The Parish of Meredith covers 2,000 square kilometres. For comparison, the area is roughly three times the size of the entire Mornington Peninsula. Located nearly 100km west of Melbourne, the parish is technically in regional Victoria while being part of the Archdiocese of Melbourne, and encompasses the Victorian townships including Anakie, Meredith, Bannockburn, Inverleigh, Winchelsea and surrounds.
And crucially, the parish is located outside of the State Government’s “Ring of Steel”.
‘We were outside Melbourne so we didn’t have the same level of restrictions as Metropolitan Melbourne,’ says Fr Charles Balnaves, parish priest.
Despite fewer restrictions, the parish was forced to adapt its operations.
‘I live-streamed Mass every day for quite some months,’ says Fr Charles. ‘We did some Bible study nights over Zoom but partly because of the breadth of the parish and the parishioner demographics, Zoom had limited effectiveness.’
It did, however, drive the parish in other positive ways. ‘We updated our census, and put together a list with names of people to call.’ Each week this list was divided amongst parish volunteers with 20 names of people to contact.
The parish also collected email addresses and created an active community around their Facebook page. ‘I’ve been posting my homily and the parish bulletin on Facebook, and emailing it out to parishioners. These are posted on the school’s site each week.’
The large parish area is made up of lots of small local communities. ‘People in the various small communities have been keeping in contact with one another to some extent.’ This, however, isn’t without its own challenges. ‘If I want to visit people around the parish and they’re not in one little town, it takes all day just to make a visit,’ he laughs.
For the parish priest, celebrating Mass in each church across such a large parish means a lot of driving. ‘We do a Mass on Saturday night in Winchelsea. And then I go home and then Mass in the morning in Bannockburn then in Anakie then in Meredith. It’s 25 minutes between each place. ‘For three lots of 45 minute Masses, it takes six hours.’
Despite such a turbulent year, the program for Christmas will remain much the same as it has over the years. After months of uncertainty as to whether there would be any kind of normalcy for Christmas, for Fr Charles, the recent shutdown and subsequent opening up means that planning for Christmas is not as polished as it would be otherwise.
‘There are lots of little things that are just a little out of kilter,’ Fr Charles says. ‘For example, on Christmas Eve, I’m sure the nativity play will go well, but owing to less time organising, it won’t be quite the same as normal.’
Each Christmas Mass will use QR codes to keep track of parishioners in attendance.
‘Without using an electronic collection of data, we’re limited to four square metre rule. By going electronic, we can go to the two square metre rule,’ Fr Charles says. ‘We’ve opened up and we can get people in without fussing too much with online bookings.’
For the family Mass on Christmas Eve, to accommodate extra numbers, they plan to open the doors and have people outside the church as well. ‘And luckily, the weather looks like it should be clear,’ he says.
According to Fr Charles, the atmosphere amongst parishioners recently has been a sense of relief. ‘We’ve been celebrating Mass with people present ever since we were allowed to open up,’ says Fr Charles, which, for those churches outside the Ring of Steel, was during September. ‘We had limited gatherings outside, and had snow and ice and water flowing everywhere.’
Now, the parish priest explains, there’s a palpable relief to be able to come back to Mass, but this is accompanied by an ongoing fear.
‘Most people in the parish come from a European background. They’ve got family, friends, relatives, over in Europe. And so they seeing all the terrible things that are happening over there. That keeps them on their toes. So it’s normal, but only to an extent.’
But to be in this situation at all, given the state of the rest of the world at the moment, Fr Charles argues, is a good news story.
'There are very few other places in the world where I would say that I’d want to be living at the moment. With all the stories that I’m beginning to hear from friends in the US where they’d have a friend or relative who couldn’t get into hospital. It’s in the news as well, but when you hear it from a friend, it strikes even deeper.’
Like everywhere else in Victoria, this Christmas will mean a measured and cautious return for the Meredith Parish.
‘People are not rushing to go out and return to a pre-lockdown life, but they’re beginning to. The steadfastness of people throughout all this has been really wonderful.’