Monsignor O’Reilly sent a letter of protest to Bishop Daly of 26 March:
My Lord Bishop
As the senior Irish priest of the diocese of Sandhurst I wish to make a formal protest to the coming meeting of priests for the manner in which the memory of my fellow pioneer Irish priests was recently obliterated under the guise of modernization of St. Joseph’s Church, Benalla. These Irish priests left their native land which they loved so much and their relatives so dear to them to come and work for God and for souls, and build up the church, living and working in primitive conditions and uncongenial surroundings in the untamed wilderness of Australia.
No wonder that the people to whom they ministered, decided when they died to show their gratitude by arranging, at considerable cost, to have fitting marble altars erected as perpetual memorials to their beloved priests — Father Scanlon, their first parish priest who died from hardship at the early age of thirty-three and the great Dean Davy, his successor, who with prophetic vision and confidence in the future growth of Benalla, planned in 1907 a church of Cathedral dimensions, an architectural gem of rare beauty. However, he did not live to see his holy ambition realised. He died in January 1908, five months before the church was constructed, but he left a lasting monument to his memory. A church of which all people, Catholics and Non-Catholics are justly proud as it towers over the city of Benalla, an imposing building of religious, historic and of architectural significance. But Dean Davy was buried in the church of his dreams.
Until last year, 1989, a monument in the form of a Sacred Heart altar protected and marked his grave, while a similar altar was appropriately erected in the memory of Father Scanlon in honour of Our Lady to whom he had great devotion.
Under the alleged concept that there should be only one altar in a church, these two side altars were demolished, even though side altars can still be seen in churches all over Australia, and particularly in the ancient churches and Cathedrals in Europe and elsewhere. It was interesting to read in the N.S.W. papers not long ago that the newly appointed parish priest of Bowral, was obliged to build a completely new parish church. In planning the new church, with the main altar in the sanctuary of the church, he requested and readily obtained permission from his Bishop, to incorporate in the plans a new side altar as a perpetual memorial to the retiring priest, Father Glynn, who was well enough and happy to be present at the opening of the new church.
Last year I wrote to Father Condon, the historian of All Hallows College, Dublin, to inform him of the desecration of the altars, as five of the parish priests of Benalla were students of All Hallows. In his reply he said, “I’m awfully sorry to hear that the Benalla succession has been so unfeeling for the noble tradition of the past. They have a lot to learn and they will learn yet — by bitter experience.”
A report of the tragedy will be included in the next publication of All Hallows Annual which is sent to All Hallows priests all over the world.
I also personally resent the desecration of the marble sanctuary which in 1971 I was responsible for installing, with the marble altar donated by Dean Davy in the central position. The cost involved came from a legacy bequeathed to the church by the late E.J. Ginnivan and the new sanctuary was erected as a memorial to the late E.J. Ginnivan.
These alterations to the sanctuary in 1971 were undertaken to meet liturgical requirements for Mass to be celebrated facing the people, and more completely in conformity with the architecture of the church, were admired by all people of good taste, including an American Bishop who visited me in Benalla and who said on seeing the renovated sanctuary, that it was the finest transformation in marble he had seen anywhere in the world. You yourself, My Lord, highly praised the sanctuary on every occasion when you celebrated Mass in St. Joseph’s.
In planning the future sanctuary I was guided by Bishop Stewart, who frequently called to inspect the progress. I was helped by the reigning Liturgical Commission, set up to direct priests contemplating changes and also to enlighten irresponsible priests who might be linked to what Father Lane calls in his admirable letter, “unnecessary and pointless destruction”. The church is now called ‘St. Joseph’s Methodist Church’ because there is nothing in the sanctuary but a vase of flowers. And the unsightly and completely out of place new altar in such a dignified church is called a `butchers block’.
This brings us back to the question why wasn’t the Liturgical Commission re-established when a motion was passed, seconded and approved by the Council of Priests at one of their meetings.
As most priests are deeply concerned at the desecration of St. Joseph’s Catholic Church Benalla, I am sending a copy of this letter to a number of priests… all of whom were privileged to offer Mass or perform other ceremonies, such as weddings, in such a devotional, majestic and superbly appointed parish church with its former dignified sanctuary. Yours sincerely