Working in God’s Zone

“It was meant to be.” That is Mary Anne Gordon’s firm conviction about her current role as a remote rural pastoral worker. “I believe I got this job because the Holy Spirit wanted me to.” And it all started way out west in the back o’ Bourke…

Literally. Mary Anne grew up in a farming family outside of the NSW outback town of Bourke, which is far away from cities and full of country spirit. She was raised by a very faithful Catholic mother, who expected her children to have an active involvement in parish and community life. Her parents encouraged her to become the first in the family to get a university degree. Mary Anne also accumulated a wealth of life experience, raising two children as a single mother, caring for her father after her mother died and surviving the ups and downs of marginal farm life.

After teaching full-time in Bourke for 16 years, Mary Anne’s new direction came unexpectedly. A friend pulled her up in the street and threw a manila envelope on the passenger seat. “Fill this in,” she said, “It needs to be done by tomorrow.” Mary Anne promptly forgot about it, but found the application for a pastoral worker late that night. It was years since she had had to apply for a job, and was overwhelmed by all the criteria. So she rang her brother, declaring, “I can’t do this!” But he coached her through the application, encouraging her to find examples of her pastoral care experience.

Mary Anne again forgot about it, and weeks later was stunned to hear that she was offered an interview. She hadn’t been looking for a new job, especially one with half the pay of her current one. So she met with the panel without any expectations or front. “They got the unabridged version,” she laughs. An interviewer asked her what she would do if a farmer had lost their second crop in a row. At this stage, Bourke was in the thick of drought, and Mary Anne did not hesitate. “I’d buy a carton of beer and sit with him on the back step and have a good cry together.”

This was the kind of attitude that the Diocese of Wilcannia-Forbes was looking for, and they employed her in 2017, to be based in Bourke but spread around the northern part of the diocese. She works directly for the bishop and there are two main aspects: pastoral care and connecting people with the parish.

In the pastoral care arena, Mary Anne says that it is about “just being there for people, meeting them where they are at.” She is a port of call, and connects people with Vinnies for practical help as well as channelling drought funding in other ways. One time that meant organising funding for a field day for farming families during the worst of the rainless years, with the highlight being an imitation bucking bull, sponsored (and ridden) by the bishop himself! It also included a free evening meal for 300 families to encourage them to stay and socialise – to encourage and support their community.

It is also about visiting families, often in the little villages and stations all around, sharing the joys of good rain and happy moments as well as the sad times, the struggles and grief that come with loss and succession. This was particularly hard in the times of COVID restrictions and she didn’t want to be the one to infect people who were so far away from healthcare. They were “totally isolated, and you can only ring so many times before you become a nuisance,” she recalls. But instead she built up her role in the town with the elderly parishioners. The police had advised that she could exercise around town and perhaps “walk slowly”. So she rang people up to say she would be coming past, then check in and chat with them on the other side of the fence. 

The second aspect is connecting people with the parish. Mary Anne says that it isn’t about “evangelising in a formal capacity”, yet she acts as a bridge and provides a positive experience for those who, due to isolation or disinclination, have limited participation in the church community. In the little villages, people gather for Mass once a month, but this was an issue when COVID caused lockdowns and the drought broke and the water stopped them travelling for a time. So Mary Anne began to, and continues to, provide liturgy packs so people can keep in touch with their faith, each other and what is happening in the town. She also regularly visits the retirees in Rivergum Lodge, taking the Blessed Sacrament and scones. “You really get a sense of what really matters when you worship with our faith elders. I sometimes think it is sad that the younger generations don’t get to see this wonderful example of faith,” she reflects. 

Mary Anne has also conducted many communion services and funerals, especially at the times when no priest is available. She meets with the family, discusses the readings, prayers of the faithful and music. She tries to inspire them with enough confidence to ask their family members to take part and prepare what is needed. She makes the booklet or gives them a template to make their own. In all this, depending on the people’s connection with church, “you work out what has meaning” for them. Mary Anne has done this for many, including families of young people who committed suicide. When she conducts these funerals, Mary Anne finds ways to connect people with the religious aspect that may be hiding away inside them. 

One day, she was invited to read a part during the ordination of a Deacon in our diocese. While reading out loud all of the criteria for the diaconal ministry, she realised, “I do that. All those things.” It is not only a job for Mary Anne, but truly a vocation.

Watch some of Mary Anne’s story: ‘In the Catholic Wild West’ on the ABC in 2018.

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