Wilcannia-Forbes: a new horizon for the Church in the back of beyond

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Bishop Columba Macbeth-Green in his diocesan office in Forbes, a mere 832 km from his cathedral in Broken Hill.
Bishop Columba Macbeth-Green in his diocesan office in Forbes, a mere 832 km from his cathedral in Broken Hill.

His diocese spans an area larger than the United Kingdom and he clocks up more than 60,000 kilometres each year in a dusty Toyota Prado with his dog in the passenger seat and bagpipes in the back. Sunday marks two years since Bishop Columba Macbeth-Green OSPPE, the boy from the bush turned Gold Coast police chaplain, celebrated his installation as bishop of Wilcannia-Forbes.

It was an unexpected but felicitous appointment. While any bishop would have been welcomed with open arms by the people of Wilcannia-Forbes, perhaps only one of their own could help heal the feelings of mistrust and abandonment that began with the sudden departure of the diocese’s former bishop.

It was June 2009 when Bishop Chris Toohey resigned, citing personal reasons and ill health. Two years later he released a statement apologising for past conduct, and confirming he would not return to active ministry.

“My behaviour within the context of my relationships with some young adults in my pastoral care during the early years of my ministry was not consistent with that required of a good person,” he said in the April 2011 statement. “I sincerely regret the hurt I have caused to these people and their families.”

His resignation added to the list of Australian dioceses in need of permanent bishops.

The Australian Catholic Bishops Conference appointed a series of apostolic administrators as they dealt with the larger question: what was to become of the diocese?

The bishops drafted a proposal for the dissolution of the diocese, which was roundly rejected by local clergy in 2010.

While the period of uncertainty affected all corners of the diocese, it was felt deeply by the Catholic school system, said diocesan director of schools Anthony Morgan.

“Teachers were among the most vocal supporters of the diocese, so that period hurt deeply,” he told The Catholic Weekly.

“There is a strong sense of identity and a real love of Wilcannia-Forbes that is palpable in the schools. Even though the schools would have been simply transferred to another diocese, this was not a future that they wanted or believed would be better for them.”

With the Catholic Education Office (CEO) facing closure, teacher contracts were not renewed and leadership was forced to plan to provide education under a new diocesan arrangement.

“That the CEO continued to function so strongly is an absolute credit to the leadership of that period.”

St Carthage's church at Silverton, 26kms north-west of Broken Hill, in the Wilcannia-Forbes diocese.
St Carthage’s church at Silverton, 26kms north-west of Broken Hill, in the Wilcannia-Forbes diocese.

In 2012 a second proposal, drafted in consultation with local priests and parishioners, was submitted to, and ultimately rejected by, the Congregation of Bishops.

In a letter to the Australian Catholic Bishops Conference president Archbishop Denis Hart, Cardinal Marc Ouellet, prefect of the Congregation of Bishops, acknowledged the desire of the faithful to maintain the institutional identity of the diocese, “which has its own respectable history and traditions”.

Fr Paul Clark, then chancellor of the Wilcannia-Forbes diocese and parish priest of Forbes, told The CW at the time he hoped a new bishop would “invigorate, to discover the way forward” for the rural diocese.

“The future of the diocese always rests with the bishop and his priests and the people; they’re the ones who discern the way forward, so one would hope that a new bishop would be the one to address that issue,” he said.

While the future of the diocese was playing out in negotiations between the Australian Catholic Bishops Conference in Canberra and the Congregation of Bishops in Rome, a police chaplain on the Gold Coast was following the developments from a distance, never dreaming he would be the one named to lead the diocese.

“I knew some of the difficulties, but being in an order that didn’t have bishops and being a full-time police chaplain, it wasn’t even on the radar that I would ever be a bishop.

“It’s not where bishops come from.”

The Order of St Paul of the First Hermit, founded in 13th century Hungary and known simply as the Pauline Fathers, was such an unlikely source of bishops that there are just three Pauline bishops in the world.

