If we live, we live for the Lord - 150th Anniversary of St Matthew's Pontville

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Today we joyfully gather to celebrate an important anniversary for this beautiful church of St Matthew’s. That we can do this is itself not without significance. In 1927, on the eve of its sixtieth anniversary, this church was destroyed by fire. Contemporary reports speak of an impenetrable wall of flame which destroyed its entire contents.

The newspaper report stated: “The diamond jubilee of the opening of the church was to have been celebrated on Sunday, and last week a new set of Stations of the Cross was installed, at a cost of £200. St Matthew's was considered to be one of the best country churches in Tasmania, and the loss will be a big blow to the people of the Roman Catholic community of the Brighton parish, who have worked so hard in the interests of the Church.”

The report continued: “Magnificent stained glass windows were broken by the heat, and soon the fire began to show through the topmost parts of the building in every direction. Then, with tragic suddenness, and to the dismay of the helpless group of onlookers, the roof crashed bodily, sending flames leaping over the topmost steeple, which had remained standing. By 7.30 a.m. only the walls of what was a beautiful church remained. Although from the outside appearance they appear to be quite firm, it is extremely doubtful whether this is so.”

With this vivid report in our minds, let us look around at this church today. It has been wonderfully restored.

This church stands because the small Catholic community around Brighton, who were mainly ticket-of-leave convicts, began collecting subscriptions for the erection of a church in the area. Bishop Willson’s Vicar General asked the government for surplus stone left over after building the Brighton jail. By the 1850s local Catholics promised £950 which would enable the church to be built. The bishop asked his preferred architect, Henry Hunter, to draw up plans. The foundation stone was laid in 1866.

People rallied to help build the church. Families pledged various amounts according to their means. The McShanes from Broadmarsh offered one pound a quarter. Other parishes made financial offerings. Oatlands offered one pound as did Tunnack.

Let us pause and consider for a moment: why is it so important to build a church? The answer is quite obvious: Catholics wanted a place in which the Mass could be suitably celebrated. Being mainly the lower classes their faith was very important to them. They were Catholics in a society where the main religion was Church of England. They were a minority and their faith gave them a sense of identity, and fostered a community spirit.

The church embodied the Catholic faith. Its design was neo-Gothic which was particularly favoured by Bishop Willson. For Catholics the design of the Church centred on the celebration of the Mass. The sanctuary area was the most important part of the Church. In those days it was separated by a rood screen and there were strict rules as to who could enter the sanctuary area. It was a holy place where the sacred mysteries were celebrated.

In those days, the average parishioner came to attend Mass, or to “hear Mass” as they often said. It was to be present at a sacred rite, ancient and somewhat mysterious. The Latin language and long periods of silence fostered a spirit of reverence and awe. Even receiving Holy Communion was seen as a rare privilege and approaching the altar rails was done with deep devotion, having fasted since midnight.

This church in its stained glass windows gave expression to the transcend aspects of the faith. The Stations of the Cross, a new set of which was installed for the 60th anniversary, reminded parishioners of the sufferings of Christ our Saviour. Images of the Virgin Mary and the Sacred Heart cultivated the devotional life of Catholics.

The church was a holy place, the house of God. It was a place for prayer and a respectful silence was kept in the church. From all the trials and troubles of life the church was the place where a person could come to seek solace, or encouragement. From the depths of the heart many prayers would have been expressed here in this church over the past 150 years. In this building people opened themselves to God and here mercy and grace have flowed.

We come to love our churches because they are our spiritual home. We care for our churches. Flowers are brought and arranged. People come to clean the church, to wash and iron the linen.

For 150 years this church has been special in the lives of Catholics of this area. The devastation that must have been felt by the community in 1927 has given way to the rebuilding of this church so that its simple beauty is evident for all today.

In the second reading today, St Paul says that the life and death of each of us has its influence on others. Today in this church we remember the lives and faith of those members of St Matthew’s parish who have left us this wonderful heritage. They loved their faith. They loved their church. Today we are the beneficiaries. Let us, though, ensure that we hand on a living heritage of faith to the generations that follow.

St Paul said, “If we live, we live for the Lord.” Let us vow today that we, Catholics in 2017, will live for the Lord. We will remain faithful to Christ. We will seek to follow his teaching and example. We will seek to grow stronger in our faith, in our prayer, in our witness to the faith.

May future generations who come to this church to offer their praise and worship to almighty God look back with gratitude on us, as we look back in gratitude to the generations of Catholics who have preceded us.

Archbishop Julian Porteous
Sunday, September 17, 2017