REDFERN: Concern has been growing among parishioners of the St Vincent’s Catholic Church, as the mural painted behind the altar has deteriorated to an alarming state. Members of the Church have asked for a quote from professional restorers to have the mural fixed and have expressed to the Parish Priest, Father Melvin Llabanes, their wish to pay for the restoration themselves, but it has yet to be approved by the Church authorities.
The mural was painted by parishioners in 2006, without the knowledge of the priest at the time, Father Gerry Prindiville. A longtime member of the Church, a Catholic sister, says: “The Aboriginal people love that mural, they really love it. It’s the words of Pope John Paul II, he’s speaking straight to the Aboriginal people in Alice Springs . It’s really affirming. I’ve seen Aboriginal people just sitting at the Church and gazing up at it. But the priests don’t like it.”
Father Ted Kennedy, who worked at the Redfern Church for more than 30 years, alongside social worker Mum Shirl, was revered by locals for reaching out to the Aboriginal community and including the most underprivileged members of society. But since he retired in 2002 and passed away three years later, his successors have had the most difficult time filling his shoes.
The priests recently appointed by Cardinal George Pell to St Vincent’s have all been members of The Neocatechumenal Way, a conservative branch of Catholicism originating in Spain. The “Neo-Cats”, as some call them, practice their faith in a more traditionalist way than Fr Ted, whose theology was closer to Vatican II (or the “Second Vatican Council”, which took place 50 years ago and addressed the Church’s relationship with the modern world).
As a result of these different theologies, tensions have built up over the years between the parishioners and the priests, while attendance numbers have dwindled, as parishioners have either gone to other churches or have stopped coming to Mass altogether.
The priests, who so far have come from Perth, Brazil, and in the case of the current priest, Father Melvin Llabanes, from the Philippines, have been reproached for their lack of knowledge and sensitivity about local culture. The Catholic sister explains: “Redfern has always been a meeting place for Aboriginal people and they feel this is their church, their place. Although the priests come from different cultures, I’m not sure they understand religion also has to be expressed according to the culture in which you live. If you are in Africa for example, your way of expressing your Christianity is going to be African, not Roman or Italian. The same applies to Aboriginal people: they won’t express their Christianity in a Western way, they need to express it in an Aboriginal way. I don’t think the priest of this new group understands that there are different ways of expressing your religion.”
The priest’s lack of response regarding the fate of the mural worries parishioners. “We’ve got the quote from highly respected conservators in Sydney. But the decision keeps being put on the back-burner,” says another Church member.
There are fears that the mural could be removed altogether. According to the Sister: “It’s a very prized, very valued Aboriginal work and to destroy it would be a sacrilege, I think, because it’s so meaningful to them. All the lines are all symbolising rivers and creeks: everything is life-giving in it … and it’s been done by reputable artists: Adam Hill, Garry Griffiths (Griffo) and Colin Davis. And because he [Griffo] has died, it makes it even more precious. So this is very special not only to the Aboriginal community, but to white people as well. To do anything in the way of destroying it … it would take something out of you physically I think. That’s why people are really anxious about it.”
The Church’s altar, made by world-famous sculptor Tom Bass for his daughter’s wedding when Fr Ted officiated in Neutral Bay, is also under threat. “It’s a work of art, a very valuable piece of artwork, especially now that Tom Bass is deceased, it’s got improved value,” a concerned parishioner said. “It’s an unusual surface, and the front of it depicts the five wounds of Christ, it’s beautiful, we love it.” The altar was relegated to the back of the Church earlier in the year when the priest undertook renovations and hasn’t been in use since.
When asked over the phone about potential plans to restore the mural, Fr Llabanes said: “There are a few things to consider, and we shall advise with the committee.”
Fr Llabanes didn’t have time to elaborate and couldn’t be reached again at the time of printing.
Author: Sandra Beeston