Drawn to the order’s community life, Bishop Columba made the decision to walk away from life on the land.

But the decision came at immense personal cost.

“My father disowned me when I told him I was going be a priest,” the bishop recalled.

“He said if I went down to the monastery and joined the order, ‘You’re no son of mine’.”

The night before he was due to enter the monastery, Bishop Columba was planning the drive with his mother.

“Dad said, ‘You’d never bloody get there if I didn’t go’.

“That was Dad’s way of saying, ‘Okay, it you looks like you’re serious and I’ll support you’.

“So that was a little test. You’ve got to have these little tests in your vocation, and that was the first one.”

Bishop Columba was two years into the novitiate when his father died of cancer. He did not live long enough to see his son ordained.

Bishop Columba’s mother resides in a nursing home “just down the road” from the diocesan offices in Forbes.

While dementia has claimed much of her past, certain memories remain.

“She was at my ordination, and, for someone with dementia, that’s really seared in there.

“Somehow she knows she’s the bishop’s mother.”

Bishop Columba Macbeth-Green was ordained a bishop on 3 July, 2014, at Holy Family, Parkes. Photo: Kylie Biggs
Bishop Columba Macbeth-Green was ordained a bishop on 3 July, 2014, at Holy Family, Parkes. Photo: Kylie Biggs

A proud local boy, the bishop laughs about having grown up on a property near Bogan Gate.

“That’s the Bogan Gate, the gate into the Bogan Shire and the start of the Bogan Way, so I am a Bogan bishop in every sense of the word.”

But, after more than 20 years away, he never expected the phone call from the apostolic nuncio.

“You just don’t think that it’s going to happen.

“I went through the seminary and two weeks before my final exams for my bachelor of theology, my superior told me he was pulling me out, saying: ‘You don’t need a piece of paper. What, you want to be a bishop or something?’

“So God works in mysterious ways.”

The diocese of Wilcannia was established in 1887, incorporating areas that previously formed part of the Bathurst diocese.

In 1918, additional parishes including Forbes and Parkes were transferred to form the diocese of Wilcannia-Forbes.

At 448,000 square kilometres, it covers more than 55 per cent of NSW, and incorporates 22 parishes, from Bourke to Deniliquin.

The challenge facing dioceses everywhere – the declining number of priests – is exacerbated by distance in a diocese with a nine-hour drive from the bishop’s home and offices in Forbes to the cathedral in Broken Hill.

Sacred Heart Cathedral, Broken Hill, shines in the Silver City.
Sacred Heart Cathedral, Broken Hill, shines in the Silver City.

“Out here it’s particularly challenging pastoral work due to the long distances.

“A lot of our priests are elderly, and they do huge work, and they won’t retire unless there’s someone to replace him,” he told The Catholic Weekly. “Their duty to the people is just amazing.

“As there are fewer priests, there are fewer opportunities for priests to get together and support each other. So they’re even more isolated.”

But that is changing, Bishop Columba said, with four seminarians for the diocese of Wilcannia-Forbes: Michael Wood, Vincent Kambas, Hugo Chis and Godwin Nyamida.

“That’s a really positive thing for the diocese.”

Enrolled at Wagga’s Vianney College, they are the first vocations for the diocese in more than a decade since the region’s last ordination.

“Everyone is thrilled. They know they’ve got people in the diocese praying for them.”

The seminarians were important signs of vocational life in the diocese, the farming equivalent of the first signs of green pick after drought.

They, along with the presence of Bishop Columba, have helped boost morale in an area that had long felt neglected by urban authorities, both civic and religious.

“Because of the history, with the uncertainty of the diocese, a lot of priests and people were really upset by the process,” the bishop said.

“For a lot of people it was a bit like the Church was turning their back on us because we live out in the middle of nowhere … and there’s not many of us.”

Compounding that was years of drought, and economic decline in the diocese’s towns.

“People moved away. Banks pulled out of towns.

“So there was a bit of that healing that needed to go on.

