The people of Benalla had legitimate concerns and they approached their priests and their Bishop with due respect and in good faith. Believing that Canon Law offered protection against ecclesiastical injustice, they also lodged a formal petition calling for the removal of the priests from the parish. Instead of a fair hearing, the Bishop listened for what the parishioners didn’t say, refused to hear what they said and arrogantly dismissed their claims without any due process whatsoever. Besides that, their motives were questioned and their reputations damaged.
Bishop Daly’s contemptible attitude in this regard could have provoked a destructive cynicism among the faithful but, ill-treated as they were, they tempered their righteous anger with prayer by maintaining the Perpetual Novena and placing the parish in the hands of the Blessed Mother. Jesus had allowed their hearts to be broken, just as His was pierced on the cross, and none ,endured more than Monsignor O’Reilly who, as an elderly parishioner confided, had suffered terribly — “They just ignored Monsignor. He’d been here so long, they should have gone and spoken to him. They treated him like he didn’t exist. They broke his heart.”
Of course suffering with Jesus has its rewards and the grace thus obtained was a great consolation to Monsignor and the parishioners. It guarded them from rancour and melancholy while enabling them to endure the intolerable strain and frustration of all that had transpired since the Team hurricane first turned their world upside-down.
“I’m not bitter,” commented Marj Ride. “Just very concerned at how easily people are conned. Many people are now saying that they wished they had listened to us from the outset.”
One such parishioner commented:
A lot of people couldn’t believe that what some parishioners were saying early on would actually happen! People just did not believe the Team could alter the church. One of my non-Catholic neighbours donated money but never dreamed it would be used in that way. Who would have thought … .
Needless to say, such comments continued to dominate conversation among the orthodox, as discussion naturally turned to the rapidly deteriorating state of affairs within the parish and throughout the diocese. There was talk of the latest parish appointments which, as Monsignor O’Reilly put it, placed a newchurch “stranglehold” on that stretch of the Hume Highway and further cut Sunday Mass alternatives for the orthodox by bolstering the newchurch presence in the ‘surrounding towns of Euroa and Wangaratta. Heads shook in bewilderment at the introduction of a fortnightly Communion Service in place of Sunday Mass at nearby Violet Town while three priests were left to preside over the remnant of the Benalla parish only thirty miles away. And despite the emaciated parish roll, all three priests continued to take Mondays off, much to the parishioners amazement:
I told Father who should know better at his age, that the whole parish situation was dreadful. I asked him why one of the Team couldn’t be there on Monday to look after sick people who need a priest. He had no response. Monsignor and one young priest used to carry the parish but now there are three men with so many pastoral helpers and they’re getting more! What do they do?
Informal gatherings became a valuable outlet for the thoughts and frustrations of parishioner and priest alike. On one such occasion one parishioner recalled that on the night of the fire he had been amazed to discover that the lamp had continued burning beside the tabernacle, despite the heat and the water. And amidst the rubble he also noticed that the crucifix on the altar had remained upright and intact. In retrospect, the scene assumed a powerful symbolism:
The roof over the sanctuary was gone. Everything had collapsed on to the floor. But the crucifix was upright, the lamp was burning and amidst the cinders, logs of wood, tin and ash the Sacred Heart and Lady statues were unharmed. I think there was a message in that. The essentials of the Faith were still untouched. If you closed the doors, St. Joseph’s looked fine. Our Church wasn’t gutted by fire. Both our church and our spiritual life have been methodically dismantled by a team of priests.