There’s an old saying – the church is not the building, but the people.
This can be said of the parish of St Madeleine Sophie Barat in Kenthurst.
By the end of the year, St Madeleine’s will finally have their own church – a dream 30 years in the making.
“The parish has gone through numerous setbacks – struggles, frustrations, rejection and disappointments in the process of having this church in the parish. Somehow, this church finally getting constructed is an embodiment of the hopes of many,” parish priest Fr Vincent Savarimuthu said in an interview with Catholic Outlook in 2018.
“This has been the dream of the parish ever since it began. Over 30 years, this has been the dream of the parishioners,” Sacramental Coordinator Sally Coppini told Catholic Outlook recently.
“There were many times along the way that it would have been easy to give up, and just throw our hands in the air, because I think we came up with a lot of dead ends – a lot of people came to dead ends in the 30 years.
“But I think the tenacity and the spirit of this community shows through our passion for it [the church],” she said.
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The parish – located in the semi-rural, semi-bush area of Kenthurst – was created in 1988 after being separated from St Bernadette’s Parish, Castle Hill.
One of the ‘founding fathers’ of Kenthurst parish, Parish Council member Mick Parslow, explained that during his time on the Finance Committee at Castle Hill, an analysis of envelope contributions revealed that 30% of contributions were derived from the Kenthurst area. Accordingly, Kenthurst has a sound basis of being largely self-supporting.
“It wasn’t so much that Castle Hill had grown and thought ‘we need to expand,’ there was a real drive from people of this community to have their own church and their own parish,” Parish Council member Stuart Bennett added.
In 1985, 20 acres of land were purchased by descendants of the Blake family, whose house held one of the first Masses in the area during the 1860s and 1870s.
Building began in late 1986, and the first Mass was celebrated on a wet and muddy Holy Thursday in 1987.
Fr Christopher Dixon was parish priest from St Madeleine’s creation in 1988 until his retirement in 2011. Fr Vince, as he prefers to be called, joined the parish on December 8, 2011.
“I still remember when Fr Chris announced that he was moving on. We were all really sad, because we had a good rapport with him, and he was very sad too. But one thing that he said that stuck in my mind was ‘I’ve done my time here, it’s time for a new energy in this parish, and that’s what you’re going to get with your new parish priest,” Stuart explained.
“[Kenthurst] is my first parish as a parish priest in Australia,” Fr Vince said.
“[Because] I had held so many responsibilities back in India, I wanted to be an assistant priest. But I don’t regret that I became the parish priest [here].
“At the beginning, it was quite difficult for me, because this parish had been under one priest for 25 years. It was indeed a struggle to introduce changes. Slowly, I initiated various programs, small changes. I was really enthused by the people’s interests and their cooperation and their support for new initiatives.
“I’ve got a good parish team. Whenever I tap the shoulders of somebody for anything, they are always willing to lend their hand of support. St Madeleine’s is a warm, welcoming and hospitable community.”
“We call him our parish priest, but he’s our friend,” Sally said.
Stuart added, “Fr Vincent’s work ethic is second-to-none. He’s very inclusive, very open, and that inspires all of us. Fr Vincent has a vision for this parish, and he’s so driven and passionate and it’s infectious.”
On any given weekend, Kenthurst has around 700 people attend its four Masses – Saturday Vigil 5.30pm and Sunday 8am, 10am and 5.30pm – with numbers almost doubling during large celebrations.
St Madeleine’s is lucky to have a plot of land large enough to host St Madeleine’s Primary School and Marian Catholic College.
“The primary school has regular Masses – twice a week – either by class or by year, and that’s fairly regular,” parish secretary Lisa Echevarria said.
“The high school, Marian College, used to have Mass once a fortnight, but now they have changed to once a month, choosing to have Masses by house rather than by Year group,” Fr Vince added.
“The students also help out as catechists – they opt to go and teach catechism in the state schools,” Sally said.
“Geographically, we face different challenges to other parishes and schools because the area is so vast, we have children that attend school here but actually live in other parishes. We have children that would travel half an hour, so they live in different parishes, so straight away that relationship with student and parish is not there,” Stuart explained.
“That’s a challenge that we’ve faced and its ongoing and we’ve worked hard to develop the relationship and it’s improved significantly in Fr Vincent’s time,” he added.
When asked what the best thing about the parish is, the support team said that they loved the familiarity of the parish.
“I like coming here, and I think it’s because you’ve got the opportunity to do God’s work, so the opportunity is here, and I think the community allows you to have that opportunity,” Sally said.
“I do the sacramental program, and obviously we have a lot of unchurched people that come, and that’s a reality, and that’s ok and a lot of them say ‘it’s really nice here.’ They don’t normally come to church, but they go away thinking it’s very friendly, it’s not too big, they’re not isolated, people talk to them.
“I think it’s something to do with the presence of Jesus – the presence of Jesus is here in the people, in the ministries here and the passion of people.
“We’re all friends. We’re a group of people that are friends that have the same desire to spread the love of Jesus,” Sally said.
“It’s small enough that Fr Vince can make the celebrations, with our help, really special,” Lisa said.
“I get to serve at a different church every now and again, a different parish, and it feels there that when you go to Mass, you’ve ticked your requirement for the weekend.
“Here it doesn’t feel that way,” she said.
Stuart added, “the best thing about our parish is our parish priest and what he brings to this parish is infections, his energy and his drive.
“[Fr Vince] inspires me to be involved, and in doing that, I’ve gotten to meet all these people and make wonderful friends with all sorts of walks of life of people in the parish, and I think, collectively, we are all inspired to work hard and to make this a better place,” he said with a quiver in his voice.
“The people are unified and they are extraordinarily supportive of the things that happen. You don’t necessarily work to achieve those two objectives, but I think they’re what stand out to me,” Mick added.
Looking towards the future, the parish team at Kenthurst hope that their new church will bring a new energy.
“It’s been 30 years in that Mass centre, and the volunteers have pretty much stayed the same. But then, with a new church, it’s my hope, that it will create new things for people to do, and a new wave of volunteers getting involved,” Lisa said.
Stuart explained, “although it is a huge achievement, and in many people’s eyes it’s the greatest achievement of this parish, however, without the engagement of Fr Vincent and everyone getting together, that [the church] wouldn’t be there. And without the spirit in this parish, that could be built, but it could fail financially in a few years, or it may be financially sound, but it won’t be occupied.
“Although that’s a great milestone, that’s not the destination of this parish, it’s just a milestone in the journey.”
“At the same time, we are also concentrating on forming ministries, bringing new faces to develop the parish, to take the parish for further growth in terms of spirituality, faith and unity,” Fr Vince said.
“It’s not just the building, we are trying to build the people of God.
“My philosophy has always been ‘bloom where you are planted.’”
Hopefully, the parish, with the assistance of Fr Vince, continues to bloom and flourish from its new roots.