The hand of faith

Bep Hillier’s steadfast faith in Providence is as extraordinary as her rags to riches tale

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The Hillier family today. Photo: Supplied
The Hillier family today. Photo: Supplied

Bep Hillier knows treasure when she sees it. After all, she once owned a 27-kilogram lump of gold.

Forty-two years ago her husband, Kevin, made the discovery of a lifetime in a patch of bush in central Victoria’s old goldfields.

Even more amazing are the circumstances that led him to come across that heavy yellow rock.

What might seem an incredible coincidence, Bep, a Catholic of deep faith, says is not so surprising – she had always observed that her Heavenly Father provided in some way or another.

“A flood of immigrants flocked from Europe, the UK, US and China to Victoria and New South Wales to seek their fortunes in the red earth as ‘diggers’ – in the process changing the fabric of Australia’s society and national identity.”

They named the nugget the Hand of Faith. News of Kevin’s find made news made international headlines, inspiring many people to try their luck scouring the bush outside the small town of Kingower, near Wedderburn, where it was discovered.

It remains one of the world’s largest gold nuggets ever uncovered with a hand-held metal detector.

The mid-to late 1800s saw the peak of the country’s gold rush and resulting population boom. A flood of immigrants flocked from Europe, the UK, US and China to Victoria and New South Wales to seek their fortunes in the red earth as ‘diggers’ – in the process changing the fabric of Australia’s society and national identity.

Today, the country’s gold is unearthed from open-cut mines, with Western Australia one of the world’s top gold producers. But the pull of adventure and romance still lingers for individual prospectors today.

The Hand of Faith 27-kilogram fine-quality gold nugget on di play at the Golden Nugget Casino in Las Vegas. Photo: Supplied
The Hand of Faith 27-kilogram fine-quality gold nugget on display at the Golden Nugget Casino in Las Vegas. Photo: Supplied

Bep and Kevin, with their four young children, Kim, Natalie, Brendan and Lance, were catapulted from poverty to wealth beyond their dreams, but the Hilliers remained firmly down-to-earth and used much of their fortune to help their relatives, friends and others.

Today Bep, at 83, counts herself blessed to live within walking distance to her children and eight grandchildren.

She’s grateful for Kevin’s return to the sacraments before his death in 2014, and hopes to make her first pilgrimage to the Holy Land next year.

An active parishioner at St Therese’s Church in Bendigo, she is lobbying for an exhibition of the life of Carlos Acutis, the teenager declared last year a Blessed by Pope Francis, to be brought to her diocese.

Above all, her greatest treasure is her faith and Jesus Christ’s presence in the Eucharist.

“If you live with God by your side, he pulls you in, he guides you, often through other people,” Bep says.

It was spring in 1980 when the adventure-loving couple, then in their 40s, faced a difficult decision.

They had been travelling the country with their children in a converted bus, with the mechanically-gifted Kevin finding work along the way as far north as Bundaberg’s sugar cane fields. They were used to making do with little, and had spent much of their life savings on an annex to accommodate Bep’s father, then in his 80s, who had asked to visit them from Holland. To Bep’s bemusement, Kevin spent most of what was left on a metal detector.

“Every night, she gathered the children to pray and to ask God what they should do next.”

Bep homeschooled the children and prepared them for their sacraments, and says they all enjoyed a great lifestyle when disaster struck; Kevin injured his back one day at work, requiring surgery and a break from manual labour. Their grand adventure began to unravel.

They had an offer of work from a couple who wanted to set up an ecumenical retreat house. But as Kevin, though also a Catholic, was not religiously-minded, Bep was unsure it was the right thing for them to take on. Every night, she gathered the children to pray and to ask God what they should do next. Her son Brendan recalls that on Sundays, wherever they were, their mother would have to find a place for them to go to Mass.

“A couple of times when we couldn’t find a church she’d make us all pray the rosary instead,” he recalls with a smile. The surgeon had said there was nothing more to do for Kevin, but that gentle walking would help him to recover his former strength. They took the bus to Bridgewater, an old Victorian goldmining town not far from Kevin’s mother’s home in Bendigo, and stopped at a caravan park. They enrolled the children into the local school, and Kevin began to use the metal detector.

“That was the really hard part,” Bep recalls.

