VIVALDI AND THE TOUR-GUIDE
During February 1990, the Team visited Monsignor O’Reilly in an effort to persuade him to attend a small celebratory function after the gala opening of the church. In light of the constant criticism of the state of St. Joseph’s, Monsignor considered both the delegation and the request particularly insulting. He not only refused to attend the function but insisted most emphatically that he did not want an apology read out, lest people mistake it as a sign of tacit approval on his part of the Team or the remodeling.
True to form, however, the Team simply ignored the Monsignor’s heartfelt request and at the post-opening function on the evening of 22 February, promptly apologized for him. Marj Ride, who had promised the Monsignor she would attend the opening, was appalled by this breach of faith. But it was the sight of the new-look St. Joseph’s which made her weep.
Each evening for a few days thereafter, the church was open for special inspection. Working in Benalla on 23 February, I left the office early and strolled over to Arundel Street to check out the damage.
Upon entering the church I was both surprised and delighted to find the magnificent Stations of the Cross, painted by an F.C.J. nun in 1906, still adorning the side walls.
Counter-revolution 1: Team 0, I pondered. However, as I made my way up the church, to the strains of Vivaldi’s Four Seasons which wafted through the new, hi-tech stereo system, I found less and less to smile about. Apart from the A. V. Jennings ambiance, set-off by the wall-to-wall carpet, there was something expansive and empty about it — like a spanking new library without shelving or books. But I could not put my finger on the reason until I reached the sanctuary, and saw — nothing.
The Church as it was
An enormous empty space lay before me. The reality of the mooted changes suddenly hit home. The altar really was gone. The tabernacle and the marble edifice and columns surrounding it had disappeared. In fact every trace of marble seemed to have vanished, replaced by a vast tiled floor. The decimation and transformation was total. But not even this shock prepared me for the next discovery. Sitting on a kind of circular platform attached to the edge of the sanctuary and extending out towards the front pews was a big, unsightly block of wood. For all intents and purposes, a butchers block no less. This was the new altar. I was stunned.
Standing in a mild daze, slowly absorbing the emptiness, and the ‘block’, I was accosted by a tour-guide who could barely contain his excitement as he explained the finer points of the remodeling project — the pews had been stripped back to their original colour; the sanctuary floor had been lowered to reveal the original 1907 tiles; the whole effect had been to create a feeling of “space” by lightening up the interior which hitherto, he assured me, had been somewhat darker. This last comment was astonishing in view of the fact that St. Joseph’s was renowned for its spaciousness and light.’
The guide sounded like a cassette recording of the Team’s favourite liturgical text-book, Environment and Art in Catholic Worship, and when he finally wound down and his last “spacial” cliche was lost amidst Vivaldi’s hi-tech reverberations, I gestured towards the desolate area behind the butchers block. The tour-guide half-turned and cast his eyes across the void. “What happened to the beautiful marble altar?” I asked.
“There it is,” he responded on cue, pointing to the back wall where a large pot plant rested on something resembling a mantel-piece.
He had to be joking.
“It was a big, solid marble altar,” I repeated slowly. “Where’s the rest of it?”
He pointed to another smaller mantel-piece attached to the side wall to our left.
I persisted. “But where’s the rest of it?” Silence.
The guide had not been programmed to answer such probing questions. He finally stuttered “I don’t know”, and went on talking about ‘visibility’ and ‘light’ and ‘1907 sanctuary tiles.’
He then turned to some fresh, docile customers, launched into the safety of his prepared sales pitch and disappeared —into the immensity of “space”.
To the left of the sanctuary, an archway had been carved out of what was the wall of the Sacred Heart altar to reveal a tiny room, hardly large enough to accommodate two-dozen very petite nuns. Therein sat a few pews, a tiny ‘fruit-box’ doubling, I presumed, as an altar and the repositioned tabernacle. Thus was removed from sight the Unwanted Presence.
