By Anthony Barich
MONKS at a Cistercian Abbey in the Yarra Valley in country Victoria who live by a centuries-old Benedictine Rule are counting their blessings after narrowly avoiding being savaged by the firestorm that destroyed much of the State last week.
The quiet, austere life of the Cistercian monks at Tarrawarra Abbey in the heart of the Yarra Valley was shattered by the firestorm that cut a swathe through the Victorian countryside on February 7, destroying entire towns.
Life at Tarrawarra Abbey is a contemporary version of the ancient tradition of Cistercian monasticism with an Australian accent, designed to “foster the experience of God and growth in prayerfulness and love”.
Their simple lifestyle gives priority to liturgical and personal prayer as well as sacred reading, balanced by community living, work, and study.
But all that changed on that fateful Saturday afternoon. As the temperature climbed over 45C, hundreds of fires torched houses and farms across the State. Despite this, the monastery seemed to be safe, except for strong, gusty northerlies blowing from the direction of the Kilmore fires.
Embers and debris were falling so heavily that some at the monastery thought it was raining on the roof, but it seemed they’d been spared the worst of it.
Then at 4.30pm sirens were heard and a long line of fire trucks roared past the monastery headed for Yarra Glen.
The monks braced themselves for the worst, but they had barely half an hour to do so as a fire started in the paddocks below the guest cottage at 5pm. Staff from the neighbouring Tarrawarra Vineyard helped “almost” bring it under control.
Then, they said, the wind changed from north to south west and the embers “roared to life”, shooting up a gully along a row of trees bordering a dam towards the enclosure around Sister Diana’s hermitage nearby, setting alight the grass on both sides, “storming up through the paddocks right up to the road, catching in its destructive wake” 64 quality heifers not far from calving, setting alight thousands of new trees planted beside the road and setting much of the fences ablaze on the Cistercian property.
“It all happened so quickly,” said Brother Bernard Redden, Prior of Tarrawarra Abbey that houses 18 monks aged from one in his late 20s to the eldest aged 88.
“You see smoke 15km away then all of a sudden it’s right on your own backyard. “We got off fairly lightly compared to others who had lost a lot.”
The 24-hour power outage meant their phones were out too, so they had some redirected to a mobile phone.
By the time the landlines were reconnected just hours before The Record spoke to the Prior on February 11, the monks were “overwhelmed” with messages, including one from Archbishop Denis Hart of Melbourne who was checking if they were OK.
Br Redden said that some 150 acres and over 300 breeding cattle was consumed in the blaze, but all their buildings and the monks who live there are fine.
But it was a close call. Later on that Saturday afternoon, the monks reported, a spot-fire erupted from a falling ember less than 100 metres from the monastery’s church and library, though it was hindered by a service road. But flames about half a metre high and generating fierce heat were moving inexorably east towards the monastery, fed by dry grass and detritus and threatening to set the tall trees alight.
The blaze was controlled only when a monk patrolling nearby gave the alert, though it continued to smoulder overnight.
The economy of the monastery was not crippled by the event, Br Bernard said, as much of their income derives from producing altar wine and bread. Some 80 acres was spared at time of writing last week, so the monks are relieved they did not cop the brunt of the firestorm.
“The impact on us compared to others is fairly minimal given that we haven’t lost the whole farm or anything and none of the buildings,” he said.
“We’ve taken in a couple of visitors who got caught, a couple of properties near us were burnt out.”
Tarrawarra Abbey Abbot David Tomlins said that the monks’ overwhelming sense is “one of immense gratitude to God for His palpable protection”.
“Despite the loss of some stock, fencing and tree plantations, we know that the blessing of preservation from injury or death in the chaotic conditions of Saturday was pure gift,” he said.
“Our deep sympathy and prayers are with all those who have suffered so much loss. We continue to pray for all the wonderful volunteers who have been out there giving themselves so totally for others in these tragic circumstances.”
Since the worst is over they’ve been checking their neighbours, trying to help out in the immediate area, ever weary of more wind changes, but the roadblocks set up on Sunday morning prevented anyone from getting into the area.
The immediate crisis quickly passed on the Saturday, the monks reported, but the danger remained high.
“All around the property fires were glowing in the darkness, only a narrow girth of the Yarra separated us from the fires burning on the opposite bank; to the north, fire was creeping towards us from the other side of the road,” the monks reported.
Mopping up continued until after midnight and the whole area was constantly patrolled until dawn.Life will go on at the Monastery, though a keen vigil will be kept up. Cattle numbers can be stocked up by either buying more or breeding them. But there’s no doubt their lifestyle was dramatically changed over the past fortnight.
“Our lives are centred here but are not enclosed,” Br Redden said.
“We have contact with the local community with our farm.
“We know our own neighbours, but this makes you more aware of your relationship with all your neigbours in the community.”