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Florence makes God’s house a home

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Typically, sacristans care for altar linens, order wine and hosts, arrange liturgical books, lay out vestments for clergy, turn on microphones and light candles. Photo: Alphonsus Fok
Typically, sacristans care for altar linens, order wine and hosts, arrange liturgical books, lay out vestments for clergy, turn on microphones and light candles. Photo: Alphonsus Fok

Every morning under the cover of darkness, Florence Grech makes her way quietly through the inner-city streets.

The spritely 91-year-old arrives at St Peter’s Catholic Church in Surry Hills and unlocks the huge timber doors and lights the candles, ready to welcome the day’s faithful.

At the end of the day and again in the dark, she prepares for the following days’ Masses, blows out the candles, locks the doors, and heads home.

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In every parish, there are those who do the quiet work of keeping the church going, but not all sacristans are like Florence.

Every day for 30 years she has been the first to arrive and the last to leave, only missing out due to holidays or ill health.

Typically, sacristans care for altar linens, order wine and hosts, arrange liturgical books, lay out vestments for clergy, turn on microphones and light candles.

But it’s not just the material things she looks after that matter, it’s the spiritual.

Surry Hills is a mix of government housing, exclusive private real estate, and everything in between and she is well known for the way she warmly welcomes all, particularly strangers whom she suspects may have strayed from the regular practice of their Catholic faith.

“I love praying and being close to Jesus, it’s what makes me happiest,” she said.

“It’s lovely praying when the church is empty and so very still, but I also like to pray with others because there is power in people praying together.

“It’s so nice to welcome everyone who walks through the doors.

“People come and go. There are the regulars, the daily massgoers, the ones who pop in when they can and then the ones who sit by themselves and just want a bit of peace.

Florence Grech goes beyond what is expected from a sacristan at her Surry Hills’ parish. Photo: Alphonsus Fok
Florence Grech goes beyond what is expected from a sacristan at her Surry Hills’ parish. Photo: Alphonsus Fok

“No matter who they are or their circumstances, they are so very welcome here.

“As St John Vianney said, ‘If you light one straw the fire goes out very quickly but if you have a pile of straws the fire will last much longer.’

“It’s the same when you pray as a community. I love to pray and spend as much time as I can with the Lord.”

A firm believer that cleanliness is next to godliness, Florence can often be found scaling a ladder to polish hard-to-reach items—not bad for someone in her tenth decade of life.

Anything she doesn’t get done during the day, she takes home to do at night, even lugging candelabras and chalices with her—a tougher job since priests discovered hand sanitiser during the pandemic, she said with a smile.

A deft seamstress, she not only washes the altar linens and vestments, but repairs and makes new ones as needed.

If it’s for the greater good, Florence will do it.

“He deserves the best and doing it brings me so much joy,” she said.

“Every morning I wake up and it doesn’t matter if it’s winter or summer, the first thing I do is pray and then head straight to the church, and it’s the same at night.

“I had a hospitality business years ago and couldn’t wait to get out of it because it stopped me from going to Mass during the day.

“I have always loved the church simply because God is there and I know he appreciates what I do.

“I have the best ‘job’ in the world, I get to go to ‘work’ every day and be close to Jesus. What better job could you have?”

A deft seamstress, Florence Grech not only washes the altar linens and vestments, but repairs and makes new ones as needed. Photo: Alphonsus Fok
A deft seamstress, Florence Grech not only washes the altar linens and vestments, but repairs and makes new ones as needed. Photo: Alphonsus Fok

Parish Administrator Fr John MacDonald said her dedication is well known to parishioners and visitors alike.

He said the tabernacle door at Saint Peter’s is “the shiniest he has ever seen because of Florence’s contortionist cleaning postures.”

“Florence is present in the church for several hours every morning for Mass and various Catholic devotions and then she returns each evening for silent Eucharistic adoration,” he said.

“Moreover, she regularly attends the baptisms, weddings, and funerals for which she has done the ‘setting up’ for the presiding priest.

“Florence warmly welcomes strangers to the church and is particularly solicitous for visitors who may have ventured from their faith.

“She is very apostolic in that regard. What is not so well known about Florence is that she is a good reader and singer—in English or Latin!

“Florence’s mind and legendary powers of observation and organisation are as sharp as ever and she also remains remarkably agile for somebody of her age.”

Unsure how long she’ll be able to keep up the grueling schedule, Florence leaves the future in God’s hands.

“I’ll keep doing it for as long as God wants me to, it’s that simple,” she grins.

“It’s truly up to him. While I can do it, I will, no question.

“From the top of my head to the soles of my feet, I am his servant.”

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