TUESDAYS WITH TERESA: St John the Baptist Church in Maitland reopens

170 years ago, in 1846, the people of Maitland opened St John the Baptist Church in Maitland, right next to the Hunter River. Then in 1866, Bishop James Murray proclaimed this church as the Cathedral of the Diocese of Maitland.

On Sunday afternoon, 6 November 2016, a decree was read, establishing this old historic church as a Shrine. I quote for you, part of the Decree:

St John the Baptist Church began its life as a parish church for West Maitland in November 1846 and was consecrated as the Cathedral of the Diocese of Maitland in November 1866. For several decades it was the only parish church north of Sydney and west of what we now know as the Hunter Valley; and

Whereas, from those early colonial years, the influence of St John’s has reached across NSW and southern Queensland with families having historic links with this early church; it was subsequently used as a parish hall and school classroom and then returned to its role as parish church in 1989 until it was closed, due to exterior structural deterioration, in 2010; and

Whereas, the restoration which has been undertaken respects its important role in the history of the Catholic faith in this region.

St John's ChurchAt the Dedication of St John’s Shrine (Chapel), Bishop Bill spoke powerfully in his homily of the cost to people, through the ages, who have lost their story and their language. He spoke of our First Australians. Ezra in the reading from the book of Nehemiah (8:2-6, 8-10), reads from the Torah and recounts the story of the Hebrew people tracing their history and recalling their faith in God. When the people hear their familiar story, they weep because they have now begun to recover their story. As I observed the age of many who came to celebrate this wonderful event with us, I sensed in them the same sadness as they mourn the loss of the many missing generations and the capacity to pass on this great story of faith. I am sure they are hoping and praying that many will visit this Shrine and find it a sacred place.

The people of Maitland and the surrounding district recognised very early the need to have a place for prayer and worship. The Irish were a poor people and yet their faith was an important part of their lives and the landscape of the time. They needed a ‘temple’ in their midst to remind them of God’s presence among them, a place for them to gather, in prayer and as a community.

This idea of a place, picks up the theme of the second reading form Paul to the Corinthians (1 Cor 3:9-11, 16-17) which I will share with you:

You are God’s building. By the grace God gave me, I succeeded as an architect and laid the foundations, on which someone else is doing the building. Everyone doing the building must work carefully. For the foundation, nobody can lay any other than the one which has already been laid, that is Jesus Christ.

Didn’t you realise that you were God’s temple and that the Spirit of God was living among you? If anybody should destroy the temple of God, God will destroy him, because the temple of God is sacred; and you are that temple.

Bishop Bill WrightOur story of faith captures the faith of a church built of living stones. It is the people of God, real men, women and children, who continue to be the living stones on which the foundation, Jesus Christ, is made visible and real. Such was the experience at Maitland. Gathered around Bishop Bill, on Sunday, were children, men and women of all ages along with his fellow priests and deacons and sisters from several orders who have given to the many communities that sprang forth from Maitland.

We have been blessed to have this Year of Mercy in our 150 years as a diocese. One of the key elements of this Year of Mercy was to open the doors of our churches. If you take the messages from the readings in the dedication of the Shrine, not only are the doors of our churches to remain open, but so are the doors of our homes and our hearts. We are to be the house of prayer, to be the temple of the living God. I invite you to ponder your openness to inviting others in showing them mercy. 

During the Prayer of Dedication and the Anointings, Bishop Bill removed his chasuble and donned a linen gremial. At the altar he poured Chrism in the middle and in its four corners, and then proceeded to spread the Chrism across the entire altar with his hands. As I watched him, it reminded me of the way in which we oil a new wooden chopping board. We season the board carefully so that it lasts the many meals we will prepare on it. The altar is the table where the sacrifice of Jesus Christ is remembered over and over again, and it is from this sacrificial table that we are fed and nourished. The ritual of preparing food is a sacred act, as is the ritual of Eucharist, and Bishop Bill’s action during this dedication was most symbolic of the Church’s place in nourishing God’s holy people. As was proclaimed in part of the Prayer of Dedication:

Blessed is the Church,
God’s dwelling-place with the human race,
a holy temple built of living stones,
standing upon the foundation of the Apostles
with Christ Jesus its chief cornerstone.

St John'sThe Gospel reading was about Zacchaeus who sought the Lord by climbing a tree and found that Jesus invited him to come down and take him home. We are the temple, the home to which God comes, the living stones in our community. We carry the church with us, our faith in Jesus Christ is lived with each breath we take. Our time together on Sunday was an amazing display of the church in relationship, of being living stones of faith, hope and love.

Basil Morrow has written a wonderful song for our 150 years, Take Heart, God is Among Us. The verses capture our story as a Catholic people in this place. It tells our story with the words of the chorus reminding us of what we celebrate when we come together:

Take heart, for God is among us,
in each gath’ring of Word and breaking bread,
in each act of sacrament and service,
in the faith of all assembled here.

In a few weeks time, each parish and school will receive a USB with this song as well as the music score. I hope you are able to use this joyfully at times when your parishes gather to remember their story. Let’s keep hearing and remembering while being sustained in our faith that God is among us.

As the Year of Mercy, and our 150 Years as a Diocese, draw to a close, I hope you are keen to join us on Sunday 20 November for open house at the Diocesan Offices, with afternoon tea and the closing of the Year of Mercy.

The invitation asks that you might like to:

  • Bring something to add to the table for afternoon tea (Davis Courtyard)
  • Bring a gift for the poor which will go to the SVDP for its Christmas appeal
  • Enjoy conversations with others about your experience of the Year of Mercy
  • Avail yourself of the opportunity for the Sacrament of Reconciliation in the grounds
  • Enjoy some live entertainment.

We continue to gather to be reminded of our story, of its connection to the story of 2000 years ago and of the Hebrew story long before then as well as an even more ancient story of the First Australians.

Keep the stories of people and of our faith alive.

Teresa Brierley Image
Teresa Brierley

Teresa Brierley is Director Pastoral Ministries of the Catholic Diocese of Maitland-Newcastle.

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