St Benedict's parish in Arcadia takes its character not only from its Benedictine roots but also from the farming community in which it lies with its long tradition of gentle living, joyful generosity and care for each other, writes Debra Vermeer.
It’s the most rural parish in the Diocese of Broken Bay, and St Benedict’s Parish, Arcadia lives up to its country reputation, with a village-like community in which everyone knows each other’s name and generations of families are active in their faith and their support of parish life.
St Benedict’s is under the care of the Benedictine monks who live on the adjoining property. The parish has no Catholic school, but there are a range of state, Catholic and private schools in the district, as well as a number of home schooling families.
Parish Priest Fr Bernard McGrath osb, says the parish takes its character from the farming community in which it lies.
“We have a lot of immigrant farming families in the parish, from a range of backgrounds including Italian, Lebanese, Maltese, Croatian, Filipino and English backgrounds, as well as Australians,” Fr Bernard says.
“The village atmosphere means that there is a lot of gentleness here, and at the same time, the parishioners are passionate people, which is great. There’s nothing lukewarm about them or their faith.”
The parish community is made up of a mix of age groups, with a significant elderly population, but also lots of young families and teenagers.
“Because of the small local villages, the people all know each other, which is great when it comes to the sacramental program, for instance. When the children come along they and their parents are already known by name, simply by being a part of the local community,” says Fr Bernard.
“The people running the program know the families, they know the kids, and that creates a wonderful spirit across the board.
“And it’s not at all uncommon to have three or four generations of families living in the parish and attending Mass together.”
Last year, 61 children received the sacraments of Confirmation, First Holy Communion and Reconciliation in the Arcadia parish.
Fr Bernard says he is assisted in the running of the parish by the Parish Pastoral Council, Parish Finance Council and Parish Secretary Theresa Neely. The Sisters of the Good Samaritan have also had a long association with St Benedict’s.
“But beyond that, the parish community as a whole is very supportive with their time, their donations either of goods or funds and their general willingness to work hard for the parish,” he says.
One example of this generosity is the famous Parish Fete held every year, which last year raised $35,000 to help with parish expenditure, regular maintenance and improvements to parish facilities.
“The work that the people do for that fete is incredible,” Fr Bernard says. “Whole families will come and help set up, as well as provide the rides and the stalls, and the produce and cooking for stalls. It’s a big day for us and everyone contributes.
“And the fete is not just for our parish, it’s for the whole community, so it’s a great day of inviting all the local people to come and be a part of it.”
Fr Bernard says a Liturgy team helps enhance worship in the parish and a small but strong group of singers and musicians provides the music ministry. This includes a youth choir and a group of local high school students who sing and play at Youth Masses, as well as a junior ensemble. The parish has held three music workshops for young people over the last year to help them learn and grow in the ways they can share their musical gifts in worship with the parish community.
Children’s Masses take place every first Sunday of the month and a Youth Mass on the fourth Sunday evening of the month.
Another big community event last year was the Carols by Candlelight, in which the children conveyed the Christmas story through drama and the crowd joined in by singing and waving their candles. It was followed by supper and fellowship.
And on Christmas night, the parish held a banquet for the fourth year, called ‘The Spirit of Giving’, for about 40 people in the local community who were away from home or who were on their own.
Devotional life at St Benedict’s is varied, with a range of different prayer groups available, including a Friday Prayer Group in which people come together on the last Friday of the month to pray the Rosary, the Litany and the Divine Mercy Chaplet in Italian.
There is a procession to celebrate the feast day of Our Lady of Fatima, with about 300 people attending from all over Sydney. Every Monday afternoon the Italian Rosary Group meets for Adoration, Rosary, Liturgy of the Word and Benediction, and the Christ Catholic Community Group gathers every Wednesday morning and Friday Evening to hear the word of God and embrace it in their lives. Outings and gatherings are also held for those who attend. A Catholic Charismatic Renewal Group meets weekly on Tuesdays and there is a Healing Mass on the last Sunday of each month at 4pm.
While young people are very much a part of parish life, seniors are also much loved and well looked after, with a Seniors Group meeting every Thursday to nurture one another in loving care and friendship. The gathering starts with Mass and continues with fellowship.
Fr Bernard celebrates Mass monthly for seniors at the nearby Rowland Village and parishioners are currently engaged in exploring new ways of visiting and supporting the seniors in the community, both at home or at Rowland Village, with an emphasis on caring for those with dementia.
The parish’s St Vincent de Paul Society conference also visits people in nursing homes and people with disabilities as well as caring for those in the community who might be in need, including single mums and dads and their children.
Of course, it wouldn’t be a Benedictine parish without celebrating the Feast of St Benedict on July 11. Last year’s feast day celebrations included a Mass, a barbecue, games for the kids and mingling for the adults.
Fr Bernard says the parish has four or five young people going to World Youth Day in Krakow, Poland, later this year and the parishioners have been supporting them with fundraising.
“One of our young people came up with the idea of raising funds for World Youth Day by inviting our parishioners to contribute a favourite recipe and then compiling them all into a Parish Recipe Book,” he says. It was a big success. We kept having to print more.”
When it comes to social justice, the St Benedict’s community engages with its local community through Vinnies and visits to the aged and other initiatives, as well as with those in need in rural Australia.
“For some years our parish has had a relationship with St Patrick’s Parish, Brewarrina,” says Fr Bernard.
This includes fundraising for the community’s needs, as well as providing funds and support for three children whose parents died, leaving them orphans. Last year, $2,000 was raised for the three children who are now living in foster care. The St Benedict’s parish also supports a couple in Brewarrina who lost the roof of their house in a tornado event.
The parish’s faith outreach includes having a team of catechists going into the state schools, as well as ecumenical initiatives such as prayer breakfasts and dinners with the local church groups. The monks in the monastery also host an interfaith gathering a few times a year, featuring Buddhists, Hindus, Muslims and Catholics sharing time together in conversation and reflection.
Fr Bernard says the relationship between the parish and the monastery has always been warm.
“The people have supported us and we’ve supported the people,” he says. “There’s a wonderful mutual support.
“I think the fact that the community sees us working our small farm also helps to break down any barriers. This gives us a common language with lots of people in this area, the idea that we work for our living, as well as providing our priestly ministry.”
Fr Bernard says one of the big projects for 2016 will be the remodelling of the Church and parish centre, to allow parishioners to hear the Mass better.