Keeping the lamps alight - 150th Anniversary of St Augustine's in Longford

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This has been a much anticipated event, and rightly so. I congratulate you on your work in preparation for this day. In particular, the work of preparing a commemorative booklet which has captured the history and remembrances of Catholic life in this parish community over the past 150 years.

This parish church may not be able to claim to be one of the first churches in the Archdiocese, but the parish can claim to be associated with the ministrations of the first priest working in Van Diemen’s Land. Fr Philip Conolly visited Longford, then known as Norfolk Plains, in May of 1821.

The efforts to build a church here for the small and isolated Catholic community would take some 40 years to be realised. But realised it was when work began on this beautiful bluestone church in 1864. One year prior to that, the community here had the blessing of a resident pastor, Fr Butler.

If you are curious about the patron of this parish, it is worth noting the full name of the first parish priest: Fr John Augustine Butler. This Irishman left his mark on this parish – I must see if there is ever a chance to have a parish in Tasmania under the patronage of St Julian!

The parish priest here not only had responsibility for this community but he also serviced Perth and Evandale. Priests would later look after Carrick as well.

A century and a half ago this area was a developing farming area. Impressive estates were established and grand country houses were being built. The Catholics living in this area, however, were largely of convict stock, many having ticket-of-leave status. They did not own but rather worked on the great estates. They were poor and felt themselves second class citizens.

Today we recall the history of this church and remember the struggles of our forebears in the faith to have a place in which the Mass and sacraments could be celebrated. Having a church building is so important for any Catholic community. Today Catholics in this area are few in number. However, having the availability of a weekly Mass is still much appreciated.

One cannot reflect on the history of this parish without acknowledging the 31 year service to the parish community of the Irish-born Fr John McKernan. He became parish priest in 1873. He died of typhoid fever in 1904. Parishes owe so much to the dedicated work of their pastors.

As we gather in St Augustine’s Church today we are reminded that the church building is the place where the Mass and sacraments can be suitably celebrated. Our first bishop, Bishop Willson, gave great attention to the design of churches here in Tasmania. He has left us a rich heritage of churches builit in Neo-Gothic design, a design which he considered most suited to Catholic worship.

The sanctuary area was the most important part of the Church. In past times, the sanctuary 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 former days, the average parishioner came to attend Mass, or “hear Mass”, as they often said. It was to be present at a sacred rite, which was both ancient and 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. People would fast from midnight.

The church building expressed the Catholic faith through its stained glass windows and statues. The Stations of the Cross reminded each one of the sufferings of Christ. Images of the Virgin Mary and the Sacred Heart cultivated devotional practices like saying the rosary and the practice of the nine first Fridays. Benediction of the Blessed Sacrament was a weekly event.

People were silent in the church. No one would dare to talk. It was the house of God, a holy place. It was a place where one came to pray. It was a place where one was transported into another world, the world of faith, the world of the Spirit.

The church attracted much loving devotion. Altar linens were washed and starched each week. Flowers were brought and carefully arranged. Bells were rung at sacred moments. Incense wafted through the rafters. Altar servers attended the priest, and answered the responses on behalf of the people.

The Catholic faith was fully evident in these beautiful and simple churches made of local stone. On Sundays, the community would come from local towns and from farms round about. They would greet one another as they arrived and make their way into the church. Afterwards they would stand around and talk as the children played. People would wear their Sunday best. Mass on Sunday morning was an important occasion each week and the centre of the day of rest. If there was not a picnic in the church grounds, the families would return home for the Sunday lunch.

In the Gospel today the Lord uses an image of bridesmaids having lamps ready to meet the bridegroom when he comes. The bridesmaids are to keep their lamps alight. This is a good image for us here in Tasmania. We need to keep the lamps of faith alight. We want to keep the light of faith alive here in Longford.

Today our minds go back to former days. We think of the early Catholics in Longford and their desire to have a church in which they could worship Almighty God. St Augustine’s church was where their faith was nourished and encouraged. May this simple, beautiful church long be a place where Catholics will come to celebrate and be nourished by their faith.

Archbishop Julian Porteous
Friday, 10 November 2017