Coup de Grace
Upon his arrival in Benalla in 1971, Monsignor O’Reilly made alterations to the sanctuary of St. Joseph’s Church to enable Mass to be said facing the people. The table of Dean Davy’s old marble altar was retained and added to new marble in keeping with the dignity of the Church. To support its weight the altar was placed on a large concrete block and there it had remained. In addition, the Monsignor had three marble arches imported from Italy and fitted around the tabernacle under the imposing stained glass window at the rear of the sanctuary. The overall effect was quite beautiful in an undemonstrative way.
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One Friday night in early December a concerned parishioner phoned Marj Ride to tell her about a pile of bricks he had noticed outside the church. He could not imagine where they might have come from. Unless, of course, they were the bricks from the block supporting the altar? But that couldn’t be right. Surely?
On the following Monday, Marj visited the church:
I went in and had a look. I immediately saw a remaining portion of the altar on the sanctuary itself, and the rest laid out on the left hand side half-way down the church. The archways and the marble steps leading up to the altar from the sanctuary floor were also gone. I was so upset. The next day when I went back to the church I saw some boxes and asked the workmen what was in them. They told me it was the marble, packed up and ready to be sold.
I rang Father who confirmed that the marble was to be sold at a later date. Shortly after I first met him, Father had made a jocular comment to me about “keeping the bastards honest” in relation to some work I was involved in. I always thought it was most inappropriate language for a priest to use in front of a woman, let alone someone he had just met. Well, after what had happened, I said: “Father, I will say to you what you said to me some months ago. You said, ‘keeping the bastards honest’. Well, I say to you now that I believe you are a bastard of the first order for what you have done, a disgrace to this parish and a disgrace to the diocese.” I haven’t spoken to him since.
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Without any forewarning or debate whatsoever, the Team had coldly obliterated the final and most enduring symbol of Catholic faith. Not content with desecrating Dean Davy’s grave, they had smashed the altar supporting his original altar-table from which streams of sacrifice had poured up to the Throne for nigh on a thousand months.
In so doing, the Team completed the third stage of its unholy trilogy of revolution. It started with the suppression of popular devotion (Perpetual Novena) and the rapid introduction of self-styled liturgical innovations, which both stripped parishioners of their pious Catholic sensibilities and undermined the essence of Mass as expiatory sacrifice. The spiritual damage thus inflicted was now physically reinforced through the gutted ruins of the church and the barbaric coup de grace — altar smashing. All that remained was to refurbish St. Joseph’s in man’s image. Somewhere in eternity, a sneering Lord Cromwell hissed: “Not bad work, if you can get it.”
The spirit of Cranmer and Cromwell was certainly active in Benalla if one considers the following description of events in England circa 1550:
The wholesale destruction of altars in England did not take place until after the imposition of the 1549 Prayer Book, but a start had been made in 1548 with the altars of the chantry chapels which Cranmer had suppressed. After 1549 the stone altars upon which the Sacrifice of the Mass had been offered were replaced with wooden tables placed in the chancel … Altars were “too enduring monuments” to “the age old belief in the sacrifice of the Mass. Altar smashing was already a well recognized mark of the Reformation on the Continent, where the practice had been the normal accompaniment of the abolition of the Mass.”