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Engineer-turned-seminarian builds new confessional for Gymea

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St Catherine's confessional - The Catholic weekly
Seminarian Daniel O’Kelly in front of the confessional he built. Photo: George Al-Akiki.

Seminarian Daniel O’Kelly is leaving St Catherine’s Laboure Gymea for Rome with a departing sacramental gift. 

After five months, the ex-engineer has finally completed building a brand-new confessional for parishioners to discover the “truth and mercy” of God’s love. 

“I felt like I was alongside Christ and St Joseph in the tool-shed putting it all together,” Daniel said. 

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“The entire time I’ve just prayed for every person that will eventually come into that space to be reconciled with God.” 

Complete with soft lighting, timber and felt furnishings as well as controlled green and red light indicators above the confessor’s door, the confessional is the result of a “real labour of love,” from Daniel, who holds the sacrament close to his heart. 

The 29-year-old was in his last year of university in 2019, working for Transport NSW, when he himself returned to confession for the first time in years. 

“Through the priest I heard the words of Christ and everything changed. ‘Daniel,’ he said, ‘God thought it better that you exist than that you didn’t. If he thought it better, God who is love, then that is a good thing.’ 

“I was searching so long for God and meaning, but he was actually searching for me, he desired a relationship with me. 

“Before I entered I had nothing, and after I left I had found everything. That awoke something within me.” 

Interior of the confessional. Photo: Supplied,

Daniel entered seminary in 2021 and was placed on a short Advent placement at St Catherine’s in 2022, where he initially ran the idea of a new confessional to Fr Greg Morgan and drew up an initial design.  

Returning again seven months ago for his long-term placement, Daniel, a keen woodworker, set to work building the frame and internal structures in the parish carpark.  

“You always wonder when you’re discerning, if after six years of engineering and commerce, is that going to go to waste now? But in a funny way, God’s using that for his glory, nothing goes to waste,” he said. 

Daniel’s project hasn’t just been a solo endeavour. Others have jumped in to lend a hand. 

“Dads in the parish who are chippies or construction builders were so happy for the opportunity to give back in some way that is their specialty,” he said. 

“One of the dads does interior fitment, so he helped do the confessional screen, and there’s another very good carpenter who did all the externals and helped custom-build the doors with glass.” 

Daniel said the new space, framed above with the parish’s “truth and mercy” motto, is designed to be a prime reflection of those words. 

“The truth of who you are before God is made clear when you come with a contrite heart, acknowledging all the times that you’ve fallen short with your sins, met with the mercy that flows from the cross, from the ultimate sacrifice of Christ,” Daniel said. 

“I’ve been to a number of confessionals around Sydney and at times it can feel very daunting or like a torture chamber, this uncomfortable place where your own shame and guilt is amplified.  

“There’s that idea of a condemning judgment, but it’s just not in line with what Christ says. He’s come not to condemn, but to save, and so we should see it as a salvific judgment. 

“In my own life, it was a long time before I came back to confession, and it was when I was most desperate.  

The finished product. Photo: Supplied

“I had tried to live on my own instead of opening myself up to the infinite grace of God, where he was always already waiting.  

“The space that’s been created, I really wanted beauty to lead and to draw people in. Even in the artwork and the soft panels, that’s all not by accident.  

“It’s incredible to think this is a structured piece of a building like any other, but within, a miracle happens.” 

As Daniel prepares to leave Sydney for Rome on 14 July to continue his studies, he hopes parishioners at St Catherine’s will remember God’s “truth and mercy” is always “open for business.” 

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