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www.mn.catholic.org.au Diocese of Maitland-Newcastle
"'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
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
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
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 statemate 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
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,"
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.
raffling a cow
and calf ...
By TRACEY EDSTEIN
(l-r) Fr Albert D Souza, Trish Fry, Mary Fortey, Samantha MacDonald,
Michael Reilly, Jack MacDonald, Donna MacDonald, Gael Winnick.
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