Situated in the centre of the Penrith CBD, St Nicholas of Myra Parish acts as a beacon of hope with its tall spire inviting those in the local community towards it.
A digital sign outside the church welcoming one and all doesn’t hurt either.
“I think this is a great parish with so much love in its parishioners, and so much potential to serve the wider community,” Jacinta Ortiz, Business Manager, told Catholic Outlook.
Located 34 kilometres from Parramatta, and at the foot of the Blue Mountains, St Nicholas of Myra Parish dates back to 1839, when Fr Charles Sumner, the first priest ordained in Australia, was appointed Parish Priest at Penrith.
On 12 December 1839, Archbishop Polding laid the foundation stone for the first St Nicholas of Myra church on land donated by John Tindale. By 1850, a more substantial building was constructed and was then consecrated by Archbishop Polding that November.
This same church, which underwent some renovation and restoration in the 1890s, would serve the community for decades until it was demolished to build the current structure, which was opened and blessed on 30 April 1967.
Jacinta explained that the church works closely with local organisations to support those in need in the community, and she hopes that people know that the church is a “safe space”.
“We often get people coming to our door for assistance or to spend the night on our veranda. Fortunately, St Vincent de Paul Penrith Hub is a few doors down and we can immediately refer those in need to them.
“On our premises, we have an active Vinnies Conference who work very hard in our community and CatholicCare Social Services who offer pregnancy and parenting support and family relationship services. I hope we can continue to link our community to these vital services in our area.
“The parish has had instances of theft and vandalism, and there was a shooting across the road, which says to me that there are people hurting in this area, and I feel like it is a time for this parish to be that beacon of light.
“We’re located in such a wonderful space that I hope people working, living, and going to school in the area know we can go to that church, we can find help and solace in this church, even if it’s sitting in our garden, or sitting at our grotto, or knowing that there’s access to Vinnies and CatholicCare,” she said.
A few months ago, at the peak of the coronavirus pandemic, parishioners were unable to respond to the beacon call of the church, as it was closed to public celebrations.
“There was lots of stress and anxiety [during the pandemic]. Parishioners who might normally look to their church for love and care and acceptance when struggling to cope, I felt this support may be unavailable to them due to lockdown,” Parish Priest Fr Jose (Joe) Manjaly MS told Catholic Outlook.
However, Fr Joe applauded the resilience of his parishioners and his parish team to stay connected when they couldn’t be together.
“The parish had live streaming Masses since lockdown started, and it continues even now. The parish office and priests were always available for the people during the main lockdown. As a result, lots of people continued to touch base with the parish and its activities.
“I knew a lot of parishioners in their 80s signing up to Facebook and Zoom for the first time so that they could follow their parish activities. Their commitment and spirit were very encouraging for me to continue the live Masses,” Fr Joe said.
Deacon Wilfredo (Willy) Limjap was able to see how overwhelmed parishioners were when restrictions began to ease, and public Masses could be celebrated.
“They were missing it, and one of the things I found about the parishioners is that some of them would come to Mass and celebrate in our hall instead of the church, giving their spot to others. I thought it was very selfless of them, it wasn’t a ‘me first, but us’,” he said.
This selflessness of the parishioners is also found in the number of volunteers who serve the parish in their own time, even inspiring their pastors.
“The church is filled with real, faithful people who are open and caring. I never thought this would be the situation [arriving in Australia],” Assistant Priest Fr Jobi Payyappilly MS described. St Nicholas of Myra Parish is his first overseas appointment.
“There are a lot of volunteers who help run the activities in the parish, such as the sacramental activities. They really inspire the priests, their commitment is wonderful, and they have no other motive other than it being an expression of their faith in a significant way,” he said.
One such volunteer who goes above and beyond his duties is Catechist Coordinator Fred Keuneman, who has been in the role for 15 years. Fred, who is only scheduled to work in the office twice a week, can be found almost every day.
Fred credits his predecessor, the late Anne Tucker, for helping him find his true happiness in life in serving the parish.
“When I was working, for around 27 years, I didn’t worry about God, I didn’t have time for God. But then, after all that, around 15 years ago, I retired.
“I would come to this church with my wife, and then one day, a lady tapped me on the shoulder and she wished to speak to me about becoming the catechist coordinator.
“I told Anne and Fr Chris [de Souza, former parish priest] that I’ll help you out, but she insisted I become the coordinator. I said I’d do it for two or three months, and then they can find someone else to do it, so 15 years later, I’m still here.
“I enjoyed my role so much that, to me, it is very forthcoming into my life. It took me to places in my mind I never thought would be there. It got me thinking about my religion, about my God, and I found that it helped me to be a better person.
“I was not content with myself until I was appointed as the Catechist Coordinator here. Now, I’m devoting my time for the betterment of the church,” Fred said.
Sacramental Coordinator Mary Gale, who was baptised at St Nicholas of Myra before her family moved to Katoomba, is in awe of the overwhelming support she receives in her role.
“I know I’m here to serve, but I’m also served and enriched by the people whose lives I come into contact with, and they mightn’t even realise it, but they bring Christ to me.
“The team here are very supportive and very helpful, as well as the volunteer base. We might not have a large volunteer base, but those that have put their hand up have been wonderful people to work with.
“Some of the challenges around COVID-19 have been a bit overwhelming for me, but I’m supported and knowing that there are people who want to come and help out, I think, is a testament to the parish,” Mary said.
When asked what keeps them motivated in serving their faith community, interviewees expressed the family nature of the parish and their deep sense of belonging to this community.
“It’s my faith family, and it’s important to me. I love going to other churches when I’m away and seeing what it’s like, but to me, it’s my home,” Sharon Clarke, Secretary of the Parish Council said.
Margaret Cobden, one of the volunteer administration staff at the parish, described that when she chose to make Penrith her new home, she was welcomed into the community and well supported when her mother passed away in 2015.
“To change my parish was hard, but I’m so happy to be in this parish.
“When my mother passed away, I chose to stay at St Nicholas because I found them to be so friendly and so obliging, and the people that I’ve met have been fantastic.
“I’ve made many friends here and I really enjoy it. It was great to feel welcomed,” she said.
Joe Tabone, Chair of the Finance Committee gives back to the church through his roles. “I feel like it’s good to give something back to the church, rather than being a participant.”
Jacinta added, “There’s a huge sense of community. There’s a deep sense of belonging to this place, not only to each other, but to the building, and St Nicholas himself.
“Being new to the community, I’ve experienced a sense of generosity and care from parishioners here in Penrith. They appreciate me and what I do here. They have care and compassion for me and all the staff, really wanting to take care of them and make them a part of their family, I think, is really beautiful.”
Fr Joe concluded, “it’s a humbling experience to be parish priest in this local place.”
This article was originally featured in the Spring 2020 Edition of the Catholic Outlook Magazine.