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Building a church and community at Croydon Park

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Memories of worshipping in an army hut at Croydon, attending monthly dances in the school hall and romances with post-war immigrants were brought back to life when the elder stateswomen of Croydon Park parish reflected on the 50th anniversary of St Margaret Mary’s Church.

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Eileen Harris, Barbara Carmody, Kathleen Janonis and Clare Bracken have been playing cards every Wednesday for about 40 years but their friendship goes back much further as life-long parishioners of Croydon Park.

The women took time out from their treasured weekly card game to share stories about their much-loved church and parish, together with Barbara’s daughter Kay and fellow parishioner Loretta Ford.

The women recalled their husbands assembling the massive bronze statue of the ‘Risen Christ’ made by Czech migrant Voitre Marek. In Vatican II tradition it was suspended high above the altar, but not before being placed on the altar piece by piece and lifted with ropes by men standing on scaffolding.

Barbara’s husband Colin was head of maintenance and supervised proceedings.

Charged with sewing the altar server vestments for the opening Mass, Barbara remembered anxiously awaiting the arrival of her friend who had helped make one of the soutanes. Her friend eventually strolled in “like she was going for a Sunday walk” according to Barbara, who was always early for Mass. “I still am,” she added.

While her friends’ memories were a little hazy on the opening of the church, one thing they all remembered was which pew they sat in with their families each week – be it the front row, second row or in front of the family with 13 children.

With the influx of European migrants, particularly Italians, Polish, Ukraines, Lithuanians, Croatians and Serbians, the parish had a distinctly multicultural feel. Kathleen, 89, reminisced about meeting her husband Vilius (Bill) who came to Australia on the first transport from Lithuania. There was a migrant camp near the rail-line and Kathleen met one of Bill’s countrymen on the train coming home from the Embassy Ballroom in Grenfell St, which she and the other girls used to attend six nights a week. After helping the man find lodgings, he introduced a reluctant Kathleen to Vilius and while she thought he was “damn conceited” at first, he soon won her over.

Eileen recalled clearing and decorating the school hall, which doubled as classrooms during the week, for the monthly weekend dance and then setting up for Sunday Mass. The church-school-hall was the place of worship from 1928 until 1947 when the parish priest Fr Daly purchased two army huts for Croydon and Woodville Gardens.

When Irish-born priest Fr Michael Murphy (one of the last Irish priests to arrive in the diocese) took over as parish priest in 1958, he embarked on a number of significant building projects, including the long-awaited St Margaret Mary’s Church, convent and presbytery.

Fr Murphy remained in the parish until his retirement in 1993 and became such an integral part of the community that he asked to be buried in the local cemetery with “his people”. As one of the many children who experienced his heavy ‘brogue’ and “brilliant” Irish humour, Kay Carmody said he was renowned for spinning a yarn and “had us kids enthralled”.

“Fr Murphy was integral to our family life. Church, school and home was one. We were immersed as a community in all things Catholic,” she said, adding her father even taught some of the nuns at the school how to drive.

Croydon Park’s oldest parishioner Clare, who recently turned 94, has lived in the parish her whole life. She said she used to read at Mass, distribute communion and help clean the church every Friday night. Some of her children were baptised in the church and one was married there.

One of her strongest memories is the first time the Mass was said in the “local language” rather than Latin. The other women agreed and laughed at how they could respond to the priest in Latin, without having learnt the language. She also remembered that she and Kath helped to sew special vestments for the parish priest to wear for the mass to celebrate the Pope’s visit in 1986.

Helen McPhee, parish pastoral associate, has “only” been at parish for 16 years but said the thing that struck her was the “amazing cultural mix of people”.

As well as the early wave of migrants from Europe, Croydon parish has welcomed Vietnamese refugees, Filipinos, the Indian and African communities and continues to welcome newcomers. “We have always been and continue to be a multicultural Eucharistic community,” said Kay.

Fr Murphy began the tradition of celebrating St Margaret Mary’s feast day with a multicultural feast where each group had a stall to serve their traditional food. Clare recalled making thousands of hot donuts over the years! There were items of cultural dance, music and a wonderful festive atmosphere.

Following the retirement of Father Maurice Shinnick, who used to say Merry Christmas in every language at Christmas Mass, Kenyan-born Fr Charles Lukati has taken over as parish priest and he is assisted by Fr Long Hai Nguyen. “Our priests are multicultural too,” Helen said.

Meeting people from different nationalities has been a “blessing” for Kathleen who is godmother to six African children. “I told their parents I was too old, but they said I had to,” she said, adding she loved getting messages from the children on Facebook.

Eileen summed up the women’s deep connection to St Margaret Mary’s: “I have two homes – my home and here.”

The parish will celebrate the 50th anniversary on December 2 at the 10.3am Mass followed by lunch in the parish hall and adjoining grounds. All welcome.

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