The strong Catholic faith community at St Thomas Aquinas Parish, Springwood emanates from their shared devotion to the Mass. It’s a devotion that dates back over 150 years, to early Masses celebrated in the Springwood Inn, an historic Thomas Boland pub.
It makes sense that the parishioners should be articulate and devoted to the Eucharist, when St Thomas Aquinas, one of the Church’s greatest philosophers and composer of stunning hymns for Our Lord in the Eucharist, such as Adoro Te Devote, and Pange Lingua Gloriosi.
Up to fifty people were at a regular weekday Mass when Catholic Outlook arrived.
Parishioners Walter Paul, Fran Beeker, Richard Merchant and Gerry Thistleton generously shared their experiences of the community.
The parish’s history was greatly blessed by the grand presence of St Columba’s Minor Seminary, which formed young men to offer the incomparable sacrifice of the Mass in the priesthood for almost 70 years.
“The priest who taught the seminarians would say Mass for us,” Richard Merchant, 20-year parishioner, said. Richard also briefly attended St Thomas Aquinas Primary School and attended Springwood Masses occasionally while a parishioner in Glenbrook.
“His name was Doc Joiner and he was character. He was a teacher. He never needed a microphone. Great deep voice,” Richard said.
The previous Church was in Springwood village centre and is now part of Aquinas Court, a retirement community in Catholic Healthcare Australia.
“It was a beautiful Church and it was paid for locally,” he said.
The original Church was at Rest Park, on Macquarie Road, then relocated to Springwood village centre and now is in retirement at Aquinas Court, a senior community part of Catholic Healthcare Australia.
The highlight of Richard’s involvement in the community is being an acolyte.
“My favourite experience is being an acolyte. That blew me away when Fr Peter Connolly asked me. I don’t like being out there up front. It’s powerful stuff.”
Walter Paul is another dedicated parishioner and he considered a priestly vocation as a boy in Burma.
“I wanted to be a priest,” Walter said.
His mother told him to stay in his room for a week and consider all the sacrifices involved.
“Then I said I’ll go for being a brother. I was a boxer then, I could teach the kids to box.
“She was not trying to stop me but show me all the consequences I was going to face, so I stepped back and was an altar boy for 17 years,” Walter said.
He still has a profound devotion to the Blessed Sacrament, expressed in regular weekday and Sunday Mass.
He was also nominated by the parish to be among the first to receive training to be an Extraordinary Minister of the Eucharist. He would take Holy Communion to the sick and housebound.
“Of course, it is a great honour and beneficial for other people,” he said.
“Your prayer time goes a bit longer, praying for those ones in the evening. You understand more about parishioners, there’s another part of life to being well.”
Walter explained his shock when his late brother became a priest.
“My brother – who had no devotion as a boy!”
His later brother went on to be a tremendous priest and was chaplain to a leper colony in Burma for 17 years.
Another parishioner, Gerry Thistleton, 92, has been setting up for Mass for the past 12 years.
“This community is so generous in spirit,” Gerry said.
“I’ve benefitted from the generosity of this community. I owe it more than whatever I’m owed.”
Gerry is at the Church most days for Mass and at the Rosary group on Saturday.
Fran Beekman, parishioner for 46 years, is also devoted to the Mass.
She has made over a dozen felt banners for the Church, which are prominently displayed according to different liturgical seasons.
“It’s not an easy thing to do because it’s three metres long!” Fran said.
The retired nurse was long time coordinator of the parish’s former over 50s group but now participates in the over 50s group at Our Lady of the Nativity Parish, Lawson.
The group strongly laments the parish’s decline in numbers of younger parishioners.
Walter wishes the CYO – the Catholic Youth Organisation – would come back.
“That CYO should be established from the school,” he said.
St Columba’s and St Thomas’ students do come to school Masses, though Walter is focused on the Sunday Mass community.
“This is an old parish and the young people used to be very active,” he said.
“There’s a general dropping off of Mass attendance,” Gerry added.
Richard Kemmis, convert from High Church Anglicanism, has been in the parish for 34 years and on many of the parish committees.
He now works with Chris Joy in the administration of the parish.
They explained the changing demographics of the Blue Mountains.
“There’s the mature aged or the young families and not much in between,” Chris said.
“Young people move away for university and things like that,” Fr Paul Slyney, Parish Priest, said.
“The spirit of welcome and compassion of a community that draws people to itself. In this day and age, that’s difficult.”
Fr Paul notices the parish’s gentle acceptance of babies crying during Mass.
They are a sign of the life and future of the Church in the Blue Mountains.