In Penrith stands a contemporary designed church, circular in build with the communal altar in the centre of the congregation.
St Nicholas of Myra Church was opened and blessed by Cardinal Gilroy on 30 April 1967, but the parish itself dates back to 1839, when Fr Charles Sumner, the first priest ordained in Australia, was appointed Parish Priest.
The fence at the front of the church along High Street is constructed from the sandstone of the original church, binding the community to its roots.
The parish community is close-knit and during Mass, its members are never more than eight seats away from the altar, assembled to seemingly depict the faith connection of the Penrith people and the parish over the past 177 years.
The parish secretary, Lyn Olander, has been a parishioner since 1975. “In everything we do, we aim to follow our mission and motto: Grounded in Faith; Growing in Love; Living in Hope,” she said.
The diverse and vibrant population has been strengthened by the humble undertakings of many priests, and Lyn feels privileged to have worked alongside four of them.
“I have worked with four parish priests: Fr Geoff Dickinson for two years, Fr Wim Hoekstra for six years, Fr Chris de Souza for 10 years and Mathew Antony MS presently, as well as with numerous assistant priests. Working with all of them has been something very special. They have all helped me grow in my spiritual life,” she said.
Serving more than 3000 Catholic families who live in the area, the parish has a multicultural heart.
Assistant Priest, Fr Joe Manjaly MS expressed his elation in celebrating with the many cultures that join together to worship and praise God: “Every Sunday, it is wonderful seeing people from different nationalities, languages, colour and ethnic groups, worshipping one God and being renewed in their spiritual life.”
The groups that make up the parish also carry on the mission of the parish, unrestricted by age. From the usual youth and social justice groups to the more distinctive senior groups.
The Young at Heart group is made up of about 20 to 30 senior parishioners who join in fellowship every month, embarking on bus trips and sharing in morning teas together. There is even the weekly Knitting Group for older parishioners.
With a Diploma in Pastoral Care, Lyn is dedicated to her role as parish secretary, and the people and groups she serves.
“My job is not so much work, as it is ministry. It is very rewarding and a privilege to get to know the parishioners and form lasting bonds with them,” she said.
The pastoral element of her role offers Lyn an opportunity to join with fellow parishioners in solidarity during the ups and downs of everyday life.
“I am passionate about the care that is needed to be shown to families in times of illness or loss of loved ones. Just being there can be comforting to someone who may be isolated through illness or struggling with grief,” she said.
“You feel their grief and you feel their joy. The parish secretary is the first person you see when you come through the door so it is very important to be welcoming with a smile. The parish secretary is often a counsellor and a confidante, sharing your joys and sorrows.
“It is a joy to be part of the Penrith parish community.”
Mother’s prayers pay off for Penrith priest
By Joseph Younes
Born into a devoutly Syro-Malabar Catholic family (Eastern Church) in Kerala, India, Fr Mathew’s mother prayed that one of her eight children would enter religious life.
“We would pray and say the rosary daily. This was a common practice for Catholics in Kerala,” Fr Mathew said.
His mother’s prayers would be answered when Fr Mathew entered a seminary at the tender age of 16 and was ordained a priest in the Latin Rite in 1987.
“My family was strongly supportive of me in this vocation. In Kerala at the time it was customary to have a priest in every family. Kerala is known as being a strongly Catholic area.”
Now parish priest of St Nicholas of Myra (since 2012), Fr Mathew Antony MS has travelled a long way from his subcontinental beginnings.
“Initially, I studied to be a diocesan priest. But then, the La Salette Missionaries came and spoke at our seminary. I decided to join them and finished my studies and ordination in the Philippines as a religious priest,” he said.
Having lived and worked in India, the Philippines and the US, Fr Mathew came to the Diocese of Parramatta at the invitation of the then Bishop Kevin Manning.
“First I was assistant priest at Quakers Hill parish, administrator at Riverstone parish now parish priest at Penrith,” he said. “At first, I was like, ‘how would I run such a big parish?’.”
His initial questions of how he would operate such a large and historical parish like Penrith (founded 1839) were quickly overcome when he was “strongly welcome, from day one” by the parishioners.
Fr Mathew is also a polyglot and speaks English, Malayalam, Tagalog, Ilocano and Hindi. “It is a blessing that I speak so many languages. It helps make my parishioners feel at home – for example I can speak Tagalog and Ilocano with my Filipino parishioners. At first they were surprised an Indian priest could speak Filipino languages,” he said.
Penrith Parish is a vibrant faith community. “I have people of Irish-Anglo-Scottish background, people from the Philippines, Islanders like Fijians and Samoans, Middle Easterners, Europeans, Maltese, Italians and, of course, people from Indian and Sri Lanka,” he said.
“These people are rich in faith, they are very cooperative and they are open to helping the parish. I can say, they have been supportive of me and they have been very loving.
“The parishioners show up on Sunday and the committees show up on Tuesday and they all support the parish. They provide me with strong inspiration and I have very supportive staff including my assistant priest Fr Joe Manjaly MS.”
Fr Mathew also draws strength, support and inspiration from the Eucharist. “My strength comes from the Eucharist, it sustains me to keep going, to support people. By the grace of God, I can say it is a blessing that I am a priest. I can see how God leads and carries me to help people.”
Forty years after first entering a seminary, it seems his mother’s prayers have well and truly been answered.