'For 30 years, my mum lied to me about who my dad was. Then she made a confession.'

When Brendan Watkins was eight years old, his parents told him he was adopted. In his 20s, he found out the identity of his birth mother, a former nun called Maggie, but she wanted little to do with him. Then, in 2018, a DNA test led Watkins' to the true identity of his father...

The following is an extract from Tell No One by Brendan Watkins, available to purchase here.

It appeared Kate’s ongoing chats and email exchanges with Peter may have unearthed my dad. But there were two impediments to that theory:

Vincent was thirty years older than Maggie. Vincent was a Catholic priest.

Fifty years of paternity questions had been narrowed down to one of the most unlikely answers imaginable, my ex-nun mother may have conceived me with a priest.

Unfortunately, Father Vincent Bede Shiel was unable to assist with enquiries as he had passed away on 14 April 1993 at ninety years of age.

There had been so many false dawns; my first reaction was to disbelieve it was him. I wouldn’t allow myself to feel anything until Kate’s theory was confirmed, in triplicate.

As I didn’t have a sample of his DNA, there were only two ways to confirm the truth. The least strenuous was to have Maggie confirm it, but if she wasn’t going to help (I only half-jokingly told Kate) I was prepared to grab the shovel and drive up to the Field of Mars Cemetery in Sydney where he was buried.

Since sending my sample to in 2015, I’d read of several exhumations to access DNA. While it sounded ludicrous to have to dig up a priest to prove paternity, I was aware of an American priest about to be exhumed to source his DNA. A man called Jim Graham was battling the church to obtain consent to dig up his presumed father—it was big news in America. Surely, we wouldn’t have to resort to these measures?


Kate was convinced Vincent Shiel was my dad. Maggie had to fess up. She was now eighty-four (unfairly, she’d outlasted Roy and Bet). I’d resolved to never call or write to her again, and it’d been eight years since our last contact. I looked up her number but for some reason I couldn’t find her in the Sydney phone directory. Had she passed? How did I miss it? I extended the searching to Australia-wide and discovered she had moved to Brisbane. A new life in the sun would be a tonic and (consciously or otherwise) her relocation had the bonus of putting another nine hundred kilometres between her and me.

Although a priest and nun having a child and surrendering it was one of the ultimate taboos for Catholics, I didn’t care one iota if my father was a priest. What I was uneasy about was the nature of Vincent and Maggie’s relationship; Father Shiel may have been an abusive man. He was thirty years older than her, so what could she have seen in him? I clung to Peter Meaney’s comment that Vincent and Maggie ‘were great mates’, as I braced for turbulence. On 16 July, Kate called my mother and explained how I’d submitted my DNA and what we’d found. She went through the convoluted steps that led us to believe that a man we now knew she’d been close to for decades was, in fact, my birth father. As Kate talked, Maggie did not utter a word.. proceeding with care, Kate stepped through lists of the Shiel family. She named my new DNA-confirmed cousins, uncles, aunts—relatives with whom we’d just learned Maggie had shared decades of her life.


For a non-computer-user like my mother, this roll call must have come as a bolt from the blue, a miracle even.

Listen to Mia Freedman interview Brendan Watkins on No Filter here. Post continues below.

Kate shared some of the electoral-roll addresses that directly linked Maggie to Vincent Shiel. Almost thirty years of obfuscation was being dismantled as she spoke. The fact that Vincent and Maggie had lived together for some years before his death was the clincher. ‘Maggie, Brendan is a Shiel. The DNA is irrefutable. We just need to know which Shiel. Please, Maggie, we believe that Father Vincent Shiel is Brendan’s father.’

Sitting next to Kate on our kitchen bench, I remained silent, leaning in, trying to make out the response down the line from Brisbane. How could she deny the identity of my father now?

Maggie umm-ed and ah-ed, rolled the question around like a riddle: ‘Noooo... No, I don’t think Father Vincent could be Brendan’s father.’ Kate left a long pause. My mother didn’t fill it. ‘I understand this is hard to talk about... but please, Brendan is owed the truth. I’d prefer to not contact the other three men’s families,’ Kate pleaded.


