Changing of the Guard at St. Brigid’s, Crossley; or, Transforming Divine Investment

IMG_20140225_0005Regina Lane: Saving St. Brigid’s, Bridin Books, Carlton South, Vic., 2014

ISBN: 978-0-9923433-0-9

RRP: $40

Thelma and Louise (the roving reporters Tinteán occasionally employs) in July 2009 took a road trip to Crossley to report on what they assumed would be a wake for St. Brigid’s – a broken-down oldish (the church was consecrated in June 1914) and hall on the edge of Tower Hill (west of Warrnambool, and just off the road to Port Fairy) (see a suite of articles on St. Brigid’s in Tinteán 10, December 2009 in Archive menu above). Instead, they found themselves at a monster celebration and the totally unexpected news that David, against the odds, had indeed slain Goliath and had successfully returned (at a substantial price) the buildings their ancestors had funded, built and maintained for generations to that community. In the course of that assignment, they met and were deeply moved by Mick and Loretta Lane, the parents of the author, to whom the present book is dedicated.  It was a harrowing tale of a struggle with ecclesiastical bureaucracy which had taken a toll of these Catholic elders of their community. One comment in particular was telling: ‘We didn’t lose our faith, but we easily could have’: the previous Catholic priest had denounced these faithful parishioners from the pulpit as ‘Fenians’.

Regina Lane’s memoir of the saving of the church is a passionate book, even polemical at times, which starts a little tentatively, and gathers pace as one turns the pages.  It’s a tale of collective memory of the past: a lot of feeling is invested in the spud-digging men and lamington- and sanger-making women, descendants of Famine migrants, who kept the place alive. It was a hub of the district, celebrating weddings, funerals and holding dances. The book conveys a sense of place that is numinous not only for those who grew up there, but also for newcomers to the tightly-knit but nonetheless open-hearted community of Crossley. One sees this humble place freighted with memories, so its desired re-purposing as an Irish-Australian cultural heritage centre makes excellent sense.

The memoir also constitutes a narrative of how radically the Catholic Church has changed – become more of a business, more remote from the communities it had once cherished and ruled with unquestioned authority, and how it has alienated itself from the younger generation.  In particular, it gives sharp insight into a generation of priests who simply failed to move intellectually with their parishioners as the latter became better educated (often more than their pastors) and more questioning of all forms of authority, the post-’68 generation. A priest who, in a conflict, declares: ‘The Church is not a democracy. I am the power here’ is simply putting himself at odds with such people.

Reading on, one gets caught up in the toils of the bishop who says one thing to the suffering and acts differently with the real estate agents; and of the priest, Fr Bryant, who in his own domain at parish level acts like a feudal lord/corporation head (regarding the church as his to dispose of to the highest bidder), quite without hindrance from the bishop (Fr Bryant declared the church unconsecrated without going through the necessary rituals). He makes the eminently rational case that it’s only five miles up the road to Koroit parish, that his parishioners now have cars, so why not disestablish the church? And sell it sight-unseen to the wedding planner from Melbourne? Or the Comancheros motor cycle gang? And tell the local council that the Heritage overlay is not wanted or needed? And the parishioners, who are committed to keeping the asset they paid for and maintained, are stunned to be reviled and put down continually from the pulpit, with no possibility of public redress. It’s clear from this book how much damage was done specifically to church community and identity-formation by the uncoordinated exercise of power at the different levels of the diocese.

What is fascinating about this memoir is that it is told from the point of view of the secularised younger generation, rather than the older generation who are so much more deeply cognisant of Catholic beliefs and culture. So, why does this disaffected younger generation so insistently want the church and its assets to remain in their hands?   It is complex: they want to honour their ancestors’ ‘divine investment’ and literally realise their sense that the fine church they built, paid for and maintained, is their living legacy. The author takes the long view: she knows that the earliest settlers on Tower Hill were migrants from Ireland denied the land they worked and as a result determined to stake their claims to land and a place to worship in the new land.  A claim is made more than once (in the first instance, somewhat jokily, and in the second more casually) that the battle for St. Brigid’s is ‘Maboesque’ (pp 141 & 165), and it is perhaps to draw a long bow and to airbrush the massive differences between Aboriginal dispossession and what the church bureaucracy attempted to do at Crossley. It’s not meant to be disrespectful, of course, but it does illustrate how a campaign can sometimes consume the campaigner.

They see uses for the church infrastructure as the tangible symbol of community itself, their community – it’s a place to hold secular funerals and weddings, to meet, to run the kindergarten, the tennis club, the Irish language school, concerts and much more. Having a central focus for many different activities is no more than any community seeks, but it’s perhaps more important in the country. On pp 157-8, there’s a paean to community, what it means, what it is. And it’s nothing too fancy, but it is a song of praise for what builds bonds between people and what is often missing in modern life: quotidian interactions like waving, or producing a casserole for the new mum, feeding the chooks when the neighbour is away, knowing your neighbour’s dog’s name, sending kids out safely to sell raffle tickets.  It’s to preserve ordinary quality rituals of daily life.

The sense of historical continuity that is engendered by the titanic campaign to save the infrastructure for the community is powerfully communicated.  The younger generation construct themselves as very different from their forebears both ethnically and religiously, but as sharing their pride in tribe/culture, and what’s more they have the skills and confidence to enact their transformed sense of it. And like their forebears, they are prepared to shoulder the cost, even though the heavy burden of it is terrifying.  What’s more they can energise sympathisers from around the world to stand beside them while they expound and defend their idea of community.

What really disappointed me about this book is the anti-climax at the end. Like any reader, I can rejoice in the restoration of the church to the community, but there’s a gap at the heart of the narrative: why did Fr Van de Camp change his mind about accepting the community tender, so much lower than his selling price, as a result of his late-night conversation with Sister Adele Howard, the nun who was sister of one of the main campaigners, singer/songwriter, Shane Howard?  What was said? What were the compelling arguments?  It seems we may never find out, as I imagine she was under a promise of confidentiality.  Why, then, did Regina Lane not speculate and make it clear that she was doing that?  I could, for instance, guess that they prayed together, that they reflected on how much was at stake in church/community relations, that the moral claims about the community’s investment in the property were a powerful incentive to a decent priest to recognise the claims.  I’d have liked to have heard more about the man who changed his mind – to get a sense of him as a character in this narrative. The narrative that crackles to its climax, but falls like a sandcastle at the real climax.

The struggle interestingly points up how a local brouhaha can afford insight into how power operates, in this case, church power which might have had the effect of crushing a small community. It is a fascinating, because uplifting, narrative about a community that successfully resisted such monolithic power and in the process  empowered itself. The struggle itself forged new and more inclusive bonds and new purposes. I expect next time I’m at Crossley that the church and the hall will have had much more love poured into them. Provided the mortgage payments can be sustained, let us hope that St. Brigid’s will  now stand proudly on the old volcano and buffer the next generation from the squalls that will come barreling up Tower Hill again.

An alternative review of this book may be found at:

Frances Devlin-Glass

Frances is on the Editorial team at Tinteán.