Leap of faith pays off at Wollombi

“‘We are the sign of your life with us yet’ – I think that’s about us,” says Gael Winnick of Wollombi. She’s quoting the words of a hymn which has just been sung at Friday evening Mass in St Michael’s Catholic Church.

Leap of faith pays off at Wollombi

The history of St Michael's is chequered, with its reincarnation as a privately owned Catholic church unique in the region, if not Australia.

The story can be read in various places, but to really understand, you need to meet the friends of St Michael's, aka the Catholic community of Wollombi.

These warm and welcoming people have had their mettle tested in ways that Catholics in larger, better resourced communities don't often experience. Wollombi is small, the Catholic population of the village is smaller. It belongs to the Parish of Cessnock, which also has Mass centres at Cessnock, Kurri Kurri and Abermain. Back in 1991, a dearth of priests and increasing demands on those who serve the Catholic community led the then parish priest to the sad conclusion that a commitment to St Michael's could no longer be sustained, and so the church would have to be sold.

At this low point in the St Michael's story, it's appropriate to recall the history of what historian Gael Winnick calls, "a venerable building". The original St Michael's was built in 1840 and its foundation stone laid by the first Bishop of Sydney, John Bede Polding. Bishop Polding rode into town on horseback to consecrate a church built from local sandstone by local people. There's a pointer here to a later chapter of this story.

Standing as it did beside Wollombi Brook, the church suffered damage in the 1893 flood and was moved, stone by stone, to higher ground in Maitland Road, where it remains. In October of that year Bishop James Murray laid a new foundation stone.

For many years St Michael's was a centrepiece of life, hosting baptisms, weddings, funerals and of course, regular worship. The Anglican Church of St John's Wollombi also serves the local community and the two congregations have a happy and harmonious relationship that precedes the 2008 covenant of Anglican and Catholic Churches of Newcastle, Broken Bay and Maitland-Newcastle Dioceses. At that time, former Bishop of Maitland-Newcastle Michael Malone said, "I think most ecumenical people would say that we want to get to a point where we respect each other's culture and tradition, we respect the liturgical practice of each one, with a sense that 'I'm prepared to learn from you, and I hope you're prepared to learn from me.' Who knows where that attitude might lead?"

That attitude was alive and well in Wollombi. From her research, Gael reports that when the 1893 foundation stone was ready to be blessed and laid, Anglicans and Catholics together came forward readily and placed their donations on the stone.

To say it was a blow to Wollombi Catholics when the sale by auction of St Michael's was announced would be an understatement. However, it was also a clarion call and the community rallied. Val Noyce remembers, "It wasn't a happy time." As Shirley Cotto wrote in the local paper in August 2006, "They were determined that St Michael's would not suffer the same fate as other churches - bought privately and turned into art galleries and restaurants."

Adversity soon became opportunity, and clear resolve and profound generosity won the day. However, these were dramatic days, and President of the Friends of St Michael's, Daryl Heslop, recalls thirty silver pieces (twenty cent coins) being thrown down the aisle to the auctioneer! At one stage it seemed that a stalemate had been reached. The windows were opened because it was a warm September day - and from outside came another bid which broke the impasse. In the end, three local families provided the reserve of $120,000, and the parishioners, few as they were, committed to repay the loan by raising funds. As Gael says with conviction, "The generosity of people in this valley is amazing."

Once the church had been purchased, as Daryl explains, "Raising the money was a hard slog - we held dinners in the church, white elephant stalls at market days, an annual ball and trivia nights. The first $5500 raised came from raffling a cow and calf I donated. Cyril Sylvester (the Sylvesters were Wollombi pioneers) often said to me, 'The dearest cow and calf ever sold in Wollombi'."

It was a memorable day when Bishop Michael Malone reopened St Michael's with the celebration of Mass on 3 October 1999. Gael recalls that the Bishop apologised for the events of earlier years and continued to visit and celebrate Mass on the feast day of St Michael. Last year Bishop Bill Wright continued the tradition.

Repaying a loan was one thing; maintaining a 170-year-old church is another, and like many rural communities, Wollombi is not really growing. St Michael's is a treasured asset of the town, and so when there are fundraisers, the locals step up in support.

While it's been difficult for a small population to maintain the church, it has also created ties that bind, and as a visitor, it was clear to me that the good folk of Wollombi have a real understanding of Eucharist. They proceeded from Mass on Friday evening to a nearby restaurant where they joined hands to pray grace, broke bread, sipped wine and told stories. This is a model that could catch on!

Fr Albert D'Souza, who celebrated Mass when I visited, joined parishioners for dinner. Like parish priest Fr Tony Potts, he would like to visit more often, but he is quick to acknowledge the strength they embody: "These people have great faith and they have made a commitment to maintain not only their church but their community. They are wonderful examples to other communities!"

An initiative that has added value in many ways was the gradual installation of a series of stunning leadlight windows in memory of members of the community. Mary Fortey conceived the idea and artist Margaret Ella brought to birth the story of creation in ways that literally enlighten the worshippers and visitors. Another feature of St Michael's is the original stained glass rose window depicting the Archangel overlooking the sanctuary.

These attributes no doubt appeal to brides, and it's unique to St Michael's that weddings of all denominations and civil ceremonies can be held there. "It was Bishop Michael who suggested that we have weddings for our financial viability," says Daryl.

The gospel of Matthew reminds us, "For where two or three are gathered together in my name, there am I in the midst of them", but let Gael Winnick have the last word: "I truly believe we are absolute trailblazers!"

Do visit www.saintmichaels.org.au or P 4998 3254 to enquire about Mass, weddings, baptism or other matters.

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