Maggie evaded again. Kate and I locked eyes. This was unexpected. Kate was gentle but direct. They went around in circles for some time, but as there was no progress the call was wound up. ‘Maggie, please have a think and give me a call when you’d like to talk.’

Shaking my head, I stared at Kate in confusion. ‘Are we too late? Could she have dementia? Do you think she even knows who my father is? None of this makes sense.’

At work the next morning, Kate answered her mobile, and my mother made her confession.

Kate called me at work to relay the long-awaited truth; my journal notes record Maggie’s response. ‘Yes, Father Vincent Shiel is Brendan’s father. Yes, he was a priest. A good man—but long dead. The lifting of this weight is an enormous relief for me, although I am anxious Brendan will think poorly of me and be angry... but more than anything I feel so much better that this troubling secret is finally out. I’m sorry for lying to Brendan over all of these years.’ Kate said to me that Maggie’s relief may bring about a desire for closer contact.

I exploded. ‘Really?! After decades? After so many lies? The pointless private detective chase? Maggie bare-faced lied to me for twenty-five years. She’s now been found out by the DNA. She was never going to tell me the truth! Now she wants to be friends?’

Maggie had revealed that Vincent was ‘a kind and decent man’, though ‘he was older than me’. She’d known him since she was a teenager, and their friendship had endured until the day he died. She shared some surprising details. He had been an architect, went to university and then became a builder, before becoming a priest late in life. He also designed and oversaw the building of a number of churches in the Outback. He’d travelled the world. She described him as ‘a great dancer... a charmer’. When she discovered the pregnancy, Father Vincent had arranged for her to travel to Melbourne and stay with a Catholic family in the months before my birth and adoption. He made Maggie promise to keep me a secret forever. ‘You must tell no one.’


Maggie had stressed that the truth must remain a secret between the three of us. She reiterated that she had been raised in poverty, her family had rarely shown kindness or love, and without saying it, she was asking for mercy.

Regarding my conception, Maggie said, ‘It was just a thing that happened.’ What did that mean? I asked Kate. I wanted to understand the nature of my parents’ relationship. Had they been in love? It was a jumble of information, and still so many unanswered questions. But as had happened so many times before, Maggie’s words had dried up—she’d lost her nerve.

‘This is all wrong,’ I fumed. ‘How can a 57-year-old priest have a child with a 27-year-old? And what does this mean, “It’s still a secret”? Does she mean don’t tell my own family? My friends? Or her family? Or my birth father’s family? They are all my family now. She still wants to control this!’


All the cards were finally on the table. We’d got our man (well, Kate had got my man). My overwhelming emotion was contemptuous disappointment in my devout birth parents. A nun and priest, exemplars of the compassionate Catholic faith. I’d been sacrificed for a sin committed against their God. How pathetic.

Once my father was found, I’d thought I’d feel somehow complete, but it was a shuddering anticlimax. I wanted to quit my job, lie low for several weeks, or months... the knowledge that my birth parents were a couple and yet still chose to shun me to preserve their holy reputations was such a gut punch. They were the worst kind of frauds: religious hypocrites. My mother spent the majority of her life evading her only son because I had a priest father.

I let it all out on Kate: ‘I don’t want anything to do with Maggie ever again.’ I’d never wanted her to be my mother - there could never be a more loving mother than Bet. All I’d ever wanted was my story. ‘A priest-father is such a lame excuse for Maggie to have screwed me over for thirty years.’

From that day on, I claimed ownership of my story. I would be my own narrator. As I digested this news, I recalled a photograph of Father Vincent Shiel we’d found on Trove a couple of weeks earlier. The weary, grey-bearded, old priest stared straight back at me.

Hello, father Father. I’m the son of a preacher man. I was fifty-seven years old and for the first time in my life I knew for certain who both of my birth parents were. The insatiable curiosity ignited half a century ago when Roy and Bet told Damien and me we were adopted ended on this bleak winter day. I exhaled as though I’d been holding my breath for years.


Tell No One by Brendan Watkins is now available for purchase. You can order it here.

Image: Supplied.

Feature Image: Brendan Watkins

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