A Parishioners letter to the Bishop of 5 July 1989 expressed the mounting concern of hundreds of parishioners:
My Lord Bishop
Since our last discussion and correspondence, I believe you have been sent, by some of the conveners of a public meeting in Benalla on 25th June last, a summary of the proceedings of that meeting.
The meeting had been called by people who were alarmed at the determined efforts to alter St. Joseph’s church and who perceived the need to conduct a forum to allow various opinions to be expressed. This need was particularly pressing in light of the refusal of the three local priests to allow any discussion and the growing dissatisfaction amongst not only the parishioners but the non-Catholics in the community who have voluntarily donated funds for the restoration of the building. In fact, the latter aspect has reached scandalous proportions in the town, with such donors questioning the correctness of the use to which their money is being channeled.
Now that the dreadful spectacle of a metal roof is a reality, concern is focused on the threatened changes to the interior of the church. As mentioned to you previously, although you have stated that there are no plans for consideration, the intentions of the priests to re-design the interior have often been expressed and recently made clear in church bulletins.
The desire of the overwhelming majority of the 214 people who attended the public meeting and of many others is that the church be restored inside as it was — with the beautiful marble sanctuary and tabernacle, admired by all who have seen them, to remain where they are. You have often said, My Lord, how pleased you were to celebrate Mass from this beautiful sanctuary; so why allow an altar to be set up down in the body of the church and have people in the congregation facing each other — already people find it a distraction to be looking at others as we now have Mass in the hall.
One wonders what the people of Bendigo would say if an altar was erected along the side wall of the Cathedral or St. Kilian’s. or how they would react if you or particular priests decided to strip those, or other beautiful churches, of their statues and Stations of the Cross, these being particular items always associated with the Catholic Church and which help to distinguish it from other churches.
We have heard from people in other parishes, where the altars have been re-located to the middle of the church, that this has caused a great deal of upset and then in some cases the next parish priest brought the altars back to where they belonged, in the sanctuary; quite an expensive and futile experiment!
It is sad to observe that two nuns were invited to Benalla from Melbourne to tell the priests how to arrange the church and the liturgy, including the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass — the prerogative of a validly ordained priest.
Whilst we all appreciated your recent visit, My Lord, we were disappointed that when speaking you ignored reference to the many communications you received from the good people who are dissatisfied with what is happening in the parish. Are you not, as Bishop, a shepherd over your whole flock? Those letters went to you from many good Catholics who include very important people in the community, as you well know.
In discussions, regarding our predicament, with priests who occupy respectable and important positions in the church in Melbourne, they have highly commended us for our action in opposing what is happening in Benalla and urged us to keep up the efforts as they know only too well that a team ministry wrecked the parish of Airport West and tried to take over other parishes; however the teams would not be accepted by the people. We have been denied any say in the matter here and that is one of the reasons that so many parishioners are now withholding their planned giving.
We feel very sad to note that, because of the tension and division which have been brought to the parish, Monsignor O’Reilly who has done so much for the spiritual and temporal welfare of Benalla and who has been so highly respected as a devout priest by all sections of the community, has decided not to have any Jubilee celebrations in the parish or to accept from the community any gesture to mark his 50 years in the priesthood.
We all fervently hope for the restoration of peace and harmony which prevailed before 22nd January this year when the team ministry arrived and immediately began to unsettle, confuse and insult the people both separately and as a congregation. A correct atmosphere could be restored if the three priests were removed and replaced by a sensible parish priest and assistant who will be approachable and sensitive and who will have the consideration of all parishioners at heart.
In writing this letter I am sure that I express the thoughts and feelings of a great number of concerned parishioners who appeal to you for your urgent assistance.