By ERWIN CHLANDA
“Due to the fact that his portable altar had been misplaced on the journey north, it was another two weeks before Fr James Long could celebrate the first mass.”
Father Long was the first resident Catholic priest in Alice Springs. He arrived on May 26, 1929, and initially “resided in the Stuart Arms Hotel. There were about two hundred Europeans along with mixed races and Aborigines,” the online history of the Our Lady of the Sacred Heart parish reports.
He travelled from South Australia to Rumbalara by train from where he caught a lift on a truck for the remainder of the journey because the Ghan railway line was still under construction.
In the 88 years until this Easter the parish grew from a small spiritual outpost which – occasionally to the displeasure of some – provided assistance for Aboriginal people, to be a major supplier of education – the OLSH Schools – and social assistance (Catholic Care).
It is now also a hub for people of many races and nationalities.
Along the way the parish was closely linked with the political and business forces of the growing town.
Although many of its parishioners were close to the founding of the Country Liberal Party in The Alice, the church didn’t hesitate to make its point.
For example, parish priest Adrian Meaney, during mass, told Chief Minister Paul Everingham, who was in the congregation, that Alice Springs should not be getting a casino. Nevertheless, Mr Everingham permitted Australia’s first mainland casino to be built.
Retired Telstra employee Fred Twohig has been an active member of the parish for five decades, and is a member of the parish council.
He says its work underscores the transformation of the church from being under the control of the priests, to being run by the congregation, “although the Bishop still has the final say”.
“This year it’s getting the family right, and rest of the world will fall in line.
“For a long time the church has been against divorce. Pope Francis trying to change this, open doors, not close them.”
The names of the parish council sub-committees, called ministries, indicate their focus: Social justice, Indigenous issues, hospitality, prayer and adult education.
Mr Twohig says he’s grown up with the Catholic Church. He was an altar boy. He says while the church elsewhere has been rocked by pedophilia, he has never seen any evidence of that in Alice Springs.
From a solid Irish and Anglo-Saxon stock the local church has gradually diversified, over the past 10 to 15 years, to now take in people from Asia, Africa and Polynesia. Many local Aborigines are also devout Catholics.
“Aranda Catholics are amazingly spiritual,” says Mr Twohig. “That cannot be emphasised enough.”
Their Ngkarte Mikwekenhe community have their own church in South Terrace, but after careful negotiations, says Mr Twohig, there will be a move by them to the main OLSH church. The South Terrace church will be closed. The 11am Sunday service will still be held in Aranda.
In recent times some African parishioners have gone over to the Desert Life Church, “attracted by the charismatic singing and dancing,” says Mr Twohig.
“The attendance by overseas people started with the early Vietnamese refugees. More and more foreign looking people came to our church.”
It was a battle against prejudice in some quarters, he says, well back, after the initial boat people arrived from Vietnam, but now a substantial portion of the congregation is of Indian descent, “some of them professional people working here”.
The parish priest, Fr Asaeli Raass, is from Fiji. The assistant priest, Fr Prakash Menezes, is Indian, and Fr Olivier Noclam, a Vanuatan, is the Aboriginal chaplain. Fr Jim Knight is the Resident Priest.
“Father Olly” travels to Yuendumu and Harts Range to say mass, as well as small outstations such as Black Tank and Sandy Bore, and town camps in Alice Springs.
A highlight of the parish calendar is its Multicultural Mass, in June or July, “with people in traditional costumes, cooking their native meals.
“I do the Australian cuisine. I call them multicultural sausages, white bread and sauce,” says Mr Twohig.
Easter was, of course, the year’s biggest occasion, taking the church into the town.
The 14 Stations of the Cross were commemorated not only in the church, but also along the Todd River.
And at 3pm on Good Friday, when Jesus died on the cross, worshippers filled the church, in somber darkness, the statues covered.
The Easter candle, symbolising new life, was the focal point at the 9:30am mass yesterday (pictured), one of three services on the day.