out on patrol. They stayed five years before the war intervened and Fred joined the Armed Forces, becoming a revered RAAF chaplain in the Middle East and Europe. Fred had two brothers who also became ministers, and his brother Les would later take up the Western Queensland patrol for the AIM. After the war Fred was minister at Toowong for four years having the opportunity to spend time with Meg and their growing family. Together they raised four children: Margaret, Ruth, Bruce and Elizabeth. He was nominated as John Flynn’s successor in 1950 and became the second Superintendent of the AIM in November 1951, following Flynn’s death in May. Upon retiring from the AIM in January, 1974, he spent seven years as assistant minister at St Stephen’s in Sydney.

At the General Assembly of 1973, as he prepared to retire both as Moderator General and as Superintendent of the AIM, the new chairman of the AIM Board, Rev Colin McKeith, said of Fred:

“…a fortunate man in that he was blessed with so many talents: – a very effective witness for Christ, a leader among men, a business man of the highest calibre, a Public Relations expert with very few peers. And this had been all placed at the disposal of the AIM, so the Church owed him a great deal”.

Fred McKay was honoured on three separate occasions by Her majesty the Queen, with an MBE in 1953, an OBE in 1965, and the CMG in 1972. He received an AC in 1999.

Reference: “Outback Achiever” Fred McKay, Successor to Flynn of The Inland, by Maisie McKenzie, Boolarong Press, Moorooka, Qld, 1997

 John Lamont