Victoria priest takes Church to the new public square of Aussie life

12 Dec 2008

By The Record

Geelong-based priest Fr Kevin Dillon has initiated a chapel and Catholic bookshop in the middle of one of Victoria’s biggest shopping strips. It’s a new approach that many in the Church around Australia will be watching with great interest.


Launched: Fr Kevin Dillon with Wing and a Prayer manager Kristen Rowan and her son Angus, 8, outside the streetfront chapel and bookshop, which aims to take the Church to Geelong shoppers rather than waiting for them to come to a courtesy wing and a prayer


By Anthony Barich
The modern shopping centre is the cathedral of 21st century society.
Rightly or wrongly, it is a place where people gather and all sorts of needs are met. It purports to feed many areas of human need – everything from medical and dental to counselling, and, of course, retail therapy.
It stands to reason, then, that in the Victorian satellite city of Geelong, the 64-year-old head of the city’s Deanery, Fr Kevin Dillon, on December 8, opened a chapel and Catholic resource centre right in the heart of its trendy shopping strip.
For 30 years he’s believed the Church should be in always accessible places for people, and with the Church more than ever facing an uphill task of converting hearts, he believes that today the Church must spread the Gospel.
But “we can’t just sit on top of hills waiting for people to come to us”.
It all started when he was stationed at Mitcham parish in 1996. He got a chapel going in Eastland shopping centre in Ringwood in Melbourne’s east.
It’s still going, and has up to 70 attending Mass every day. It’s called St Francis Chapel.
“That worked out very well,” Fr Kevin says.
In 2001, he moved to Geelong, and now heads the Geelong Deanery, which has 29 parishes. He started another small chapel and bookshop – again called St Francis – right in the heart of the city’s central business district, in a mall called Centrepoint, but it was located right down the end of a “dingy, dodgy” shopping arcade that was becoming less and less accessible.
Still, it gradually attracted people, and ended up becoming a thriving place where all sorts of characters, including people with mental illness who struggled to find acceptance elsewhere, found a home. They started volunteering there, where it sold second-hand books, not necessarily Catholic, just general books… but it made enough to pay the $1000 rent a month.
Nominal and lapsed Catholics, the unemployed and the unemployable, were rocking up in droves, apparently finding it easier to walk into a less formal structure than Geelong’s glorious St Mary of the Angels Basilica. Mass was celebrated every day and before they knew it, a little community had formed.
But Fr Kevin wanted more. He applied to a shopping centre down the road and was rejected. It seemed like he was being stymied at every turn. It all changed when Westfield announced a major development in the city, just a couple of blocks from the waterfront, he jumped at it.
Still, it took what seemed like an age for Westfield to reply to him in the affirmative, but when they did, things just fell into place. A student studying design offered to create the new store’s logo – called “Wing and a Prayer” – and things were on their way.
The new store would embrace a much broader concept, become much more Catholic and his goal is for it to become a kind of regional pastoral centre, where people from surrounding rural areas like Werribee and Ballarat who don’t want the hassle of Melbourne can acquire information about how to join the Catholic Church, get baptised, married, etc. It will also sell devotional items.
There will be a small prayer chapel where the Blessed Sacrament resides, and trading will stop at 1pm every day while Holy Mass is celebrated in the main body of the shop.
Fr Kevin says the main aim in many ways is not just to sell books, but to be an information centre and a contact point for anyone who wants any contact with the Church.
“Down the track we hope we’d make contact with many people we otherwise wouldn’t be. We’re not quite sure how it’ll work out – we really are on a wing and a prayer,” he says.
“The Church has got to look very keenly and energetically at people who aren’t necessarily within our point of contact in the traditional way. People are sometimes more comfortable walking into a less formal setting than a parish office, presbytery or a church.”
Down the track, with the number of parishes and priests in Geelong dwindling – St Margaret parish in East Geelong and St Mary of the Angels parish in Geelong will merge on January 1 2009 by order of Archbishop Hart – the dynamics of the Geelong Deanery will change.
Either way, 4000 families between Geelong and Geelong East parishes will need somewhere to go. “I can see that (his resource centre) may be an operation where people can come to one place and enquire about baptisms and weddings, if that’s what the parishes in the Deanery want to use, instead of staffing expensive offices,” he says.
While he shyly says the shop itself “looks terrific”, he anticipates it’ll take a year or two to for it to hit full stride.
Financially it has a degree of risk, as rent is $60,000 a year. But the point he made to his parishioners in asking for funds is that there wouldn’t be a properly functioning church in Australia of any substance that would be operating on any less than $1000 a week, with insurance and maintenance.
“No church pays its own way entirely; very few churches would exist just from collections. So the question becomes, is it doing its job? Is it making contact with people and influencing people? We won’t know if we don’t have a go. And we’re having a go.”
“It’s been the Church’s mission for over 2000 years; it’s still the mission today. It’s just happening at the heart of consumerism.”
– Fr Kevin Dillon
He doesn’t mince his words when he describes the Church’s success in reaching the average Joe, and what it needs to do.
“It’s the case with many organisations, but the way the Church has done things hasn’t worked well in recent years. I’m not saying change the message but change the way it gets across. Especially in the Church, I’ve found that anything that’s new is difficult to get people’s enthusiasm and imagination fired up to have a go and help get it going.
“But just when you think, ‘is this going in the right direction?’, then something comes out of the blue. There’s definitely a genuine sense of divine providence about it, as things seem to happen at the right time.
“We’re not saying this is ‘the be-all and end-all,’ but it’s worth having a real go at in a worthwhile way.”

