By Anthony Barich
Though the church has burnt down and the town has been devastated by bushfire, the parish community of St Mary’s, Kinglake, will continue to celebrate Sunday Mass as usual – albeit in a restaurant.
In a notice to Diocesan parish communities, St Mary’s parish priest Fr Grant O’Neill said Mass would be held in a local restaurant until power is restored to the site where the St Mary’s church once stood.
"Fortunately we have the use of a temporary church (ie, a portable classroom). As soon as power is restored to our church site, this classroom will be moved onto the site to provide a visible focal point and place for worship," Fr O’Neill said.
The Kinglake church has been the victim of fire twice before. It was destroyed in bushfire in February 1926, was rebuilt and destroyed by arson on Good Friday, 1995. The church was rebuilt and opened in 1998.
Fr Joe Caddy, chief executive of Centacare, told The Record that Fr Grant is one of several local priests and many lay Catholics who have become “heroes” over the past week, and that even though the initial period of devastation is over, life in country Victoria is still on edge.
Fr Caddy, who is in regular contact with priests in key areas affected by the bushfires, says the priests and lay Catholics are “doing a mighty job”, though “they’re still very much uncovering the full extent of the disaster; each day, each hour new things are coming to light”. He said priests are leading the charge, putting their own sorrow on hold as they focus on helping others.
“Like so many people helping, the priests are being quite heroic, but there are some cases,” Fr Caddy says, “where some priests are at times feeling overwhelmed. But at the same time, people are looking after them. “There is a constant reminder of the fires as in many communities there’s still fire danger. In towns like Yea and Healesville, it’s a week out but the smoke is still in the air and they’re often on alert for embers.
“There’s a constant danger that flare-ups could start again, but by and large it is a lot more settled.”
“There is a faithful presence of the parishes – they are suffering with the community and rolling their sleeves up with the community.
“That’s the great thing about our Church – we’re already on the ground and in with the people. Local parishioners are at the recovery centres, volunteering with Country Fire Authority (CFA), and working in the communities. Priests themselves in those places are known generally through the towns through the regions.
“The St Vincent de Paul Society will be doing an enormous amount to rebuild communities. Organisations like Centacare are already providing crisis management, critical incident counselling, a greater need down the track when people are working through their issues of grief and loss.”
As the towns are re-opened and life starts anew, there will be several phases of recovery, Fr Caddy says: “First there is emergency relief – providing toiletries and packets of fresh clothes to survivors in recovery centres… but there’s nowhere to put it…
“Then, people have to settle somewhere, so we need to help them with that.
“Next, they’re going to need more than one set of clothes, plus furniture and other basic things where they’re staying. Then we start planning rebuilding houses, and provide temporary housing as people are accommodated and billeted into families and other areas. They’re even opening up a couple of military camps to house people.
“Next, people are bringing portables and caravans as temporary accommodation as people start to physically rebuild.”