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Tragedy — The Fire

On the evening of 6 February 1989 a fire gutted St. Joseph’s church. The slate and terracotta roof was almost completely destroyed and pressed tin ceiling tiles and other irreplaceable old materials were lost. Damage was also sustained to the pews and walls and the pipes of the organ, which had been imported from England, were partly melted. Fortunately, the large, antique Stations of the Cross, the statues and most other valuables were removed before they could be damaged . Furthermore, thanks to the determination and skill of the firemen the huge stained glass window at the rear of the sanctuary was saved and the beautiful marble sanctuary, including Dean Davy’s altar, also survived.

All three priests were out of town on their day off.

The disaster stunned both parishioners and the wider com­munity. Catholic emotions were drained by the sight of the wreckage in and around the church but non-Catholics also shared the distress, recognizing the spiritual and/or historic dimensions of the tragedy. It was not only front page news in Benalla and the surrounding district but generated significant media cover­age throughout the State.

It is worth noting, that many parishioners felt that the dis­aster might easily have been avoided if the Team had heeded the advice of local police and tightened security in the wake of two small fires deliberately lit in the church during the preceding week, both of which had been discovered and extinguished.

A young parishioner whose grandparents received their First Holy Communion in the church and whose parents were married there, was outraged by this neglect.

“I know they were warned,” he lamented. “Yet none of the priests were around and the doors were open. There was  no excuse for the church being open all that time. Parishioners should have charged them with gross negligence. I was also amazed by their casual attitude on the night of the fire. They were sitting on the steps joking and laughing. There was no restraint at all.”

Despite this observation, however, from a purely sentimen­tal viewpoint the Team surely considered the destruction caused by the fire of 6 February regrettable. In any event, such a curi­ously detached and unemotional response from the priests was of little interest to the great majority of those who attended a parish meeting shortly after the fire to discuss and formulate plans for the speedy restoration of their pride and joy to its pre-fire condition. Together with the rest of the general populace, they were united in their desire to preserve the heritage and history embodied in St. Joseph’s church.

To this end, an Interim Committee of eight people was formed. Marj Ride, the Joan of Arc figure in this story and a respected, articulate and energetic parishioner of seventy years, accepted-nomination as a member of the Interim Committee on the basis that it was to assist the Team in its dealings with the insurance company and report back to the parish when the financial commitment of the insurance company and the areas it was prepared to restore had been ascertained. The Interim Committee was then to be disbanded and a permanent commit­tee established to take control. The first meeting of the Interim Committee was on 20 February, as Marj explained:

The eight lay members were present. Father B was the only priest there. He told us that the insurance company would replace everything at no cost to the parish. That being the case, a parishioner said to Father that there didn’t seem to be a need for the Interim Committee. Father B said: “Oh no, there are other things to change over and above the fire damage.

This was the first inkling of ulterior plans and it haunted Marj and others during the two months which elapsed before the next meeting of the Interim Committee in April.

What was changed?

It’s not all about the building