Meanwhile, visitors traipsed in and out of the archway, blissfully unaware that they were desecrating Dean Davy’s grave. I recalled a comment by Monsignor O’Reilly that in the Anglican Cathedral of Durham, England, the altar stone is still embedded in the doorway where people can walk over it as a show of disdain for the sacrifice of the Mass. The Team had gone one better, allowing people to walk across the grave of a man who spent his life offering that sacrifice.
On the other side of the church, the fragment retained from Our Lady’s altar had become yet another mantel-piece adornment for the side wall. An anaemic looking St Joseph, totally whitewashed and stripped of his lily of purity, had replaced Our Lady and was the only statue in sight. Blending perfectly with the white walls he had become the Patron of Anonymity — a symbol, perhaps, of the Team’s rejection of priestly identification.
From the body of the church the tabernacle was not visible and one had to be concentrating to catch sight of the lamp. The only signs of the Catholic religion in this big empty barn were the Stations of the Cross and the stained glass window behind the sanctuary, both of which stood in contradiction to the newchurch symbolism that surrounded them. In time, of course, they would be supplemented by the Sacred Microphone as a myriad of commentators, ‘guest’ lay gospel readers et al. replaced Vivaldi on the state-of-the-art loud-speaker system.
The priests had achieved their dream. It truly was a super-deluxe parish hall.
The scene evoked a special feeling of solidarity with the Catholic faithful of Reformation I. They too had suffered heroically under the heartbreak of similar transformations, such as that described in Come Rack! Come Rope! when the erstwhile Catholic squire of Matstead attended the new Protestant Communion Service for the first time:
The church was as most were in those days. It was but a little place, yet it had had in old days great treasures of beauty. There had been, until some ten or twelve years ago, a carved screen that ran across the chancel arch, with the Rood upon it, and St. Mary and St. John on this side and that. The high altar, it was remembered, had been of stone throughout, surrounded with curtains on the three sides, hanging between posts that had each a carven angel, all gilt. Now all was gone, excepting only the painted windows (since glass was costly). The chancel arch was as bare as a barn; beneath the whitewash, high over the place where the old canopy had hung, pale colours still glimmered through where, twelve years ago, Christ had sat crowning His Mother. The altar was gone; its holy slab served now as the pavement within the west door, where the supersti‑tious took pains to step clear of it. The screen was gone; part lay beneath the tower; part had been burned; Christ’s Cross held up the roof of the shed where the minister kept his horse; the three figures had been carted off to Derby to help swell the Protestant bonfire. … In place of these glories there stood now in the body of the church, before the chancel-steps, a great table, such as the rubrics of the new Prayer Book required, spread with a white cloth …2
As I turned to leave, the tour-guide bounded towards me and exclaimed: “Father told me that the slab of marble on the side wall of the sanctuary with the inscription on it is the top of the altar.” I looked around and located Father, resplendent in blue shorts, matching short-sleeved shirt and sandals. With a look of satisfaction at having found ten per cent of the altar, the guide remarked, “Well, I’ve learnt something myself then.”
I was tempted to continue this game of hide-and-seek with my “where’s the rest of it?” routine, but it was all too absurd. Instead, I -wandered over to the piece of rectangular marble to find that Dean Owen Davy’s original altar table had indeed been turned into a plaque, nailed to the sanctuary wall like a hand to a cross.
The deceptive inscription read in part: “Original altar table placed here after the fire 1989″ — as if to suggest to future generations that a fire, rather than a Team of priests, had gutted, the church and destroyed the altar of sacrifice. Underneath, in anticipation of the official blessing planned for the following month, were inscribed the following words — “Blessed and reopened by Bishop Noel Daly D.D. 24th March 1990″.
This was Guiness Book of Records stuff. Bishop Daly had very likely become the only bishop in the world to have his name inscribed on an altar table still containing its holy relics! It topped off the whole project — the liturgical sociology advocated in the Team’s American handbook had been brought to life with deadening effect.