Country community fights to save its church

Even though the Holy See has backed the right of its parish priest to close down and sell the local St Brigid's church and hall, the Western Victorian country Catholic community of Crossley is fighting to retain the facilities and to transform the church into a cultural and heritage centre.

The Age reports Crossley residents have always felt a proprietorial interest in the imposing church and 130-year-old hall that stand in their midst.

After all, it was their grandfathers and great-grandfathers who raised the 6000 to build them, with 250 thrown in by the diocese of Ballarat. Two of the district's settler families, the Birminghams and Dwyers, donated the land they stand on.

And it was their forebears who toiled on the red brick Romanesque edifice officially opened as St Brigid's by then archbishop, Daniel Mannix, on June 28, 1914.

Against a backdrop of population fluctuations and a general drift away from churches, it remained in use with 60-80 parishioners in weekly attendance until 8 January last year when parish priest, Fr Eric Bryant, based in nearby Koroit and officiating over five parishes, decided to sell both the church and hall.

The dispute that has ensued over the buildings' ownership has reached as far as the Vatican.

The proposed sale was challenged by the Friends of St Brigid's Association, a group formed to fight to keep the church and hall for community use. Its members include descendants of the farmers who built the church.

When word of the planned sell-off got around, about 600 incensed people from Crossley and surrounding districts squeezed into the church for its last Mass, recalls Gerry O'Brien, whose maternal grandfather was in the church working party.

Busloads of people poured in from nearby Koroit, Port Fairy and Warrnambool.

More recently the hall the area's only community facility was home to the Lake School of Irish Music and Dance, play groups and youth groups, a tennis club, Alcoholics Anonymous and Neighbourhood Watch, Michael Lane, secretary of the hall committee told The Age.

The community had believed that despite the sale of the church, the hall was safe. But in June last year, a mothers' group turned up to find the locks changed.

Teresa O'Brien, secretary of the Friends of St Brigid, said the group conceded they were unable to stop the sale, so they determined to bid for the buildings and appealed to the Bishop of Ballarat, Peter Connors, for time to raise funds and the first option to buy them.

But Fr Bryant was determined to proceed without delay and sought a ruling from the Congregation of Clergy in Rome, which affirmed the sale was a matter for him. Meanwhile, the Friends of St Brigid's has raised $30,000 towards the building's $300,000 price tag and plan to raise much more.

The group propose to retain the hall for community use and turn the church into an Australian-Irish culture and heritage centre and have been told they will be eligible for an Irish Government grant. Heritage Victoria this week agreed to accept the Friends of St Brigid's nomination for the church and hall precinct to be considered for inclusion on its heritage register.

And the group has had another small win with Bishop Connors confirming to The Age that the sale is on hold while Father Bryant is on leave for three months.

Crossley has a cross it still wants to bear (The Age, 11/8/07)

LINKS (not necessarily endorsed by Church Resources)
Ballarat diocese

13 Aug 2007