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The Dandenong parish has carried their own cross, with a fire destroying the altar and the Church on 1 April 2015, just before the Easter festivities. However, the fire has been turned into a blessing, guided by Fr Declan O’Brien, and Deacon George Piech Meat.
Deacon George Piech Meat and Fr Declan O'Brien in St Mary's Church, Dandenong.
Fr Declan and Deacon George, who have worked together for five years, have each other as inspiration, which runs deep into their friendship. Rebuilding the church turned into a broader exercise into rebuilding the community as after the fire a third of the parish community was lost, due to the relocation of the services.
The vision was to emphasise the church as a place of openness and inclusiveness, Resurrection, and joy. It was also meant to be counter cultural, with the media portraying Australians as closed in, fearful of strangers and with high security concerns.
Fr Declan says that it is important for Catholics to be ‘different to that’ and to welcome the stranger.
‘For I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me’ - Matthew 25:35
‘People have remarked that the church looks a little bit bland after the renovations, which are still ongoing’ says Fr Declan ‘However that is somewhat the point. The community, the people bring spice and colour’. The Dandenong parish is very vibrant, with a strong South Sudanese influence, as well as Indian, Afghani, Chinese, and Eastern European communities.
Inside St Mary's, Dandenong.
‘We have to ask ourselves, why aren’t we mirroring ourselves in Christ?’ says Fr Declan.
Strong aspects of outreach are its English classes, taught in four terms during the year on Mondays, Tuesday, Wednesday, and Thursdays. These are coordinated by Colin Maslen, who is also on the parish council. These classes welcome all—regardless of faith and heritage and are attended by Buddhist monks, Afghani and South Sudanese refugees as well as immigrants, who want to brush up on their English skills.
Top left: Colin Maslen, English classes at St Mary's, Dandenong.
Another part of the parish renewal after the fire will be the official reopening and consecration of the Altar on Friday 8 December in the evening. After many months of praying for this special happening, Fr Declan received a message from Deacon George stating ‘We have it!’ and by it he meant a first class relic of St Josephine Bakhita, the first saint from South Sudan
As Fr Declan and Deacon George said—she will be brought home at last, surrounded by her brothers and sisters in Christ, as well as South Sudanese. The occasion will also be marked by traditional song.