“THE FORT IS BETRAYED”
With the Monsignor’s heart-wrenching appeal still fresh in his mind, Bishop Daly dutifully appeared at 7 p.m. on 24 March 1990 to offer Mass and formally bless the big, bare barn.
Several burly plain clothes policemen hanging around the entrance to the church clearly indicated that the Team was expecting trouble. Perhaps Bishop Daly feared meeting the same unfortunate end as the tactless Protestant authority who, in June 1549 in the west country parish of Sampford Courtenay, remonstrated with Catholic parishioners outraged by Cranmer’s reforms until “a farmer named Letherbridge struck him with his billhook and others ‘fell upon him and slew him…’.” 1 He need not have worried. A repeat performance in March 1990 by outraged Catholics of the Australian country parish of Benalla was, for better or worse, unlikely. In fact, the commonsense orthodox had even rejected the idea of a silent public protest, viewing it as a pointless and probably counter-productive exercise. It was therefore mildly hysterical to see the bouncers thoroughly checking the contents of Marj Ride’s handbag before she was allowed to take her seat in the church. God alone knows what they expected to find but in Marj’s defence it must be stated that, thankfully, the district is not yet a bastion for seventy year old female terrorists.
Although an overreaction, the mere presence of police at such an occasion was a powerful reminder to all present of the lunatic depths to which the Team had dragged the pride of the diocese in only twelve months.
While most seats were occupied by the time Bishop Daly entered St. Joseph’s, those familiar with the pre-fire seating arrangements understood the illusory nature of the crowd. As already mentioned, the unusual design and arrangement of the pews had reduced the seating capacity by over twenty per cent. Whereas the church previously seated about 500, it now catered for around 380. At best this reduction seemed to reflect a realistic lack of confidence in the future health of the parish under Team Ministry. At worst it smacked of elitism and the Team’s inevitable regression to the newchurch policy of “quality not quantity’; in which case the fact that there was still scattered seating available on such a momentous occasion may even have heartened the priests.
Fr. Welladsen kicked-off proceedings with a request for everyone to turn to the person next to them and say hello. When this stage-managed show of spontaneous community affection finally abated, he related a story about a condemned jeweler, the relevance of which to the occasion, or life generally, I was too dim to perceive. With the Bishop seated to his left in the “presiders chair”, crook in hand, Fr. Welladsen then reminded the congregation (twice) that the purpose for which they had gathered together at this special Mass was to “eat and drink each others presence”. Forever the optimist, I immediately searched the episcopal countenance for signs of hidden mirth; disguised astonishment; a curled lip; a bewildered shake of the apostolic head. I found nothing bar a dead-pan look a model of self-control.