How a small rural parish survived against the odds

How a small rural parish survived against the odds

Paul Newton

Great sacrifices have been made throughout the years to keep the faith alive in remote parts of Australia. This was the case in the 1870s, when Mary McKillop and her sisters suffered extraordinary hardships for the sake of poor children. The story continues today.

As has always been the case, many isolated Catholic communities are struggling simply to survive. Priests and religious travel hundreds of kilometres every week to tend to the spiritual needs of those entrusted to their care. Despite this, too many churches are closing their doors. Society has become so secular, that once devoted souls now care little about the faith of their fathers. In addition, scores of people are streaming to the big city.

In the 1860s a Catholic priest would visit the families scattered throughout the magnificent Snowy Mountains once a year. Goldfields, caves and the mighty Snowy River were the boast of this captivating country.

On 10 May 1896, James Corbett, the first Bishop of Sale, blessed and opened St Dymphna's Catholic Church, Buchan. At that time it was attached to the parish of St Mary's, Bairnsdale, East Gippsland. In 1928 it came under St Colman's, Orbost. For nearly a hundred years Catholics gathered in that tiny church for the celebration of the sacraments.

But as the 1990s approached attendance at St Dymphna's was very poor. Like so many other small townships, Buchan was suffering. Many had moved away and virtually all those who remained wanted little to do with religion.

Then 1992 brought with it an extremely generous offer from an American donor which enabled the complete renovation of little St Dymphna's to be effected. Amazingly, a short time afterwards, the church was closed. Mass attendance was down to two people and the difficult decision was made. St Colman's in Orbost, one of the nearest churches, is about 160km round trip distant over winding mountain roads. How would the faith remain in Buchan?

What a challenge! In the early part of 1999, a few of the Buchan faithful realised the seriousness of the situation. The church had to be reopened. But how? Who was there to fill it? It seemed almost impossible. Some thought it would never happen, suggesting it was a waste of time: "There's no one here anymore. They've all moved away." Fr. Malcolm Hewitt, the parish priest who lives in Orbost, was naturally hesitant about committing himself. Would it be just like a few years ago when hardly anyone turned up? What about travelling and electrical expenses? Could it be justified?


It would have been easy to concede to what seemed so clear. How could it be done? When approached some said that they would go to Mass if it were available, but it wasn't. So an outreach program was begun. Phone calls were made, people were visited, enthusiasm was stirred up. It was difficult, the opposition was still there, but hope and good will kept things going. Before long a list of known and unknown Catholics was drawn up. The rural network gradually revealed itself.

It was only natural that St Dymphna, the Irish virgin-martyr (d. 620), was called on for guidance and support. Nevertheless, hard work needed to be done. The church, although beautifully restored, was by now a terrible fire risk. Much mowing and clearing was needed. The garden was attended to while the interior was thoroughly cleaned.

The day finally came, on 6 November 1999, when the Mass was once again celebrated in the Catholic Church of Buchan. It was a wonderful occasion. About 20 people were present. From then on, Mass was to be on the morning of fourth Saturday of each month. The hope of a mere few had been realised. But this was just the beginning.

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