As one of a small band of parishioners who sensed the longterm implications of Team Ministry, a parishioner soon found herself in the middle of a counter-revolution. She immediately arranged a petition calling for the full restoration of St. Joseph’s to its pre-fire state and very quickly gathered over 400 signatures from concerned Catholics and non-Catholics. The petition was forwarded to the Bishop.
His letter of response, of its nature a public document given the vested interest of petitioners, is a classic of its [Australian episcopal] genre. Dated 14 April 1989, it read:
Dear Mrs …….,
I wish to acknowledge receipt of your letters of 24th February, 17th March and your telephone calls which have, in turn, been passed on to me.
Whilst I have a deal of sympathy with your concerns, I think that you are carrying this situation much too far. It saddens me deeply that there now seems to be a “Hate Campaign” being generated against the priests in Benalla.
I am greatly disturbed at the vitriol that is being poured upon my priests there and have the strong sense coming through to me that an orchestrated plan of undermining the priests’ place in the parish is being deliberately planned — and all in the name of Catholicism! I fear I see no charity in some of the actions and think that the letter in the Benalla “Ensign” sent to me from various sources and the article from the “Border Morning Mail” to be despicable. The “Australian” newspaper rang me and I believe a representative visited Benalla. I notice that there is no report in any copy of this paper that I have read.
My secretary informed me that… you sought an interview with me on Saturday, 18 March. You were told that I would be away that day and yet you arrived at Bendigo, at the Cathedral Presbytery seeking me. What am I to think of this?
The letters signed by yourself, and a further one signed by yourself and others, were subsequently delivered to me, together with a group of papers with various signatures appended.
These papers are now returned to you. Frankly, I consider them quite worthless. A number of signatures are illegible and the whole presentation is not of original papers, but merely photostat copies. Others are those of people who do not live in Benalla at all. How do I know that this is genuine? I am fully aware of what can be done with photostat machines.
I am further informed and I consider reliably, that a substantial number of those signatures were obtained under false pretences. This would seem to be corroborated by the great majority of the people present at the meeting on Palm Sunday night voting in support of the priests.
I very much dislike discontent in parishes. To see it being deliberately fermented and not healed angers me greatly. These are good men. A disaster occurred a short time after they came to Benalla. They have lived through it bravely.
Whilst none of us is perfect and some may be more casual than others, no gross liturgical aberration has been reported to me. In my own discussions with them, and the many questions I have asked of them in response to queries made to me, I am sure they are trying to do their best, but there is an element which is trying to destroy them. I resent this and shall defend them strongly.
I would hope that you would see that the love of God is impossible to identify in an area which is non-supportive but destructive. I would like to see you supportive of them and to use your obvious talents to assist in the work of renewing the Church burnt so disastrously …
I am very heartened by the letters of commendation and support of these priests which I am receiving.
To date, no plans whatsoever have been presented to me for approval relating to the rebuilding of the Church. When these come to hand they will be considered … and I am sure that the beautiful Church (it has always been one I have liked greatly) of St. Joseph will again occupy the great place it has in the city of Benalla.
In the meantime, please support these priests.
The parishioners reply of 3 May 1989 requires no commentary. While providing further evidence of the Team’s alien character, it also captures the dreadful frustration, bewilderment and pain experienced by the Catholic faithful in communicating with their Shepherds these past twenty years:
My Lord Bishop
I know you don’t expect me to thank you for your letter of the 14th April so I won’t bother. I will say it is sad and disappointing to think that you wouldn’t answer any of my questions concerning the deviations to the practice of the Catholic religion here in Benalla since the Team Ministry started on January 22nd. You stated on the telephone to me on 4th March that you had spoken to people in Benalla who think the Team Ministry is wonderful, but you have not spoken to anyone who does not think that way. Why? To think my intention to get the opinions of the parishioners of St. Joseph’s as to the restoration of the church building before any plans of an alteration were made has resulted in this reply from my spiritual leader is sickening. You are the Shepherd of this flock, Sir, and you have unjustly and unfairly inferred that I am a cheat and an unprincipled liar.
My soul is in danger of eternal damnation if what you imply about me organising a campaign of Hate against these priests is true. As Christ’s representative here in this parish you have a duty to Him and the Church to investigate these allegations before you condemn me, as you have in your letter
I feel you owe the parishioners of St. Joseph’s some of your time to hold meetings with the Catholic community here to investigate these matters. This would ensure that you knew the opinions and feelings of the parish, not just mine or your other reliable informants!
My Lord I ask you to give the people of St. Joseph’s your guidance in fairness and justice for the Love of Christ and the sake of our souls.
You question signatures, as being illegible. Many a person’s writing is not clear; look to your own signature. You mention people who don’t live in the parish. Members of families who return often and received their Sacraments including marriage in St. Joseph’s, My Lord, and also contribute to this church with love. In other words they are part of this parish even if they no longer reside here,
You ask what you are to think of our visit to Bendigo on the 18th March? I informed your secretary on the 16th that I was only able to go to Bendigo on the Saturday and even if I couldn’t see you personally we would deliver the copies of the petition by hand to a priest, so you would have them before the Sunday meeting; which incidentally was not a vote to support changes to the church building, as Father W would not agree to this being held and would not tell us any of the changes planned anyway. It is more than 11 weeks since the church was destroyed. It has rained inches since then, common sense would indicate that a cover on the building would have saved further damage, but nothing has been done; we wonder why?