It’s early afternoon on St Pat’s Day and I’m heading northwest on the Calder with my sisters, Anne and Rebecca. Turning left towards Ballan, the paddocks, punished by a merciless summer, have been soothed overnight by the first soakings of autumn.
It’s a fun trip with conversation about our children, Rebecca’s in-laws and plans for Easter. I can’t recall the last time the three of us were together alone for a few hours and I’m reminded of how proud of them I am. Healthy, happy, attractive, working mothers and homemakers, I admire the way Anne and Rebecca keep the balls they juggle each day in the air while maintaining their humour and sanity.
On the Geelong, Ballarat Road, we pass through Meredith before arriving in Elaine, where mum grew up on her family sheep farm. We pass the footy and cricket ground where our late grandfather, Alphonsus Cleary, would let his sheep roam to keep the grass down and where the corrugated iron change rooms and cow bell that served as footy siren when my uncles used to have a kick, survive. Beyond the store and pub, we pull in at the weatherboard church.
In 1860, to bring God and Ireland to Elaine, the Clearys helped build the first St Patrick’s Catholic Church. Half a century later, the existing structure was built on the same site. Once a thriving rural community, Elaine has gone the way of most small towns: farming families have sold up, the primary school closed, footy team dissolved and the pub even closed for a while. The Church has seen less and less use in recent years and today’s Mass will be its last, bringing to an end over 150 years of history. The Church and block are up for sale.
With the front pews taken, we squeeze into the temporary seats in the back alongside bashful faced old farmers with leathery, sunburnt hands. Their wives, striking, proud looking women, cast inquiring eyes over us, wondering where we fit in.
Mum’s brother, Uncle Tom, asked to deliver a few opening words, recalls St Pats as the social hub of the district where locals gathered outside after Sunday mass to discuss the week’s news; arriving early for midnight Mass at Christmas in order to get a seat; and visits to the farmhouse from Fr McCarthy who , sent out from the mother country, guided his congregation like the proverbial shepherd over his flock. A sentimental, sensitive man, Tom chokes on the lump in his throat.
The opening hymn, ‘Faith of Our Fathers’ follows, trumpeting Irish resilience against the British foe:
In spite of dungeon, fire, and sword…
Faith of our fathers, holy faith!
We will be true to thee till death.
Mum, Pat, on her 68th birthday, delivers the opening prayer: ‘Let he without sin, cast the first stone’, which is followed by a powerpoint presentation featuring greying, blurred photographs of local families – the Dunnes, O’Briens, Clearys, Walshes and Ryans – attending weddings and baptisms, boys in stiff suits and flattened, brylcremed hair, girls in white dresses. The prayers of the faithful thank God for sending the Irish to this Great Southern Land two centuries ago while asking Him to look over them once more in the current Irish diaspora, brought on as always by cruel economic times.
In his homily, Philippino priest, Fr Herman – how the missionary roles have changed – reminds that although the Church is closing, family, faith and community live on.
After Mass, across the road in the Mechanics Hall, scones, jelly slice and tea are served. Honour Rolls hang either side of the door with an asterix beside the names of local boys, ironically sent to defend the empire, who didn’t come home.
Surrounded by walls and a stage curtained in the colours of Ireland – green, orange and white – old friends catch up and proudly introduce their children and grandchildren around. I chat with the O’Briens, childhood neighbours of the Clearys. In the days before farms had telephones, the families would communicate by hanging different coloured bed sheets on the clothes line. A white sheet meant Emergency, help needed!
By late afternoon, with Rebecca needing to get home to feed her youngest, we hit the road under a leaden sky, the type that seems to hang permanently over the Aran Islands and Galway Bay, leaving mum, her siblings and friends to reminisce. I walk in the front door in Coburg in time for dinner and hear Eloise squealing for joy from the living room. I smile and recall Fr Herman’s words.