“But now we’re back in business and people are very happy that they can see a future for the diocese. There’s a vibrancy now.”

Bishop Columba had the unusual opportunity of starting afresh with the diocesan chancery.

After five years of uncertainty, the diocese was drastically under-staffed: there was no diocesan finance council, no Council of Priests, and the secretary resigned the day after Bishop Columba’s episcopal ordination.

“Normally a bishop would walk-in and everything’s there; you just fit in and change a few things, but I had to start it from scratch.”

At every turn, Bishop Columba has been quick to pick up the phone and ask for assistance from dioceses around the country on topics ranging from the duties of a bishop’s secretary through to the role and formation of a Council of Priests.

“You have to find out those things, get advice from other people, and learn a lot very quickly.

“But the good thing about it is that the people are just so forgiving, they’re just happy to have you.”

While he acknowledged that he does feel pressure to succeed in the role, “the pressure I feel is my own, it’s not from the diocese”.

Though diocesan finances had been let languish, the bishop said the books were not as bad as made out.

“It’s a bit like financial markets, I suppose; it works a lot on confidence,” he said.

“If the confidence is not there, why are we going to be working doing this if there’s ultimately no diocese.”

he diocese of Wilcannia-Forbes covers half the state, as shown in this map courtesy of Centacare.
The diocese of Wilcannia-Forbes covers half the state. Map: Centacare Wilcannia-Forbes.

Bishop Columba’s goal was for the diocese to be financially transparent if not quite self-sufficient, while focusing on the mission of the Church.

“By the mere fact of geography, it’s not going improve. That’s just the way it is, so we’re just trying to do the best we can be with what we’ve got.”

The region’s economy has relied heavily on the agriculture and mining sectors, with towns like Broken Hill battling a tourism crisis.

“We don’t have a city that’s going forward economically, and I think that was one of the reasons why people were assessing the viability of the diocese.”

Once the diocese’s most viable town, Broken Hill’s population has shrunk by a third from its peak in the 1960s and is expected to decline a further 25 per cent over the next decade.

The next largest town in the diocese is Parkes, with a population of 9500. The population decline is felt at an emotional and social as well as economic level.

“Farming families, people on the land, are getting more isolated,” Bishop Columba said.

“Rural mental health is a big problem that we’re trying to deal with.

“Farming families are very isolated; they might have 600,000 hectares so they don’t have neighbours nearby.

“And often big corporations are buying the land, so now their neighbours are a South Korean corporation.”

A new pastoral care initiative for the diocese involves training lay people to be roving missionaries, to visit farming families and develop lasting relationships.

“To my knowledge there’s nothing quite like it in Australia.”

The diocesan workers would also help facilitate the integration into the diocese of visiting foreign priests.

“They’re the resource for the priests so that they don’t feel that they’re isolated when they get there.”

Bishop Columba has fostered a relationship with the bishop of Mindanao in the southern Philippines.

Together, the bishops conceived an idea that would bring much-needed priests for Wilcannia-Forbes while giving Philippine priests important pastoral and missionary experience.

“The idea is for priests to come out for two or three years. He wants his priests to get exposure of the rest of the world, different pastoral experience.”

One of the bishop’s favourite pastoral tools, an instrument as delightfully unapologetic as the man himself, is his bagpipes.

“I was an angry, angry young person. I wanted to inflict my anger upon the rest of the world, and I thought bagpipes were the way to do it,” he said with a laugh.

His mother taught piano and as a child he learnt the violin at Red Bend College in Forbes, and they would perform in local homes.

“But people would just talk, like they would never listen to you.”

His solution was to learn the bagpipes.

“I used to love to listen to the pipe band in town. And, love them or hate them, you can’t ignore them.”

Visiting parish schools for the first time following his installation, he would often stand in the quadrangle and play, and wait for astonished faces to peer out from classroom doors.

Enrolment in Wilcannia-Forbes Catholic schools has increased by more than five per cent since Bishop Columba’s installation in 2014.

