The Harrow Parish – Of Church, Change and Wood-Chopping

In the Western farming belt of Victoria lie the towns of Harrow, Balmoral and Tarrayoukyan. Together, they made up the smallest parish in the Diocese of Ballarat. And it was the first parish in Victoria not to have a resident priest.

In 1986, Bishop Mulkearns went to the leader of the Ballarat Sisters of Mercy, and asked if anyone could help. And, as Sister Kathleen Moran related, “The lot fell on me – and I was delighted!” Kathleen was a natural fit for the new role of Parish Administrator. She had grown up on farms near Ballarat, where her parents were “very Catholic” and religious life was “in the air”. After Mass, her father encouraged the family of 13 to talk about what Father said in the homily. So it was no surprise when she joined the Sisters of Mercy soon after she had trained as a young teacher.

Sr Kathleen Moran rsm

Altogether, Kathleen taught in schools for twenty years. But one night, after a regular meeting, some parents stayed behind. They said to her, “You are doing a lot for the kids. But what about us?” Kathleen thought that was a fair comment, and resolved to train up for adult formation as well. This was in the time after Vatican II, and she was supported to do a Pastoral Associate course at the National Pastoral Institute. When she finished, in her late 30s, she worked full time in this role in Ballarat North. Her priest was a wonderful mentor, and as he was ageing, he asked her to do more and more.

So when Kathleen was called to the Harrow parish, she felt she’d had the perfect preparation. With another Sister, she moved to live in the Harrow presbytery, and soon made friends and connections with many locals. The Bishop expected her to “keep the faith going, and help with all the things that go on for every parish.” The Vicar General put great trust in her, and encouraged her to come to him for any church expenses.

It was a new experience for the people of the three towns, but they took Kathleen in their stride. They were friendly, hospitable and ready to give things a go. One parishioner decided to join the Parish Council when the last priest left, thinking that a woman wouldn’t know how to fix a tap or clean the gutters. But after awhile, Kathleen expanded his skills in return, and had him reading the gospel. Her persistence was legendary and people later told her, “I have done things I never dreamed I would do.” After two years living with other Sisters, Kathleen stayed on for another five years by herself and the neighbour dubbed her ‘Sister Independence’.

Three times a month, the priests from nearby parishes supplied the three towns to preside at Mass, but once a month two of the towns were without a clerical leader. Yet Kathleen strongly felt that they were not a ‘priestless parish’ – in fact, all the baptised “share in the priesthood by their baptism. They are called to ministry in different ways”. So she began leading Liturgy of the Word with Communion. And then protested, “I’m not going to do it all.” She meant the parishioners to step up – and they did so, very well. They got together to plan the liturgies and they spoke about what the gospels meant to them. Kathleen felt that her job was to make herself redundant. If people had gifts, she would ask them to use them. They often had gifts that she didn’t have. But for the sake of the parish, they would work on them together. 

At Balmoral, the parishioners chose to renovate the inside of the church with chairs instead of pews. These were very useful for forming small groups for sharing during the Liturgy of the Word. The first time Kathleen invited them to discuss the scriptures, she struggled to get them to stop. Afterwards, someone asked if she had been proud of the response. When Kathleen expressed her delight, she discovered that the group was catching up on the football results! At other times they placed the chairs in an oval so that everyone could see each other – at those times, sports results did not feature. 

At the time, the Renew program was sweeping the country, and Harrow parish got on board. Kathleen thought that the home gatherings on scripture and prayer, and community gatherings for outreach were wonderful. The program supplied prayer booklets that broke open the Sunday readings, which were great preparation for leading liturgies. At each of the three Mass centres, the people made a beautiful banner of the Renew logo: a gum tree, half alive and half dead. We are always in need of renewal. 

Kathleen was involved in many different groups and events while in the Harrow parish. There were already well-functioning Parish Councils, Parish Finance Councils, Maintenance Committees, Catholic Women’s League, Majellan Club, young adults ministry, balls, school catechists, sacramental preparation, retreats, liturgical training, parish missions and much more. They duly recognised significant times in the year: Easter ceremonies, Advent programs, Carols by Candlelight, an annual kite-flying day and parish picnic. Harrow held a yearly billy-cart race, which brought many people to town. As a side event they had wood chopping – and Kathleen won the women’s section!

Parish picnic at Balmoral

But life was not all fun and games. It was a quiet area, a long way from any major towns. When cockatoos chewed through her TV aerial, Kathleen felt cut off from the wider world for the six weeks it took to repair. The community also experienced times of hardship and loss. One time, a local teenager shot himself, and Kathleen recognised the grief and unresolved issues that needed healing. She kept company with his parents and organised for a counsellor to come and address the other high school students.   

The time was approaching for Kathleen’s Silver Jubilee as a Sister, and she wanted to celebrate with another Sister from Edenhope. So there was no better place than Harrow, as “the whole parish” gathered for a beautiful Mass outside. But although she had become close to the people and even got used to the resident snakes, Kathleen was not prepared to stay there forever. After seven years she was “fairly exhausted” and thought she had given it her all. She believed that change would be good for the Harrow parishioners, and it was time for “fresh blood”. But the people were not so sure. “You haven’t been here long enough,” they complained. It happened that the priest before Kathleen had stayed 14 years, and the one before that, 21 years. Yet a vacancy had come up for Kathleen in Mildura, and she felt that she could “do some good” elsewhere.

So the Vicar General came across to the parish, to interview prospective Parish Administrators with the Parish Council. Kathleen sat in on the meetings as well, and was thrilled to think that her successor – another Sister – had been ministering in Harrow, England. In a fitting culmination to her time at this country parish, 150 locals of all denominations gathered to farewell her with many gifts. They spoke of her impact on the whole community, and how she had “commanded a great amount of respect”. Kathleen herself rejoiced in how she had been taken into their hearts. 

The Harrow farewell

Now she remembers her time in the Harrow parish with gratitude. Kathleen muses, “Every community’s got their stories, sorrows, joys, light times and dark times. Wasn’t I fortunate! I have had a great time.”

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