Parish and Vinnies rescued Belgian family stranded in Oz
The Caron family would like nothing more than to have their “imprisonment” become a “life sentence”.
Stranded in Australia since March last year due to COVID, the Belgian family-of-four call themselves “willing and grateful prisoners in paradise” and thank the pandemic for finding what they hope will one day be their forever home.
Just days into their two-week stay, borders around the world closed due to the coronavirus and they became trapped on the NSW south coast. And what a place to be stuck. Hearing about the family’s plight, the tightly-knit Catholic community of St Patrick’s in Berry quickly sprang into action and adopted the intrepid travellers as their own.
“one of the things I love about being Catholic, wherever you are in the world you find your family” – Patrice Caron
The longer they stayed the more they felt at home and while the tourists believed all their prayers had been answered, it was the parish who felt blessed to have them in their midst.
Surrounded by green fields and overlooked by the towering escarpment of the Cambewarra Range, the historical village provided peace and tranquility in an atmosphere of fear and uncertainty.
New life in a treasured former convent
And it wasn’t the natural beauty of the landscape that captivated them … it was the people.
Within weeks the family had moved into an unused convent and supplied with everything needed for their new life.
Bags of clothes and shoes were quietly left on their front verandah, home cooked meals were prepared and delivered and countless contact numbers left with notes attached saying help is only a phone call away.
Thoughts of when they could return home were quickly replaced by questions about how long they could stay. Unable to work due to their strict visa conditions, the family attempted to “repay” their debt by helping out around the parish looking after the extensive gardens, cooking Belgium delicacies for community events, cleaning windows and answering phone calls.
Dad Patrice Caron said the compassion, care and concern shown by the local parishioners was unmistakably Catholic and something they will never forget. He said despite being 16,000km away from his native land he had never felt so at home.
“That’s one of the things I love about being Catholic, wherever you are in the world you find your family, it’s somewhere you are welcomed and truly feels like home,” he smiled.
“From the moment we arrived we were shown such incredible support and love which makes us all so very proud of our faith. We had travelled to Australia for just two weeks to visit family who lived near Berry, and decided to go to Mass the following Sunday, which turned out to be the last service before all churches were forced to shut their doors due to COVID.
“From that one time meeting with the local church community we didn’t want for another thing. We were offered accommodation at the unused convent in the parish as well as food and bags and bags of clothing.
“We have never been offered such kindness, to think they trusted four complete strangers from another country with the keys to such a special and historical building still blows us away.
“And to make it even more special, the empty convent formerly ministered by the Sisters of St Joseph, was visited by Australia’s first saint, Mary MacKillop. I was given a copy of her biography and that helped me attach myself to the place even more, through my reading I discovered she is a saint for very good reason. It’s quite a privilege to live where she’s been.
“Also as my name is Patrice – the French version of Patrick – I have never felt as guided or protected by my patron saint as here next to St Patrick’s Church, with the St Patrick community and our priest Father Pat.
“Since being here in Berry our faith is so much deeper and more present. Even though the convent has been closed for some time, seeing the statues and crucifixes around is a very strong signal, everywhere you are reminded of our faith which is very comforting.”
Family’s plans thrown into chaos by COVID border closures
Their adventures began after the family decided to start a new life, with Patrice taking a niche job in Beijing erecting display cases for museums. What was to be a 12-month contract was very quickly cut short due to the virus outbreak in Wuhan.
Borders around the world started closing to anyone from China, so they boarded a flight to Thailand where they quarantined for a few weeks before being granted permission to enter Australia. Founding members of the St Patrick’s Community Group, Sue and Barry McAndrew, said the support given to the Belgium family had been returned tenfold.
“The Caron family have been an absolute blessing to the community” – Sue McAndrew
“The Caron family have been an absolute blessing to the community and we have been so lucky to have them with us,” she said. “We had an empty building and a family that was homeless so of course it makes sense we invite them in.
“And since they have arrived they have been an absolute asset and become a very important part of our little community. Honestly, they live out the motto of our own St Mary MacKillop, they never see a need without doing something about it.
“They help mow the lawns, cook for people in the parish, wash windows, keep an eye on the church, the list goes on and on. We even heard about a homeless man knocking on their door thinking it was the presbytery and they gave him all the money they had in their wallets, which really sums up the type of people they are.
“We have had such a great time coming together as a community and making sure they feel included and giving them what they need. We have treated them to local favourites like pavlova and barbecued meat which they’ve loved as well as Vegemite which they didn’t.
“Yes we have given them a hand but they have given us so much more in return.”
Now a miracle is needed to keep them here
Sadly the family’s visa expires on 8 March and nothing short of a miracle will allow them to stay. They are currently in the process of applying for an extension. However they have been told the chance of them being granted permanent residency is “extremely unlikely”.
“We would like nothing more than to make Australia our home permanently but the process is not only very slow but very expensive,” Patrice said. “We need another visa so that we have some permanency as well as giving me the opportunity to work as I need an income. We are currently living on our savings which we obviously can’t do forever so extending our visa while we wait for the opportunity to perhaps stay is very difficult.
“We have never been offered such kindness” -Patrice Caron
“We might sit here and wait for 12 months while a decision is being made only to be told our application has been denied and we need to leave anyway.
“All we really have left at this stage is prayer, to travel half way around the world to end up staying in a beautiful little convent surrounded by the most beautiful people has been such a blessing and we hope that our prayers continue to be answered. We are now deciding our future and as a family will decide where we go from here.”
*As a way of thanking the Berry community, the family have published a book called Tree Stories of Australia as a tribute to the country and its people with all profits from the book going to the Berry conference of the St Vincent’s de Paul Society.
To purchase a copy contact Patrice at https://patcaron.com/tree-stories-of-australia/