North Eastern Telegraph of 25 September reported the desecration of St. Joseph’s under a front page headline that screamed, “BENALLA CHURCH TOMB UPROAR”:
Interior renovations to Benalla’s fire-damaged St. Joseph’s Church constitute the desecration of a grave, according to angry parishioners.
A spokesperson, Ms Marj Ride, said at the weekend parishioners were startled by the discovery that two altars have been removed since interior refurbishing began recently.
One of the altars removed, says Ms Ride, is the Sacred Heart altar, under which Arch Deacon Dean Davy was buried.
Arch Deacon Davy was a major instigator in the Church’s establishment in 1907 but died on January 23, 1908, a month before the church was completed. He was buried in Benalla cemetery on January 24 but was later entombed under the Sacred Heart altar at the request of parishioners.
Ms Ride said parishioners had no idea of reorganization plans of the altars and have been completely uninformed of details regarding the $35,000 interior refurbishments.
When told the altars had been removed, [Ms Ride] went to the church to inspect. “I couldn’t believe it,” Ms Ride said of the interior alterations. “Many parishioners are angry and feel the grave has been desecrated. They are very concerned further damage will be done to their church.”
A circular letter distributed recently by concerned parishioners prompted replies from over 200 families. Parishioners say the survey indicated some 80 per cent of respondents want the church restored to its original form and do not agree with changes being introduced….
Similar headlines accompanied reports elsewhere as the Victorian media once again turned its attention to the quarreling Catholic community in the north-east. Even the gentle Monsignor O’Reilly who had maintained a low profile throughout the year was now drawn, albeit reluctantly, into the public forum. On 1 October 1989 the Melbourne Sunday Herald featured a picture of the Monsignor in front of St. Joseph’s bearing an appropriately strained and perplexed look. Underneath, the headline read “PRIESTLY TEAM FIRES TOWN FURY.” The article, more insightful and sympathetic than most, was lengthy and read in part:
Benalla has long traded its links with the Kelly gang. But since the beginning of the year, it has been in uproar over the arrival of another gang: a gang of priests.
On the surface the row is over the restoration of St. Joseph’s Catholic Church, badly damaged when an arsonist set it alight-in February. The real reason is a radical change in the way the parish is run. It now has a team of three priests, the first Catholic team ministry in country Victoria. They have a less traditional, more community-based form of worship, and have struck a nerve that has been laid bare among Catholics since 1965 and the Second Vatican Council.
… Already the slate roof has been replaced with coloured steel and two small side altars have been sliced up and moved. A hole has been cut in a wall where a sacred statue once stood and the future of such statues and other sacred objects has been placed in limbo.
… Father O’Reilly, now 77 and with the title Monsignor, lives only a block from his beloved church. Reluctant to be drawn into the row he admits to being opposed to the changes.
“God knows why they have done this, for 18 years we had a very happy parish. I am not happy with what is happening.”