By Mark Bowling
A Catholic priest has told how he prayed in the middle of the night at a shrine on the Gold Coast hinterland surrounded by fire, and fearing for the safety of dozens of pilgrims staying in nearby cabins.
“I was on my knees with the rosary beads in the chapel and praying for protection from Heaven,” Pauline Father Albert Wasniowski said.
More than 25 visitors slept in cabins at the Shrine of Our Lady Help of Christians, in the Marian Valley bushland south of Brisbane, as firefighters arrived to warn Pauline Father Wasniowski to prepare to evacuate.
It was 2am on September 7, and Fr Wasniowski said Marian Valley was lit up by flying embers, and he could see eerie, thick smoke.
“That was quite scary,” the 51-year-old Polish priest, who was encountering his first Australian bushfire, said. “It was close, it was very close.
“We were prepared for evacuation, staying on alert. It was so windy. The embers were flying and that meant fires could start at anytime, anywhere.”
As well as considering the safety of retreat guests, Fr Wasniowski said he was prioritising what he could take with him – the Blessed Sacrament, relics, documents, and data stored on computer.
“The main bushfires were in surrounding valleys of Canungra and Beechmont-Binna Burra,” he said.
While Marian Valley was engulfed in smoke, it was miraculously spared from flames on the ground. As well as a main chapel, dedicated to the Black Madonna, Marian Valley’s Shrine of Our Lady Help of Christians features many other smaller chapels built by pilgrims.
Faithful braved fires
Fr Wasniowski said he was forced to cancel celebrations for the Feast of Our Lady’s Birthday planned for later that morning.
However, many church-goers arrived for a celebration of Mass led by the visiting Wilcannia-Forbes Bishop Columba Macbeth-Green – the former rector of the shrine.
“The road was closed, and police were standing there. But as soon as they mentioned they were going to the Marian Valley the police let them in,” Fr Wasniowski said.
“An amazing thing – about 180 people came. We had Mass – only for the ones who had faith and courage and came. Then I sent them away because the situation was too dangerous.
“Our Lady did protect us. I believe we are in good hands.”
In neighbouring Clagiraba, president of the Veteran’s Care Association Deacon Gary Stone was among many residents forced to confront flames threatening their homes.
“I was woken by a neighbour telling us to evacuate as a wildfire was coming down the hill behind us,” Deacon Stone said. “I raced out my front door and was hit by a hot westerly wind – and saw the hill behind us ablaze.
“I rang triple-zero and called for the fire brigade, got my wife up and dressed and then put a quick post on Facebook asking people to pray that the wind would be turned around.
“I then started turning the sprinklers on all around our house and shed and, amazingly a few minutes later the wind changed coming from the east pushing back into the fire and the fire brigade arrived.
“We then fought the edge of the fire with hoses and managed to keep all of our property safe, thanks be to God and thanks to all those who responded in prayer.”
This story was originally published in The Catholic Leader with the title ‘Marian Valley priest prayed on his knees as bushfires engulfed surrounding hills’.