The Villawood detention centre, approximately 27 kilometres west of Sydney, was constructed on the site of the former Villawood Munitions Factory, which operated on the site from 1941 until the close of World War II.
On 29 December 1949, the Villawood Migrant Hostel was officially opened, with accommodation provided in army-style Nissen huts. Migrants from all over Europe were housed there becoming one of the largest such facilities in Australia. By 1964, it housed over 1,400 people.
In 1976, a small section of the hostel was converted to provide security accommodation for up to 48 persons awaiting deportation. This new section was named the Villawood Immigration Detention Centre. By 1983, the Migrant Hostel was closed and was being used exclusively as an immigration detention centre and accommodation for asylum seekers.
A group of Catholics now known as the Villawood Catholic Pastoral Care Group have been providing Sacramental and spiritual services and fellowship for over 20 years on Thursdays and Fridays.
Barry Morris, a former member of this group, has provided a nostalgic and evocative snapshot of times past. We are grateful to him for this history. Although circumstances have changed significantly, the Group continues to serve.
– Father Jim Carty
There are all kinds of Masses – from those celebrated in the splendour of St Peter’s Basilica in Vatican City to much more simple ceremonies in churches worldwide.
Then there is the Mass at the Villawood Immigration Detention Centre, every Friday at around 10am.
After passing through security checks, visitors walk across a covered picnic area to stroll up a ramp into a sunny and airy room.
The detainees greet them warmly with robust handshakes, hugs and jokes all round. Many of the men are only in their 20s.
The visitors, mostly retired, know some of the asylum seekers’ stories and their background – none of the reasons that caused them to flee their homelands.
One visitor, a Santa Claus-looking man, has a natural ability to get them laughing and smiling with his pretend karate moves.
A makeshift altar is set up on a small table, an altar cloth spread on a low wall and songbooks and Mass response sheets put on chairs.
From her home garden, a woman brings roses and other flowers that are arranged at the back of the altar.
Her husband has permission to wheel in an accordion, amplifier and speakers, which he sets up for the hymns.
It’s time to start, for Villawood rules require visitors to be gone by 11am.
Today, a Marist priest, Fr Jim Carty, is celebrating Mass.
Like congregations worldwide, detainees sit in the same place each week – Chinese men down the side, Chinese women in the middle, the Vietnamese near the accordion, the Sri Lankans at the back. There are also West Papuans, Iranians and Japanese.
A young Vietnamese man takes the first reading and a Tamil man reads the Gospel in Singhalese.
Fr Carty, who jokes about sometimes talking for too long, delivers his homily in English and pauses while it’s translated into Chinese, Singhalese and Vietnamese.
Responses are in broken English, which adds poignancy to the occasion. But it’s the music that defines this Mass, with hymns sung with the passion and gusto of a grand-final winning football team.
The Vietnamese “boys” sing a hymn from their country at communion. It is always moving.
The words of hymns take on a special meaning for born-in-Australia Australians who have befriended asylum seekers trying to live in their country.
‘O Lord, hear my prayer,’ ‘longing for light we wait in darkness,’ ‘make me a channel of your peace, where there’s despair, let me bring hope,’ ‘come as you are, that’s how I want you.’
Two hymns always end the Mass; Ave, Ave, Ave Maria has attained top 10 status sung loudly as the sun shines on this detention centre set among gum trees and the occasional laughter of a kookaburra.
A Chinese hymn resonates with the congregation as it is belted out – Wo xu yao ni yei su – ‘We need you Jesus’.
The asylum seekers thank their visitors for coming, some from far-flung parts of Sydney; some have been going to this Mass for 17 years.
Yet it is the visitors who are grateful for a Eucharistic experience that gives the Mass a whole new meaning and underlines the common humanity of man.
As the detainees await the result of their applications to stay in this country, often with the prospect of being rejected, somehow this Mass makes God seem a little bit closer, a little bit more on their side.
O Lord, hear my prayer.
Barry Morris is a retired journalist from Sydney, now living in Victoria, and a supporter and friend of asylum seekers.