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2006 – Our dreaming place

Regina Lane  |  18 September 2018

The wind blows up from the Southern Ocean. To the east, emus stride the crater wall of the now dormant volcano at Tower Hill and, on the western horizon, pine trees line the maritime village of Port Fairy in Victoria’s southwest.

In this place my great-grandfather, Dan Lane, stood and shared a vision with his community: to build a place of worship for the people of Crossley and surrounds.

Irish Catholics first began arriving in this corner of south-west Victoria in the 1840s. The 30,000-year-old volcano provided the rich soil on which they formed a close-knit potato and dairy farming community similar to the one they’d left behind.

In 1878, masses were celebrated in a new hall built on the hill in Crossley. Later, my great-grandfather joined a committee to build a grand red-brick church with a soaring steeple. In 1914, St Brigid’s Crossley was opened by Melbourne Archbishop Daniel Mannix.

On 8 January 2006, the final Mass was said at St Brigid’s. The potato fields aren’t as prominent now. Two-storey houses compete for the spectacular views. Standing in the grounds of St Brigid’s, I felt the spirits of my ancestors. I marvelled at their faith, dreams and determination, but I also felt disillusioned. Could they have foreseen that so few generations would pass before we’d be forced to farewell what they had built?

‘We used to have Mass twice on Sunday and it was always packed. I’d go to the first Mass with the family and then walk back from Killarney to sing in the choir for the second,’ says my 94-year-old grandmother, Connie Lane.

‘In those times, people walked from miles around – especially for dances.’

It was at the Crossley dances that Nana met my grandfather, Jack Lane. ‘He was a good dancer’, she says. ‘Sometimes Jack would give me a dink home on his bicycle.’

Onetime president of the Crossley Women’s Guild, Nana banded together with a small group of women to wash the priest’s garments, do the church flowers, polish brassware and starch the altar clothes. With seven children and a potato and dairy farm to manage it was hard work. Still, Nana smiles fondly at the memories of St Brigid’s and what it meant to her faith, family and community.

On 8 January, as the altar cloths were folded up for the last time, Nana, sitting in her wheelchair, the eldest person in the church, broke down in tears. Standing against the backdrop of St Brigid’s statue, her son, my dad, rubbed her shoulders and cried too.

It felt like a funeral, but worse. It was as if we were watching a life-support system being abruptly tuned off. The shock of seeing St Brigid’s statue being taken down, having stood in that exact place for 91 years, was like watching the burial of someone taken before their time.

My grief gave way to anger as I looked around at the bereft faces of the 600-strong congregation – the heart and soul of St Brig8id’s – and realised that we’d been denied an opportunity to sustain its life for future generations.

As a child, my dad rode his horse to St Brigid’s school and church where made his First Communion. Later, he met my mother Lorretta Lane at the Crossley dances. Mum remembers the first a shy, young Mick Lane asked her to dance. It was love at first sight.

Guided by their faith, my mum and dad were active participants in the life of St Brigid’s. For my nine brothers and sisters and me growing up, St Brigid’s was a central part of our lives.

In the 1980s, St Brigid’s hall fell into disrepair and went unused. With fond memories of the past, my parents took the first step to clean it up. I remember stepping inside the dilapidated hall, the sun peeking through the roof and the floorboards sagging. I watched Mum and Dad roll up their sleeves, and thought they’d gone mad.

But their enthusiasm and vision soon infected others and a committee was formed. In 1989, a celebration Mass was held for St Brigid’s 75th anniversary. In January 1990 a ‘Back to Crossley’ dance was held.

For old times’ sake, 500 people came from near and far. The old piano sprang to life and sawdust was sprinkled on the dance floor. As a wide-eyed child, I watched my parents’ stories come to life.

From that day, a new community was born. My childhood memories are of days spent at Crossley. The church and hall were painted, floors sanded, kitchen benches built; the roof fixed, and the tennis courts re-fenced. St Brigid’s was returning to its former glory, and so was the surrounding community.

I remember hot summer days playing tennis at Crossley, and then joining mum in the cool, quiet of the church to do the flowers. The afternoon was spent making sponge cake and sandwiches for parties and reunions booked on Saturday nights at Crossley – come Sunday morning we’d be back at St Brigid’s for 8.30am Mass.

All my five sisters were married at St Brigid’s; the eldest held reception there too. My nieces and nephews were christened there. Like my sisters, I dreamed that one day I would be ‘given away’ at St Brigid’s. It was there my Nana had planned her funeral.

After the final Mass, Shane Howard, a local man and renowned musician and storyteller of Indigenous, Australian and Irish history, said poetically, ‘This was our dreaming place.’ I agreed. It was a place where found our spiritual connection, where we could believe, where we could dream.

In 2014, it will be 100 years since St Brigid’s opened its doors. In the wake of their closure, people are now rallying around to protect our rich faith and heritage and see them remain open to the community. If we uphold the struggles of the past by those who made St Brigid’s the proud church it is, our vision is that St Brigid’s in turn will be the making of future generations.

Who knows? Maybe one day my children will find their spiritual connection at St Brigid’s, will go there to believe and to dream.

Regina Lane is national coordinator of Australian Political Ministry Network.

This article was first published in Australian Catholics Easter 2006 edition.


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