When you first arrive at Sacred Heart Church, Blackheath, don’t be fooled by its small size. This picturesque church, the westernmost parish in our Diocese of Parramatta, is truly a place with a heart.
I discover this first-hand as I arrive at the parish on Australia Day: the 120th anniversary of the church’s opening and blessing by Cardinal Moran. As I get out of my car and grab my camera and equipment, I hear a warm “Here’s Sr Sophie! Hello!”, and meet two very welcoming and friendly parishioners, known as “Julie squared”: Julie Hodgkinson and Julie O’Keeffe.
As the two Julies show me the beautiful anniversary calendar they’ve put together as part of the celebrations, they share some of the richness of the parish’s history. Julie Hodgkinson tells me her family has belonged to the parish for five generations, and proudly shows me wedding photos of her parents-in-law, herself and her husband, and their daughter and her husband. “It’s really a privilege to belong to this parish”, she says.
These words of gratitude are echoed by parishioners Paul Harris and Frances Huckstepp. Paul, who is the current chair of the Parish Pastoral Council, says he felt an “instant connection” when he arrived at the parish twelve years ago and met a spirited and spiritual community with a dedicated history. “Today is a celebration of the contribution of those who have lived decades in the parish, and of the continuation of this spirit being lived in the present congregation”, he says.
Frances, who for the past twenty years has served in many parish ministries, also describes the anniversary as a beautiful opportunity to give thanks and to remember the past, especially those who built the parish and its community into what it is today. “It’s time to remember those who came before us: their hard work, their generosity, and their continuing to sustain the church for 120 years”, she says.
These 120 years have, of course, not been without hardship. With the decline in clergy in the Blue Mountains in the early 1990s, Sacred Heart found itself without a priest for the better part of twenty years. Parishioner David Buckley explains that while this was a difficult time for the parish, it survived through the efforts of four sisters – Sisters of Charity Marion Corless, Mary Maguire and Colleen Holohan, and Dominican Sister Lyn Eastmure – who served as pastoral leaders. As I meet Sisters Mary and Colleen, I am struck by their unassuming spirits and love for the parish; qualities that many parishioners mention to me throughout the day.
David describes this time in the parish’s history as very blessed. “An impressive feature of that part of our history was the growth of lay leadership and volunteerism within our parish,” he says. And as the celebrations continue, it’s clear that he’s right. The parish is home to prayer, music and flower groups, and also boasts an annual Caritas Australia appeal and its own St Vincent de Paul Society group, social justice group, and “Earthcare” team which, under Julie O’Keeffe, continues a vibrant recycling project in the spirit of Pope Francis’ Laudato Si’.
Although COVID-19 meant the intended celebratory parish picnic and tree-planting ceremony could not go ahead, the festivities were by no means diminished. A moving anniversary Mass was celebrated by parish clergy Fr John McSweeney and Fr Abraham Kunnatholy, and by retired priest Fr Bob Sheridan, and an incredible anniversary cake was cut and shared.
Throughout the day, I meet many welcoming individuals who each have a unique connection to the parish’s history. There’s Sr Jacinta Shailer sgs, who carved the church’s processional cross and paschal stand; Pat Drummond, whose music and unique compositions liven up the liturgical celebrations; and elderly parishioner Barbara, who had her own birthday on January 25 and, with a smile, says she and the parish are “twins”.
David, Frances and Paul all acknowledge the reality of an ageing parish congregation. “Our wish is to make our Church more relevant to the people of Blackheath, particularly our young families, youth and young adults”, David says. Yet all are optimistic about the future. “It’s a sobering thought that as individuals we will be forgotten”, Frances says, “but it’s reassuring and sustaining that in small ways our efforts contribute to the next 120 years.”
Paul echoes these words in his hope for community growth. “We are living in very liminal times, we can live in fear or live in hope”, he says. “I choose to live in hope!”