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Chords of community in a country church protest song

  • 13 March 2014

When local churches are sold or demolished by outside authorities there is always local opposition. It is stronger when the local community does not believe it has been consulted. And the conflict is especially bitter when a village church is sold by a town congregation. A recent book about the struggle to save a Victorian Western District church from decommissioning and alienation illustrates what is at stake.

In Saving St Brigid's Regina Lane tells the story from the point of view of those who fought to save St Brigid's Catholic Church in Crossley for the local community. Its members are descendants of the Irish immigrants who over generations built and supported the church. It has been the heart of their community.

The conflict began with falling church attendances and a decision by the Koroit parish priest to rationalise resources. This involved decommissioning the Crossley church, a decision taken without proper consultation of the Crossley community. This led to representations and abrupt rebuff, appeals to the Bishop, promises not kept, the formation of a Save St Brigid's group, local and national publicity, the placing of the church on the market, and almost miraculously the purchase at market value by the group as a community centre.

Although the book describes in detail the battles to save the church, it is far more than a protest song against the power of the Catholic Church. It is really a passionate celebration of the community built by Irish potato farmers who fled famine in Ireland, and of the church at its centre. Standing on red volcanic soil and looking towards the pines of distant Port Fairy the church evokes a richly peopled land, its ties with Indigenous Australia and with Ireland, and the precious gift its power to connect people is to a more individually focused age.

Above all Lane invites the reader into her own journey. It takes her from a country life lived in the shadow of St Brigid's to the city where she seeks to find her place in a broader world, working in social organisations in Australia and overseas. When she committed herself to save St Brigid's she found herself building personal and community identity out of apparently inadequate materials. At the book's end she is able to own in her own way the values of family and community she had earlier found constricting.

She gives herself so generously in her writing that her book becomes