On New Year’s Eve 2019, a devasting bushfire licked the walls of St Mary’s Star of the Sea Church in Milton, NSW. Fortunately, the church and nearby school were saved. Sadly, this was not the case for many people in nearby towns and villages.
Homes, livelihoods and lives were lost. And then, just as the community started to claw its way back, COVID-19 hit. However, this is not a story of gloom and doom. It is the story of how the local Catholic parish did exactly what Pope Francis calls us to do: “to go forth from our own comfort zone in order to reach all the ‘peripheries’ in need of the light of the Gospel”.
Milton Parish comprises three churches at Milton, Sussex Inlet and Ulladulla, as well as a parish primary school. The parish sits within a beautiful coastal and rural area of the Diocese of Wollongong. Fr Michael Dyer has been pastoring the parish for almost five years and works collaboratively with recently ordained permanent deacon Justin Stanwix, the Parish Leadership Team and a number of ministry coordinators.
The effects of the bushfire on the area were immediate. Within hours, parishioners rallied and were offering food and drink to those stranded in their vehicles outside the church due to roadblocks. As the initial chaos and trauma started to settle, Fr Michael and other parishioners started to wonder what more the parish could do to bring some light and hope to the community. How could they be the Gospel in action? And so, within a short period of time, their initiative “Shoalhaven Rising from the Ashes” was established.
Vivienne Benson-Hodge has been deeply involved with the project and explained how their first fundraiser took the form of a large, locally organised outdoor family event, including a food fair and a healing and renewal blessing. Parishioners reached out to the local community through Christian churches, other faith communities, businesses, community groups, musicians and artists and the Shoalhaven Council, inviting locals impacted by the bushfires to be a part of the event. It was a highly successful occasion enabling the community to gather, reconnect and begin the healing process.
However, it was clear to Fr Michael, Vivienne and other parishioners that this trauma was not going to be healed overnight. They needed to decide quickly if and how they could commit to being involved in bushfire recovery for the long haul. Seeking guidance and wisdom from people who were experienced in dealing with grief and trauma, and trusting somewhat on their gut instincts and the Holy Spirit, the “Shoalhaven Rising from the Ashes Storytelling and Healing Space” project was born. This “space” was to be a physical place where people could come to share their stories, either verbally or creatively. It would also allow people to simply drop in for a cuppa and a chat.
While the idea sounded reasonably simple, there were significant obstacles that needed to be quickly overcome. Firstly, there was the venue. Justin explains that excitement rose and quickly dissipated as various potential venues were found and then discovered as unsuitable. Finally, a small vacant shop was found and considered ideal for the project.
The next hurdle was how the project, especially the rent on the shopfront, was to be funded. Enter Frank Testa and his colleagues from the Order of Malta. Frank lives about 90 minutes away from Milton and manages the Emergency Department at Shellharbour Hospital. Frank and his fellow “knights and dames” were quickly drawn into the project. They volunteered countless hours to visit people affected by the fires near Milton, Batemans Bay and Mogo to ascertain how the Order could assist. Thanks to the Order’s generosity, the rent on the shopfront will be covered for 12 months. Frank and the Order have had a particular focus on helping local men in their recovery, especially as men often do not readily come forward for assistance. According to Frank, male grief can be held tightly within as they try to deal with “getting things back to normal”. Currently, Frank and the team are planning a men’s dinner in the Conjola area to provide another opportunity for men to meet in a non-threatening but supportive way.
Lynne Kelly is one of several parishioners who volunteer at the Storytelling and Healing Space. She concedes “it has been hard work”, but so very worth it. Lynne relays stories of Catholics, some who stopped practising their faith many years ago, as well as non-Catholics and people of no faith, who wander in and slowly start to share their story. Many of them still live in temporary accommodation, having lost virtually everything in the fires. The workshops, which include painting, drawing and photography, provide a relaxed atmosphere for people to gather and chat.
Given that this project could not succeed without the generosity of volunteers, it became apparent to the project team that it needed professional guidance and training to undertake this ministry. Louise Murphy is a clinical nurse consultant with Mental Health Services in the Shoalhaven area. She formed part of the recovery team sent into the area to assist.
She first met Fr Michael at the Ulladulla Evacuation Centre in January 2020 and was “amazed” by his energy. In the weeks to come she saw this “fantastic initiative” come to fruition and fostered a strong collaboration between her organisation and the parish. Louise has been delivering “industry best practice training” to the volunteers, including psychological first aid and how to identify and respond to crisis. These skills not only promote good mental health and well-being for the volunteers and the visitors to the story space, but will be transferable to other parish ministries. Through her work, Louise was granted a Churchill Fellowship and has since established a charity for first responders.
Michelle Wright lost all her possessions in the fire and has been devastated by the loss of the natural bush and wildlife that surrounded her home. Reflecting on the Story Telling and Healing Space, Michelle said she has found “everyone there warm and welcoming with an open heart and ready to listen and help in whatever way they can”.
Michelle added: “I know storytelling is a powerful healing process. To share our story and to feel heard and to hear others’ experiences connects us on a very deep level and binds us in community. Our grief has much to teach us.”
Fr Michael reflected on the day the story space had its official opening, a scaled-back event due to COVID-19 restrictions. Yet, he said, “the scene was rich with community participation”. Shoalhaven City Council mayor Amanda Findley congratulated the parish and all involved in the initiative, for their collaboration and service to those affected by the bushfire tragedy. Fr Michael said: “It was very emotional; there were many tears.”
On the first anniversary of the bushfires, an open-air Mass was held on the property of a family who lost their home, nursery business and pet dog in the blaze. Priest and parishioners ministered together among Catholics and non-Catholics alike, offering prayer, hospitality and solidarity.
When we talk about being co-responsible for the mission of the Church, it is sometimes hard to define what that really means. But here is a grass-roots example of priest, deacon and parishioners working together during trauma, grief and chaos and going beyond the safe confines of their church building. In their efforts to go out to the peripheries, they provide us with an example of the beauty of a single community made up of many smaller communities that are committed to working together for the good of the whole.
I have no doubt that there have been moments of tension about the best way to proceed, and where will the financial and human resources come from in order to continue the project? But proceed they will – bringing the love of Christ to all those they have comforted and cared for over the last 15 months.
Words: Sharon Brewer
1. Banner highlighting various Church and community groups involved in the initiative.
2. Shopfront of the Storytelling and Healing Space, Milton, NSW.
3. Volunteers celebrating the first anniversary of Rising from the Ashes.
4. Outdoor Mass and picnic on the anniversary of the New Year’s Eve bushfires.
 Pope Francis, Evangelii Gaudium, #21
 Louise Murphy is the founder and director of the Australian First Responder Foundation, a charitable organisation providing psychological first aid and other training to volunteers. Louise and the “Rising from the Ashes” initiative were highlighted in this video: https://youtu.be/DdIMuRoWq14