Three rivers and a priest on horseback
Sr Margaret O’Sullivan, grand-niece of pioneer priest Fr John W O’Sullivan, with the plaque which was blessed by Bishop Satterthwaite.
The pretty Great Lakes region on the Mid-North Coast became home in the 1860s to European settlers who were attracted by the harvesting potential there of stately cedars and rosewood trees and then by grazing and farming.
The lives of those early pioneers and the ancient culture of the local Dunghutti and other Aboriginal people at the time were honoured in a recent community celebration.
One historical figure who stands out from those days is Fr John W O’Sullivan, an Irish priest who tended to his parishioners – mostly Irish and German settlers – on horseback because of the distances that separated them.
He would ride his horse from Kempsey to Nambucca Valley to celebrate Mass at the home of the Brouggy family at what was then called Lower Taylor’s Arm but is now known as Congarinni.
Fr O’Sullivan would write to his parents back home in Ireland, telling them of the journeys he undertook to celebrate Mass and to take the sacraments to his parishioners: “Besides this river (the Macleay), I have three other rivers to attend to – on the south the Hastings River and on the north the Nambucca and, still further north, the Bellinger.
“My district is 110 miles (about 175km) long and about 40 miles (about 64km) wide and a very rough hilly district and, worse than that, you must swim your horses after the boats crossing the rivers,” he wrote in one letter.
To celebrate the centenary of Federation and to commemorate those pioneer priests and their parishioners, an outdoor Mass was celebrated on the site of the old Brouggy family home, which is now part of a property owned by Catholic layman Jim Hallam.
In an enchanting reenactment of community pride and history, Fr O’Sullivan made an appearance once again on his horse to meet descendants of those early pioneers, many in traditional colonial costumes, who had walked up from the river just as in those earlier days when parishioners arrived by boat for Mass.
One family arrived in appropriate dress in their horse and buggy for the special occasion.
Local Aboriginal elder John Marshall welcomed the crowd of 500 to the site on behalf of the Aboriginal people before he and elders Bernadette Ballangarry Wilkes and Neville Ballangarry performed a reconciliation ceremony.
Then the Bishop of Lismore, Bishop John Satterthwaite, concelebrated Mass with Fr Peter Jones, the Nambucca Valley parish priest, two former parish priests Frs Ed Crowley and Frank O’Gorman, Frs Bernie Ryan and Tony Reilly of the Aboriginal Catholic Ministry, and Fr Allan Connors, who was born in the valley.
Sr Margaret O’Sullivan, a Josephite nun who is the grand-niece of Fr O’Sullivan, was a special guest.
Other descendants of the pioneer families acted as readers, altar servers, collectors and took up the offertory – Alexander Freeman, Samuel Miles, Ben and Grace McLeod were altar servers; Stephen Spear, Greg Desmond and Sarah Hogan were readers, the McNally family presented the Offertory gifts, and the collection was organised by Doris and Jack Unterrheiner.
Bishop Satterthwaite blessed a plaque erected on the site to commemorate the special day.
Then the congregation, many of whom were former parishioners returning from far away, enjoyed the photo and memorabilia display set up in a marquee and caught up with old friends over a picnic lunch.
“It was a great way to celebrate the centenary of Federation and honour those who passed down their faith to us all,” says Mrs Frances Costa, who helped organise the day.