In October 2015, as she watched the historic St John the Evangelist Church in Bannockburn being destroyed by fire, parishioner Patricia was asked by a reporter if the church would be rebuilt. ‘Of course!’ she said.

On the evening of Sunday 7 August, her confidence and faith were rewarded as she joined with many others from Meredith Parish as Archbishop Peter A Comensoli dedicated the new St Mary MacKillop Church, built on the site of the old church but renamed in honour of Australia’s first saint—a woman who steadfastly followed her vocation, even when significant obstacles were put in her way.

The loss of St John the Evangelist as a result of an arson attack was heartbreaking for Patricia, a parishioner for more than 50 years. The old weatherboard church had stood in Bannockburn since 1901 and was where her husband Jim and all her children had received their first sacraments.

Now we have this beautiful big church in which to meet and worship with others. I thank God and all who have contributed to having this happen.

The new church—designed by architect Sandy Law—was funded through an insurance payout, bequests and the tireless fundraising of the community. The first Mass in the church was celebrated by former parish priest Fr Charles Balnaves in November 2019, before the pandemic, and the parish has patiently waited for the dedication throughout the lockdowns and upheaval of the past two years.

Parish priest Fr Joseph Panackal has paid tribute to parishioners’ steadfast faith during this time of rebuilding and waiting. ‘Although we had this difficult period, we still stayed strong as a community,’ he says. ‘This is because the Church is not the building we sit in, but rather the people in it.’ He thanks God ‘that we have a church once again. May we continue to receive many blessings from attending this church and may we share this grace for the life of the world.’

Fr Balnaves arrived in the Meredith Parish—encompassing Meredith, Inverleigh, Anakie and Winchelsea—in July 2016, when the loss of St John the Evangelist was still ‘a raw wound’. During this time, the people of Bannockburn were also undergoing massive social change, as a population of a few hundred ‘burgeoned to nearly 10,000 for the area’. As well as rebuilding the church to meet the needs of this rapidly growing community, the idea of building a Catholic school also ‘moved from a dream to a possibility, and then a reality.’ As they negotiated all this change, Fr Balnaves says, ‘we decided to choose a new name that encapsulated our vision for the future: St Mary MacKillop.’ He prays ‘that the Holy Spirit remains strong and guides the parish into a rich future of faith-filled discipleship.’

Katrina Frewin, Religious Education Leader at St Mary MacKillop Catholic Primary School, is delighted with the new church, noting that the school community ‘feels so very blessed to be situated on the same site as this beautiful church … Our students and staff feel connected to the church and we aim to follow the example of St Mary MacKillop, living the Gospel and sharing the teachings of Jesus with others.’

Carenza, who is 10 years old and a student at St Mary MacKillop Primary School, is also excited about the dedication. ‘I love my church because it’s a place where I come to worship Jesus,’ she says. ‘Whenever I feel discouraged or sad, I always have God to turn to and the lovely people of the parish.’

In his homily at the dedication—which took place on the eve of the feast day of St Mary MacKillop—Archbishop Comensoli likened the Church community in Bannockburn to the early Church community in Corinth, drawing on the words of St Paul in describing them as ‘God’s building, God’s temple. The Holy Spirit is living among you, within you. Jesus Christ is your foundation’ (1 Corinthians 3).

The new building, he said, points to this profound truth: ‘This physical temple, now to be dedicated to the Lord, is a symbol of that reality. It is a sacrament, if you like—a visible, tangible sign pointing to a deeper, graced reality.’

Through the celebration of the sacraments, a church becomes ‘a divine stronghold,’ he said.

‘This is a tangible place for nourishing, healing, renewing, learning, sustaining and covenanting. It is a temple of the Holy Spirit, in which you, and your future generations, are immersed in the sacred.’

He also prayed that the church would be a place in which the people of Bannockburn might be nourished, equipped and inspired to go out into the community with the Good News of Christ:

‘May you be fed here, so that you make go and feed others. May you be forgiven here, so that you make go and do likewise. May you find faith, hope and love here, and do something about it. May you be raised up here, and learn to tenderly pick up those who have fallen. And may this place be a sanctuary—a sacred refuge—for the Body of Christ.’