HAPPY DAYS WITH HELENE: Of course they made it happen!

This week, Family Liaison Officer, Helene O'Neill, shares what she's been up to this week, while Teresa Brierley is on leave. 

I love the opportunity to share the joys of what I experience in my role as Parish Family Liaison Officer. I’ll outline some of my favourite activities from the past few weeks.

Blackbutt South - Kotara’s St Philip’s has two outstanding young people in Lachlan Byrnes and Helayna McCloy – former students of St Pius and now in Year 11 at St Francis Xavier’s College. They told me sometime last year that the church looked a little dull and needed some colour! So during Catholic Schools Week 2016, the Year 8 St Pius X Art Competition was conceived.

The theme of the task (constituting 30 per cent of students’ assessment) was ‘Your interpretation of Catholic spirituality’. The art work in 2016 was sensational and reflected the deep thought students gave to a piece of work reflecting their faith.

Lachlan and Helayna hoped this would become an annual event even though they were no longer at the school. Of course they made it happen. On Saturday 11 March, along with St Pius X Ministry Co-ordinator, Adam Frost, and acting Religious Education Co-ordinator, Fiona Duque, we displayed the top 40 pieces of work (last year we hung all 280 pieces but too much BluTac)! Fr Terry Horne was extremely supportive of the event as he is also gifted in this area.

I had the honour of presenting the prize and the winner was Leianna McCloy. Her work depicted a pair of hands with added colour and flair. Her father mentioned to me that the hands were his and his wife’s and represented the strong faith they share with their family. I also used the opportunity to remind the parishioners that our parish connection to St Pius X is a ‘two way street’. Students do invest in our parish and deserve our support and encouragement. In fact, several members of the St Pius X choir joined with our parish musos in a real show of solidarity. Many Year 8 students from other parishes attended Mass with their families and the hospitality that followed was plentiful.

Another outing was to the Upper Hunter Leadership Day. My fellow worker Sam Hill and I joined with Mark Spencer and Brad Fuller from the CSO RE and Spirituality team to facilitate a day for Year 6 students. We headed to Scone and students were brought in from Merriwa, Muswellbrook, Denman and Singleton.

The group was 80 strong and enjoyed myriad activities designed to enhance the leadership qualities they already possess in a Christian context.

As most of my work days are spent in Newcastle, I’m often overwhelmed by the spirit of the country kids and the appreciation they express to those who work with them. They simply get on with it and either share a game of touch footy at lunchtime or remember the fun times they shared at eisteddfods or dance competitions held in the bush.  

A bouquet goes to St Mary’s Scone REC, Patricia Kelly, for the great country hospitality. No ordinary sandwiches! Patty was up early whipping up country style scones and slices for morning tea. Lunch saw some vegetarian delights that could have been straight out of the “Masterchef” kitchen (meat eaters also catered for!).


Two weeks ago I had the pleasure of co-facilitating the Experienced Teachers Retreat ‘Return to the Heart’ in the Hunter Valley. 25 teachers who have served the diocese for a significant number of years were invited to take part in the CSO-driven experience.

There has been some discussion about the Kirkton Park site as it is a resort devoid of any religious connection. However, many of the teachers had taught at schools or worshiped in parishes where clergy sexual abuse had occurred and it’s difficult to heal if the mind isn’t open. It also begs the question − is it timely for the diocese to pursue a dedicated retreat site? Perhaps scope out the project beginning with a spirituality centre, add accommodation and finally make the venue accessible to other faiths as a true community project. Just a thought.

Nevertheless, the setting at Kirkton Park provides the perfect backdrop for renewal and revitalisation and once the sacred space is in place, it becomes part of who we are, not where we are.

I was a team member with Bernadette Gibson and Mark Spencer. This was our second retreat and our individual gifts complement the project. Throughout the retreat we shared many ‘God moments’ − outdoors, over meals and through our laughter and fun. The gym and pool provided opportunities for participants to open their hearts in other ways.

A highlight of the retreat is the second night experience of the tea light labyrinth (I can’t give too much away as more retreats are planned!). This ritual is rich in symbols with water and fire representing new beginnings and the Holy Spirit breathing life into each individual. It’s great to catch up with teachers on last year’s experience as I move around and still feel the thankfulness and joy in their voices.

I can’t let Harmony Day go past without noticing how this day has become significant in our country. I attended several liturgies and celebrations but two really struck me.

Corpus Christi Primary at Waratah adopted a rainbow theme and it was fascinating to witness how the colour and the togetherness of each group (consisting of K-6ers) impacted upon the kids, demonstrating a real sense of belonging. A beautiful liturgy headlined by Guy Sebastian’s song ‘Get Along” and the Aboriginal “Our Father”, together with prayers of inclusion and love, set the celebratory tone.

Following the liturgy the morning was taken up with multicultural art and craft activities while Year 6 leaders had organised tabloid games for the afternoon. The lunchtime sausage sizzle added an Aussie flavour to the day.

Students at San Clemente joined together for a liturgy led by Fr Bill. The special talents of their students were part of the occasion with a rap song and a stirring rendition of “Waltzing Matilda”.

Significantly, the parade of students carrying flags of their country of origin numbered 39! That truly is a rich tapestry of cultural diversity and acceptance – goose bumps stuff…

Every day brings a new faith-filled experience as I join with parishes and schools to put aside prejudice and resentments as we strive together for a united front to welcome back those on the fringes. Faith in action comes in many forms but at the heart of everything we do is Jesus Christ.

Helene O'Neill Image
Helene O'Neill

Helene O'Neill is the Parish-Family Liaison Officer for the Catholic Diocese of Maitland-Newcastle.

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