The history of St Michael's is chequered, with its reincarnation
as a privately owned Catholic church unique in the region, if not
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
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
Do visit www.saintmichaels.org.au or P 4998 3254 to
enquire about Mass, weddings, baptism or other