Bep and Kevin fossicking in WA back in the day. Photo: Supplied
Bep and Kevin fossicking in WA back in the day. Photo: Supplied

“We had no worker’s compensation at that time, no money and no income. I was cleaning toilets in the caravan pack so that we could stay for free. People who were leaving the next day would come to me with food, potatoes, tomatoes, meat, and say can you use this? They could not know how welcome that was!”

The couple befriended other prospectors living there and Kevin had found enough small gold pieces to feel encouraged that it could bring them some income. He bought a second metal detector for Bep.

Bep invited Kevin to pray with her, or at least to decide what kind of small sign she could ask God for to give them some direction about how they would provide for their family going forwards.

“He rubbed his hands together, smiling, and said, ‘$10,000 will do’,” Bep recalls. “I was shocked to think of asking God for money. So he said, ‘Ok, $5,000 then’.”

“They made one more stop, at a patch of bush off the main road that runs through a small town called Kingower.”

Shortly after, on 19 September, Kevin had a vivid dream of finding a nugget with an unusual shape; narrow at the top but then becoming larger the deeper he dug. He drew the image on a piece of blotting paper and asked a friend to sign and date it, but didn’t mention it to his wife.

On 26 September, after a morning of prospecting, they had a couple of hours to spare before the children were due home from school.

They made one more stop, at a patch of bush off the main road that runs through a small town called Kingower. Bep says it was a place where they had found many small nuggets before. They parked the car, grabbed the metal detectors and walked off in different directions.

“I had my headphones on, but I heard something and it took me a while before I realised it was Kevin screaming for me, “Darling! Darling!” I thought “Oh no, something’s happened”, and I went to look for him,” she said.

What Bep saw when she found him still brings tears to her eyes. “He was on the ground, crying. I’ve never seen him like that before. He had a big hole in front of him, about 14 inches wide, and you could just see a bit of gold. And he said ‘Darling, we’re filthy rich, and I’m praying, I’m praying to God!’

Kevin Hillier documented his dream about discovering a large amount of gold in an unusual shape. Photo: Supplied
Kevin Hillier documented his dream about discovering a large amount of gold in an unusual shape. Photo: Supplied

“And I said ‘Oh my God!’ and kneeled with him and started digging and digging, and I was worried about his back hurting but he said he would manage ok.

“Driving back to the caravan I was crying, we were both in total shock, completely overwhelmed. We didn’t know what to do with it. I put it under the bed and we didn’t sleep all night.

“At one point I blamed Kevin for our anxiety, telling him “You shouldn’t have asked God for money!”

Kevin had found the slender tip of a large vertically-lodged nugget, like a finger of a hand pointing to the sky, uncannily like the one in his dream. They both saw in its shape and the circumstances of its discovery a blessing from God, so named it Hand of Faith.

However, Bep says Kevin was only fully able to embrace the Lord six weeks before he died. Receiving Holy Communion alongside her husband after 46 years of marriage was another special moment of tears and unexpected joy, only this time with deep peace rather than overwhelm.

The couple hoped the gold would stay in Australia as part of the country’s heritage but it was bought in early 1981 for $1.3 million (more than $4 million in today’s terms) by the Golden Nugget Hotel and Casino in Las Vegas where it is still on display. They had a replica made and travelled schools to tell children their story and teach them about the gold rush and its place in Australia’s history.

Bep’s children know their mother’s faith gave her extraordinary courage in their toughest times. “That kind of faith came to us kids almost through osmosis,” Lance says.

One of the first things Kevin did after selling the Hand of Faith was to provide a more comfortable home for his own mother, and the couple were glad to give the children a beautiful home as well.

But something was also lost, Bep says. “I’ve been reflecting that when we didn’t have so many things, we were freer to do whatever we thought God wanted us to do and relied more on God.

“I didn’t need to find a giant gold nugget to know that God cares about what happens to us.”

“I took it to heart what the Lord said about the flowers and the birds in the fields. ‘Your Father looks after them and you are much more important than they are’.

“If you really believe that, then it helps you to make decisions and know that God is always with you.

“And the less stuff you own the more open you can be to finding God’s plan for you.

“I didn’t need to find a giant gold nugget to know that God cares about what happens to us. The Lord always sent Kevin and me the right person at the right time to help us when we needed it, if we felt lost and didn’t know what to do.

“Now I am older I live only for God, my faith is my life and I am grateful for everything that’s happened. The love of a husband and wife, and their love for their children; these are real treasures in life.”