Agencies, schools, volunteers make initiative joint effort

From the Council of Trent to the Order of Preachers to the Jesuits, ordinary people have stood up to be counter-cultural just when it looked like the Church, and society with it, was faced with serious crises.
Today, it is the culture of death (a term coined by the late Pope John Paul II), the dictatorship of relativism (Benedict XVI) and the consumerist-fuelled apathy that comes with it that are providing major challenges for the Church.
Wing and a Prayer, while still only in its fledgling phase, is revolutionary in its counter-cultural existence.  Located across the road from Officeworks and next door to a bike superstore on Malop Street, Geelong’s main shopping strip in the Victorian satellite city’s newly developed Westfield mall, it is right where the Church needs to be  – amidst the consumerist frenzy that is the modern centre. Kristen Rowan, a 32-year-old mother of one, is its manager. Having previously worked for the Marist Brothers at their Provincial house in Sydney for five years, she was approached by Fr Kevin Dillon two months ago to be the store’s manager.
Kristen is undaunted by the boldness of the initiative, yet “flabbergasted” at the way Fr Kevin Dillon has thought all this up.
She’s equally impressed by the good will the centre has generated, togerther with some pretty constant preaching by Fr Kevin to get his parish up and going to support it.
She says the good will has awakened her to the workings of the Holy Spirit in ways she never imagined. Just when it seemed the project was being stymied at every turn, people have stepped up to the plate – like a parishioner studying animation at university who professionally designed the store’s logo. “I think it’s the Holy Spirit,” she says. “It’s hard to say for me, as I’m not prone to thinking about things that way – but it’s got to be the Holy Spirit.” Fr Kevin set up a support fund for which parishioners have pledged money, the interest on the money helps fund the shop, pays the rent and Kristen’s wages, while two other girls help out.
Running inductions for volunteers – in some cases lapsed Catholics whose faith has been reawakened by the project – Kristen says their task is comparable to someone who dives right into the heart of a different form of worship (materialism) to provide hope and redemption, through compassion and by providing a service: the Good News. Wing and a Prayer is very much a project of the local Catholic Church.
Centrecare, MacKillop Family Services, St John of God Health Services, St Vincent DePaul, Rice Village, Deanery parishes and Primary Schools have all contributed. Local schools – Sacred Heart, St Joseph’s and Clonard Colleges – have all agreed that their students will do regular shifts in the shop as part of a Social Service program.
“Central to our Mission Statement is the expression of our faith,” Fr Kevin says – ‘Go therefore, make disciples of all nations; baptise them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teach them to observe all the commands I gave you. And know that I am with you always; yes, to the end of time.’ (Matt 28: 19-20).
It’s been the Church’s mission for over 2000 years; it’s still the mission today. It’s just happening at the heart of consumerism.- anthony barich