After unprecedented floods, the Catholic community of Casino came together in the spirit of Jesus
“What is the word from the Bible we can use to describe what’s happened?” Fr Peter Slack, the parish priest of Casino, asked the children of St Mary’s Catholic Primary. “A deluge,” they replied.
For the residents of Casino, the deluge came as a total surprise. Unlike Lismore, which is in a basin, Casino doesn’t tend to suffer major floods.
This time was different. Not only did the farmlands and flood-plains surrounding the town disappear under water, but run-off combined with local flooding from the drenching rain put much of Casino underwater.
John O’Brien, the Principal of St Mary’s Catholic Primary, told The Catholic Weekly his school, which is squarely in the middle of town, has “never flooded, ever”.
But in the deluge Mr O’Brien lost 12 classrooms and had to relocate 220 students.
When the waters subsided, Mr O’Brien made a decision to reopen the school and get students back to “some sense of normalcy” as soon as possible – and the community pulled together.
“Can I just say how proud I am of our Catholic School staff?” Mr O’Brien said.
“We talk about making Jesus real, and we talk about fullness of life, and I just feel that our staff have been incredible and have walked in the path of Jesus.
“Not just to get our school back up and running in record time, but going through sewerage-filled classrooms, ripping things out, grabbing tables, desks and chairs, chucking things out, on weekends, at nighttime, setting up new learning spaces in terrible spots in the school.”
The school relocated its students to any space dry enough to hold a class: in corridors, staff rooms and even in the chapel.
Truly, the Church is a field hospital. We are actually living the experience of what it means to lose everything. – Fr Peter Slack
Nearly all 570 students are back, and St Mary’s is also taking care of children from other schools.
Some St Mary’s families live on properties out of town, where floodwaters are still subsiding.
“We’re doing our bit for the community. We’re giving money out, clothes out, uniforms out because some of our families have lost everything,” Mr O’Brien said.
“A father came in the other day and he just started crying. He lost his house, his property. He was saying, ‘I can’t find my horses still.’
“He just needed a talk. When you hear fathers breaking down like that it really impacts you.”
The school has assisted its parents to find new jobs, such as Mat Short, whose house and business were flooded.
“He doesn’t have a job, his wife doesn’t have a job. He came and helped rip carpets out for two days.
“I put a little story up on Facebook and the beautiful thing is he got a job a couple of days later as a maintenance man.”
“So from these stories so much good came out of it.”
Mr O’Brien and his Assistant Principal also took food by boat to Coraki, a town of 1200 people on the junction of the Richmond and Wilsons Rivers around 30 kilometres from Casino, when it was cut off completely and dragged underwater by the rising flood.
“It was a mess, it was disgusting to see how people were dealing with the situation,” he said.
“They felt abandoned because nobody else was going out there.”
When asked how he was holding up, Mr O’Brien replied, “I’m stuffed. Yeah, no, I’m stuffed.”
Fr Slack said his congregation was living “the wilderness experience” this Lent.
“But it’s the wilderness of water, where people are absolutely and utterly without and supports – only the support of others, and of God.
“How do you preach in these circumstances?
“They don’t want me to stand up and give a heavy dissertation on the gospel that describes prayer, fasting and works of charity and what you should do. God help us, they’re actually fasting because they don’t have any food!”
“They don’t want me to stand up and give a heavy dissertation on the Gospel that describes prayer, fasting and works of charity and what you should do.
“God help us, they’re actually fasting because they don’t have any food!
“And they’re almsgiving by going out and washing out people’s houses. They’re actually living it!
“In these times nobody asks whether you believe in God or not. You just are members of humanity – for us it’s sons and daughters of God.
“Truly, the Church is a field hospital. We are actually living the experience of what it means to lose everything,” Fr Slack said.
Fr Slack commended the work of volunteers, the SES, fire service and the Army.
“I could not be higher in my praise,” he said.
“And what are they doing? First of all, they’re out there loading rubbish into trucks. They are using heavy equipment to get all that away. And that’s dirty work.
“The second thing is on farms – they’re disposing of livestock. That’s terrible work.”
He said the local conferences of the Society of St Vincent de Paul and volunteers from the Salvation Army were a welcome sight, especially in Casino’s local disaster information centre.
“Unlike a government department, these people know people,” he said.
“In these occasions to see a friendly face is itself healing.”
Bishop Greg Homeming OCD of Lismore has launched a flood appeal to ensure every dollar donated goes directly to assisting flood victims.
Details of the appeal can be found on the Diocese of Lismore website: lismorediocese.org