From bustling Manila to the quiet Nullabor Plain, Fr Harold Camonias has found that no journey is too long or difficult when God not only sends and accompanies you but even meets you at the destination.
Heading off to say Mass, Fr Harold Camonias packs his car with all the necessities including firewood, water, a sleeping bag, tent and camp stove.
Despite driving the 500-kilometre round trip on mostly sealed roads, there are still many hazards and he takes great care to zig zag around the kangaroos, snakes and emus that randomly appear in his path.
Passing through tiny towns and remote properties, his dusty Mazda CX5 takes the twists and turns in the road like he’s lived in the bush all his life.
After the long and solitary drive, he arrives and unlocks the Church and prepares to celebrate Mass … for one.
“Gerry is the only parishioner who comes to Mass every time I am in town, and more than me ministering to my parishioner, he is the one that always inspires me.”
Gerry Agnew is the “soul” parishioner in Leigh Creek, a former coal-mining town with a population of around 200.
Living on his own, the 60-something-year-old local arrived from Ireland “many, many, years ago” and remembers a time when it was standing room only at Mass.
With four churches in its heyday, Leigh Creek today only has one non-denominational place of worship used by Fr Harold and an Anglican minister who visits four times a year.
Fr Harold is the Parish Priest of Flinders Ranges, which includes Quorn, Hawker, Carrieton, Leigh Creek and surrounds, in the Diocese of Port Pirie, which occupies 980,000 square kilometres, most of the state of South Australia including spiritual Uluru (Ayers Rock).
Characterised by sheep and cattle stations, mining fields, the Aboriginal Lands, great stretches of wheat and barley, vines and orchards, it takes in the Yorke and Eyre Peninsulas, Flinders Ranges and Nullabor Plain.
He believes the region should be known as the “soul” not the centre of Australia, and says his vocation is inspired by Catholics like Gerry who despite receiving the Eucharist only a few times a year has such strong faith.
Fr Harold single-handedly provides spiritual direction to less than a hundred parishioners stretching across an area of around 12,000 square kilometres – roughly the size of Vanuatu, and despite the hardship, his smile lights up even the darkest night sky when reflecting on his calling.
Not bad for a relatively “new Australian” who hails from The Philippines … about as much of a contrast to the bush as you can get.
He says his rural posting has given him the opportunity to not only see the beauty of God’s creation … but also his sense of humour.
“When you are in a place like this where the sunset is one of the best, you feel like God’s gaze is indeed for you alone.”
After 10 years, he has adopted many Aussie staples but also misses many delicacies from his homeland. He still craves lugaw (rice porridge) and sinigang or soup with tamarind base, both Filipino favourites and quite difficult to make as he can’t get the ingredients locally, but has also come to love a good pub steak and quandong cheesecake.
He said he believes it’s God’s will that he spreads the Good News and leads people into personal encounters and relationships with Christ wherever they are, including Leigh Creek.
“Gerry is the only parishioner who comes to Mass every time I am in town, and more than me ministering to my parishioner, he is the one that always inspires me,” he said.
“Yes, I bring to him Jesus present in the Eucharist but I see Jesus in him in his faithfulness. I admit that it sometimes enters my mind to cancel going all that way out there but in the end, I always feel I was ministered more by him than by me to him.”
After spending a few hours over a cup of tea and sandwiches chatting about some of life’s complex and not so complex questions, Fr Harold heads home.
Depending on how he feels he may drive all the way or pull over and camp for the night in a tent by the side of the road. After a decade Down Under, he knows more about surviving in the wild than most Aussies and thinks nothing of sleeping under the stars leaving his life in God’s hands.
He has become an expert in what’s needed for a life on the road and never leaves home without water, first aid kit, sunscreen, mosquito coils and his $10 hat from Big W at which smiles and admits “would be nice if it was an Akubra”.
Hailing from such a densely populated city to the isolation of the bush, there are many challenges but also the time he gets alone with God.
“I enjoy talking to God in the silence of the place and the beauty of this rugged country,” he said.
“Always for me the bonus is to camp in the bush and to dwell in solitude with the Lord. If I’m on the road first thing in the morning I set up my little table and say Mass, it could be by a river, under a gum tree, or at the base of a mountain, how many priests get to do that?
“Yes, I bring to him Jesus present in the Eucharist but I see Jesus in him in his faithfulness.”
“When you are in a place like this where the sunset is one of the best, you feel like God’s gaze is indeed for you alone. Whether a priest is called in the city or in the country, as long as they are in the right place and the right disposition of the heart I think that is what’s important.”
Priests, pastors and preachers have longed played a vital role in the lives of people in remote and regional Australia.
Often from the city, they are posted to places they have never heard of and are required to wear many hats dealing with people facing drought, debt, loneliness and mental illness.
And with a shortage of clergy, rural priests are already stretched thin between multiple parish assignments and the long hours travelling between different parishes.
Where there used to be three parishes with a priest in each, there’s now one parish combining all those churches together.
They have very little time to do anything beyond celebrate Mass and minister the sacraments, something Fr Harold is acutely aware of. He admits it is challenging evangelising in the bush and often asks himself if he is becoming the minister the Lord wants him to be.
“There is so much to do in the bush to bring people to God,” he said.
“Ultimately, it is tough to evangelise here, most of the people, especially the young, are away from the Church and I don’t feel I have done much with the unchurched.
“I think of the many stations far away from the town, I haven’t visited them, although I am also aware such visitations could mean taking up a full day alone.
“Then there are the funerals for the locals, and I am always surprised by the number of people who attend and I ask myself where do they all come from? But those moments are evangelisation moments too, especially with the homily and the welcome you afford to people from all walks of life and to be of assistance to the families, we can only hope and trust God’s grace touches them on those moments.”
“Always for me the bonus is to camp in the bush and to dwell in solitude with the Lord.”
Fr Harold has discovered that while life in the outback is harsh the people are incredibly hospitable and while he makes his new life sound relatively easy, it did take some time getting used to.
“When I first arrived I had some funny moments. I remember a sleepy lizard visited my backyard and I didn’t know what it was or what to do with it so I picked it up with a shovel and threw it as far as I could,” he laughed.
“The other priest staying with me saw me and as it happened to be the Feast Day of Saint Francis of Assisi (the patron saint of animals) he looked at me and suggested I be a little kinder to animals.”
At the end of the day, Fr Harold said he is very comfortable he is where God wants him to be and wants to faithfully serve his flock.
A computer engineer back in The Philippines, Fr Harold came to a cross-road in his life, and applied for both the seminary and paying jobs, but laughs “I always would put a really high salary so that I will not be accepted”.
Finally, in 2015, he was ordained a priest, the first in 17 years for the South Australian diocese.
Today he is also the vocations director and encourages young people to be serious about discerning their vocation – whether it be to the priesthood, single, married or consecrated life.
“The most beautiful adventure St John Paul II says: ‘is with Christ’,” he said.
“So do not be afraid. Trust in the Lord. The true fulfilment of one’s life is with the Lord.
“When I first arrived I had some funny moments. I remember a sleepy lizard visited my backyard and I didn’t know what it was or what to do with it …”
“It’s not always perfect, but it is the best way to live, it is not always easy, but God’s grace is there every day.
“For former seminarians or those who discerned their vocation in a religious order or a city diocese, why not consider discerning your vocation to the country?
“Maybe the Lord is calling you to serve our brothers and sisters in remote places, maybe, in the country where God is calling you, there, you will find the joy you are longing for, the peace that cannot be robbed from you and the adventure you are missing in your life.
“It’s not easy, it’s not a call for all, but it might be yours! “Please contact me if you want to come and see!”