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Changing times at Norfolk Island, Sydney’s most distant parish

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A view of the old penal ruins at Kingston Norfolk Island. Photo: Shutterstock
A view of the old penal ruins at Kingston Norfolk Island. Photo: Shutterstock

Fourteen-hundred kilometres off the north coast of NSW, the times are a changing for the tiny Catholic community on Norfolk Island, the Sydney archdiocese’s most distant parish.

With a dwindling population, rising cost of living, and a proposed transition from self-governance, the island is at a tipping point.

The island’s Sacred Heart parish is seeing its congregation shrink as locals seek study, work or welfare on the mainland.

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And it hasn’t had a parish priest since 1987.

But the parish is persevering, supporting struggling locals and enticing priests and prelates year after year.

The Archbishop of Sydney, Archbishop Fisher, has made regular visits to the island since 2003 and recently returned for the first time since he was installed as archbishop in November.

“It is truly admirable how hard a community of about 20 regular attendees has worked at keeping up the church and presbytery, conducting Sunday Liturgies of the Word with Holy Communion, [and] bringing Holy Communion to the sick,” he says.

The archbishop recalls “the long history of the Catholic community on the island”, dating back to 1838 when Fr John McEnroe volunteered to minister to the convict settlement on Norfolk.

The parish was established in 1959. The church was later rededicated to St Philip Howard after a visit by James Cardinal Freeman and then Duke of Norfolk Miles Fitzalan-Howard.

The island now relies on a series of supply priests to celebrate Mass. When a priest is not available, the parish conducts a communion service.

Parish administrator and dean of St Mary’s Cathedral Fr Paul Hilder visits the island twice a year. His office also manages a roster of archdiocesan priests who celebrate Mass for the parish while holidaying on the island.

“The population of the island is declining because of economic problems,” Fr Hilder says.

“They rely, to a large extent on the tourist industry, but it’s becoming more expensive for people to go there. With the economy declining, and less tourists going there, a lot of shops in the town are feeling the pinch.

“There are a lot of empty houses on the island now; people can’t sell them, they’ve just walked away and gone back to the mainland.”

Just 12 per cent of the island’s 2300 residents identify as Catholic, and less than a tenth of those regularly attend the Sunday liturgy.

“There are a lot of Catholics by name on the island,” he says. “The ones that are very active in the parish are very good, they’re involved in the community.”

One of those is Dave Porter, a member of parliament and president of the parish council, and a “blow-in” after eight years.

“There is an extended Catholic ‘family’ on the island but there are a lot of non-participants,” he says. “When you don’t have a resident priest, that takes a lot of the glue away from the community.

“I don’t know how we reach out to them,” he says. “It’s endemic.”

Despite the parish being “left to run its own show”, there has been “very wise husbandry” of resources.

Maintaining the parish presbytery is essential if the island is to continue to entice visiting priests.

Tourists regularly double or triple the congregation – and the plate collection – at the Sunday liturgy, and few pass through the church without receiving a brochure for their parish priest.

Archbishop Fisher’s visit was followed by that of the Archbishop of Hobart, Archbishop Julian Porteous.

Fr Hilder returns in February and June, and retired Sydney priest Fr George Connelly celebrates Easter and Christmas Masses on the island.

“We’re very lucky,” Dave says, “because that is the loneliest time in a church without a priest.”

The parish has teamed up with the island’s Anglican, Uniting, and Seventh Day Adventist churches to provide food parcels and financial support for locals in need. And that number is growing.

“The island has self-government but it’s unaffordable and it creates a lot of strain on the local economy,” says Dave. “It’s a downward spiral because we’re pricing the cost of living up to the extent that people can’t afford to live here. And when people leave that puts a greater burden on those who are left.”

Many grocery items are double or triple the price on the mainland; a $5 box of VitaBrits costs more than $10.

While residents don’t pay income tax or land rates, Dave says Norfolk’s “indiscriminate tax system” is a burden for many.

“Your older people who are really struggling to make ends meet are paying the same duty on their power and their fuel.”

At a civic reception, Archbishop Fisher expressed the Church’s commitment “to contributing to the social and spiritual infrastructure of the island community in a time of very considerable change in governance and administration and of some economic anxiety”.

The island’s parliament appealed for federal assistance to offset declining tourism and growing economic strain, but the proposed agreement, which would see islanders pay income tax in exchange for greater welfare benefits, fell through in 2013.

“There is a lot of resistance … they don’t want any change,” Fr Hilder says. “They just want things to be as they always were but that’s not viable.”

He believes a permanent priest would boost congregations and parish involvement, “but I can’t see, with the shortage of priests that we have, that we could have the luxury of that”.

Despite the challenges facing the community, Dave is optimistic.

“I’d like to think the parish will keep going.”

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