“Happily, the highest growth looks like being in the area of kindergarten enrolments,” said Anthony Morgan.

Kindergarten enrolments were almost 20 per cent higher than the number of departing Year 6 students.

“This would be the highest number in a generation and would suggest that by percentage, somewhat surprisingly, Wilcannia-Forbes may have one of the fastest growing Catholic school systems in NSW.”

In addition to the challenges of distance, lack of funding, and limited development opportunities for staff, some schools have the additional burden of malnourished children as a result of rampant alcoholism in the community.

“At one little school, most of the kids have foetal alcohol syndrome,” Bishop Columba said.

While the CEO established breakfast programs for students and restructured the school year to limit long period of school holidays, the bishop said the bigger hurdle was increasing awareness of the nature of the diocese.

“When you’ve got those social problems, the kids may not be strong academically. People need to remember what community this is when the Department of Education lines up our school with a primary school in Parramatta.

“The biggest problem I found is that most people in NSW do not realise they have an outback diocese in NSW.

“If they have heard of Wilcannia-Forbes, they consider it same as Bathurst or Wagga, a regional diocese.”

Nothing frustrates Bishop Columba more than seeing his diocese found wanting after an unfair comparison.

“We’re bantamweights fighting a heavyweight,” he said.

“I am still at pains to convince bishops that we are not a regional diocese; we are an outback diocese.

“We’ve got more in common with Broome and Geraldton by what we do and how we do it than we have with Bathurst or Wagga.”

Bishop Columba said it was easy to look at a map of the diocese and feel overwhelmed by the mission ahead of him.

While the vast area was daunting, he said it was invigorating to have returned.

“I spent all those years getting Forbes out of my mind,” he said.

“One of my spiritual directors actually said: ‘When you become a priest don’t ever say Mass in Forbes on your own, because you might enjoy it and want to serve the people in your hometown, but you can never go back.’

“But here I am.”

From Wilcannia to WYD16

The largest-ever World Youth Day pilgrimage group from Wilcannia-Forbes held its final formation meeting last weekend.

It will be the first WYD for Bishop Columba, who will accompany the group as chaplain this month.

The group includes several graduate teachers who will then be able to share with their students the message of formation and evangelisation.

“They’re going to be back in the diocese and they’re teaching our kids, so it is all about formation,” the bishop said.

He is proud to be leading pilgrims drawn from right across his expansive diocese to Poland, the centre of the Pauline Fathers.

“We’re going to Poland, which is the centre of my order, so it’s very exciting.”

Pilgrims from Wilcannia-Forbes are preparing to depart for WYD16 in Poland.
Pilgrims from Wilcannia-Forbes are preparing to depart for WYD16 in Poland.

Sacred Heart Cathedral in the Silver City

From its location on Sulphide St, Broken Hill, to its crucifix and candlesticks made from local silver, Sacred Heart Cathedral is unlike any other.

IMG_6597
Fr Szymon Apablaza, assistant priest at the cathedral parish of Broken Hill, shows off the tabernacle crafted from local silver.

But the feature that really gets the bishop talking is the air-conditioner.

“People travel from all over to look at the air-conditioner,” he said.

“It was, I believe, the first industrial air-conditioner in the country, an evaporative air-conditioner put there in 1960.”

Installed more than 50 years ago by the miners of Broken Hill, the air-conditioner is still in use today.

“It sucks hot air through this wall of water, cools it down then pumps back up into the cathedral through outlets under each pew.

“It’s still very effective. They haven’t got a better way of cooling it.”

It is a “magnificent” cathedral in an “unbelievably interesting” town, the bishop said.

“Broken Hill is fascinating.”

In 2015 Broken Hill became the first and only city or town to be included on the National Heritage List.

“There are people still living in the old miner’s cottages with corrugated iron. The artists and galleries are just amazing. The whole place is just quirky and interesting.”

IMG_6708
Broken Hill and the neighbouring village of Silverton (pictured) are the homes of “quirky and interesting”.