Outback parish showing healthy signs of working “towards an ever wider ‘we”

By Fr Paul Crotty, 24 September 2021
Parishioners are seen at the Catholic Community of Saints Peter and Paul in Coober Pedy, South Australia. Image: Australian Catholic Migrant and Refugee Office/Supplied


The theme chosen by Pope Francis for this year’s Migrant and Refugee Day is “Towards An Ever Wider ‘We’”.

Here in the outback of Australia, in the opal town of Coober Pedy, the Catholic Community of Sts Peter and Paul was established in 1967. The remoteness of the place from law and bureaucrats, politicians and police, was an attraction for people who were looking for adventure and freedom. With the harsh beauty of the surrounds and the lure of quick riches many ventured to the opal fields of Coober Pedy.

The Parish has been and continues to be the face of many nations. From her earliest days, with peoples fleeing post-war Europe in the ‘50s and the oppression of totalitarian states in the Eastern Europe, Coober Pedy attracted a fair share of people migrating to Australia.

The families coming from hardship were open to the challenges of life in Australia. In the outback, the challenges were somewhat magnified. With a strong streak of independence and resilience, the people made it work and continue to do so. They have shared a common experience that has galvanised them into a community. Their strength is that they have a great sense of the wider “We”.

Without the wide range of opportunities of city life, eg education, sport, work, shopping, and the basic needs such as water and electricity and other services, the people have been very much hands on to make sure they, their families and their neighbours do not miss out. There is a healthy pride in who they are, where they have come from and where they are going.

Here Croatians, Serbians, Hungarians, Greeks, Italians, Slovenians and others have been the foundation of the clubs, associations and church life. In our Catholic parish, her peoples have been mainly Croatians and Italians. Filipinos, Indians and Sri Lankans have now been added to the mix.

As the Pope’s message says, “The truth however is that we are all in the same boat and called to work together so that there will be no more walls that separate us, no longer others, but only a single ‘we’, encompassing all of humanity.”

The isolation and remoteness of Coober Pedy have helped people move from “aggressive forms of nationalism (cf. Fratelli Tutti, 11) and radical individualism” towards an “Ever Wider We”. Grievances and injustices in countries of origin, although real and painful, have been put to the side, in the challenges of a shared common experience in an isolated remote mining town. However, as with each of us, the journey Towards a Wider We requires a continual commitment and openness to the goodness of the other.

Our local parish has been enriched, over the years, with “the diversity of foreigners, migrants and refugees, and in the intercultural dialogue that can emerge from this encounter”. Indeed, the underground church of Sts Peter and Paul was dug out in the 1960s by a host of volunteers from different nations and different religions. Its walls etched with the markings of manual labour, pick and shovel, are a testament in stone to the “Wider We” of the community.

The people of the nations have also embraced the outback Australian way of life, culture and language. It has made Coober Pedy a place full of characters, stories and legends – some of them true!

The parish life is not perfect nor is the community life. There have been times when ethnic and religious grievances have surfaced, and there has been regression to nationalism and individualism.

Also, in town there are many First Nation people. Some Aboriginal people are living and working in Coober Pedy and others wander in from the lands. At times, that mentality of “us” and “them” can easily be expressed in words and actions which fracture the community.

However, in a town in which we realise on a deeper level that we share a common humanity and very much need each other, there are healthy signs of “Towards a Wider We”.

Working “towards an ever wider ‘we’, beyond the World Day of Migrants and Refugees, first of all means listening to the stories that Refugees and People Seeking Protection have to tell. It means being moved by and learning from their lived experience.  

Table Talk is a conversation within a parish, school, organisation or local community with Refugees or People Seeking Protection in Australia. It is a powerful format that makes this listening and learning possible. 

Table Talks are a chance to change the conversation by engaging in dialogue with refugees and people seeking protection and listening to their stories. 

This Sunday 26 September 2021, the “Diocesan Journey… Walking with Refugees” team invites you to a free virtual Diocesan conversation with refugees, 3:00-4:15pm. You will hear personal stories from people with a lived experience as refugees in NSW and can find out more about the situation in Afghanistan first-hand. RSVP: bit.do/diocesan-refugee  

The Diocesan Journey… Walking with Refugees and People Seeking Protection team can help you to organise your own Table Talk, step by step. If your parish, school, organisation or local community is interested, please contact zoe.grant@jrs.org.au.


Fr Paul Crotty is the Parish Priest of the Catholic Community of Saints Peter and Paul, Coober Pedy, in the Catholic Diocese of Port Pirie.

This article features in the Resource Kit for the 107th World Day of Migrants and Refugees from the Australian Catholic Migrant and Refugee Office.


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