Nestled among the shops and within walking distance of Toongabbie Station in Western Sydney, St Anthony’s in the Market Place plants the faith at the feet of everyday shoppers and commuters.
Shirley Stewart has been the Parish Secretary for the vibrant and welcoming community for more than 30 years. “In that time, I’ve worked for four priests, three bishops and three pastoral associates!” she said.
Shirley knows many of the parishioners personally and it is her simple gesture of greeting them by name that helps to make St Anthony’s a spiritual home.
Deacon James Phelan, who was appointed to the parish in September 2014, believes it is the lifelong commitment of parishioners at St Anthony’s that has contributed to the sense of community.
St Anthony’s unique depth of history is held by many of the ageing parishioners.
“What is surprising is that so many of the parishioners went to school here,” Deacon James said. “It’s pretty unusual for someone to be educated in a parish, married in a parish, to have stayed in a parish and then to have raised their children in the same parish.”
The parish hall was used for many social activities, helping to build the community that parishioners have felt connected with for most of their lives.
“The hall is heritage listed. The hall would be a school during the week, have a picture theatre running on a Saturday and then Saturday night would be bingo and then Mass on Sunday morning,” Shirley explained. “In those early days it must have been an amazing time to be able to do that.”
Deacon James said the older parishioners have a strong link with the parish. “It’s a very friendly parish. You see that with the different activities. Different groups will put on a morning tea on Sundays so the people stay behind for a cup of tea and a biscuit.”
It is this community that Shirley said was a blessing for the Church. “We’re very fortunate and blessed to have such wonderful parishioners who give of their time to look after their ‘Spiritual Home’.”
It was a call from Fr McNamara over the pulpit 30 years ago that led Shirley to take on the role of parish secretary.
“Fr McNamara asked if there was anyone who could help Sr Helen Law RSM two mornings a week. I thought, ‘I can do that!’ So I told him and he asked, ‘Can you start this week?’ And that’s how it all started,” Shirley said.
What began as just five hours a week became three days a week. She started off with a Remington typewriter then progressed to an electric one and then to a computer.
In the early days, she used a Gestetner machine to run off the bulletin and now has advanced to sending the bulletin from computer to photocopier.
The duties of a parish secretary can be daunting but St Anthony’s welcoming community makes it all worthwhile.
“I could have a full-time job just answering the phone and the door!” Shirley said.
“I can even lie in bed at night and note down all the things I want to get done the next morning, and it’s not till mid-afternoon that I start on them.
“But I love this parish and I love the people.”