As we approach the 175th anniversary of the Archdiocese of Melbourne, there is much to celebrate, not least the contributions of the many immigrant communities that have enriched and helped shape the Church of Melbourne. As part of our series celebrating these communities, we hear about the long history of Chinese Catholics in Melbourne, some of the challenges they have faced and the many gifts they have brought to the life of our Church.

For the past 12 years, Fr Francis Li has served the Mandarin-speaking Chinese Catholic community of Melbourne. He first arrived in Australia from China in 2010, when he was invited to assist in the pastoral work of the community following the death of Fr Peter Tsang, their previous chaplain, and was appointed as chaplain himself in 2012. He speaks with Melbourne Catholic about the history and faithfulness of his community through the years.

As Fr Francis points out, Chinese immigration to Australia has a long and fascinating history, from the early nineteenth century to the present day. During the earliest days of the new colony in New South Wales, a number of Chinese sailors embarked and settled there, making Chinese Australians the oldest continuous immigrant group to settle in Australia after those who arrived from Great Britain.

Some of the earliest waves of Chinese immigrants arrived as indentured labourers to fill labour gaps when convict transportation ceased in the 1840s. But when gold was discovered in Victoria in 1851, the flow of Chinese migrants to Australia increased dramatically, with more than 40,000 Chinese arriving in Australia in the 1850s and 60s to seek their fortunes either on the gold fields or in businesses catering to the colony’s rapidly expanding and prosperous population. While many returned to their homeland when the gold ran out, others remained behind and settled in the major cities, including Melbourne. During the gold rushes and in the years that followed, Chinatown became a social and economic centre for many in the Chinese community in Melbourne, including the small but growing community of Chinese Catholics.

Melbourne’s first Mass specifically for Chinese Catholics, however, did not happen until 1958, when Fr Joseph Yu celebrated an Easter Sunday Mass at St Francis Church in the city. After this, it became a yearly event.

During the 1980s, China’s ‘reform and opening’ led to a continuing surge of skilled and family migration from China, and in June 1989, tens of thousands of Chinese students were granted residency by then prime minister Bob Hawke.

So, in 1985, as the Mandarin-speaking community in Melbourne continued to grow, Chinese Catholics began gathering for Mass once a month in English and Mandarin at St Mary’s Star of the Sea parish in West Melbourne, where Fr Sylvester Chao was the parish priest at the time.

Over the years, as more Chinese immigrants arrived, Mandarin-speaking Catholics rented other churches so they could meet and celebrate the Mass in Mandarin, all the while dreaming of establishing their own church in Melbourne. In 2017, that dream became a reality, when the establishment of the Chinese Catholic Centre in Box Hill—renamed Our Lady of China Catholic Church (OLCCC)—was officially approved. ‘With God’s blessing and the guidance of the Holy Spirit, the support of Archbishop Denis Hart, and the hard work and generosity of the community members, we now have our own community centre, Our Lady of China Catholic Church at 57 Lexton Road Box Hill North,’ Fr Francis says.

Being the only Mandarin-speaking church in Melbourne, many parishioners drive for more than an hour to come to Mass.

According to Fr Francis, the Mandarin-speaking Catholic community in Melbourne continues to expand, with parishioners coming not only from different parts of mainland China but also from other parts of Asia, including Taiwan, Singapore, Malaysia and East Timor. While many of these groups speak different dialects, most of them know and understand Mandarin.

‘Many overseas students and new migrants seek our community as a close family,’ he says, observing that this presents wonderful opportunities ‘to evangelise and for us to show God’s love and care to them.’ Because of the cultural, social and language differences between their home countries and Australia, many newly arrived Mandarin-speaking immigrants find it hard to adapt to their new lives in Australia. ‘There were times when they found it hard to practise their faith and advance in their spiritual journey,’ he says.

Fr Francis sees it as his role to meet and serve Mandarin-speaking Catholics in all the challenges they face, so that as a community they can ‘grow our faith journey together, support each other, live out our faith in union with Christ.’ This happens through a broad range of spiritual and social activities organised through the community, including Sunday school, groups for teenagers and young adults, catechist class, Bible-study group, a church camp, and special celebrations for Chinese New Year and Mid-Autumn Festival. Fr Francis says that his first priority, though, is to proclaim the Good News of Christ and, ‘with the guidance and leadership of the Holy Spirit, to build a good relationship between God and every member of the community.’

The community welcomes all Chinese Catholics, including short-term residents, students, and children and young families, to join them in worshipping God, cultivating faith, learning and sharing with each other, and maintaining and celebrating their Chinese culture.

‘May we continue to grow in faith and in strength,’ Fr Francis says, ‘building up the kingdom of God here in Melbourne, in Australia and overseas.’