A heightened sense of change is a hallmark of the modern era. Some parish communities, once thriving and vibrant, now face difficult decisions and an uncertain future. Ivanhoe Parish is a community that has been forced to read the signs of the times and reorient everything in order to dig deeper foundations for the sake of their people.

Fr Bill Edebohls is Parish Priest at Ivanhoe and he joined Melbourne Catholic to share a bit about his own journey of faith, and discuss the redevelopment project that has been taking place at Mary Immaculate on Upper Heidelberg Road since late 2020, the result of more than 20 years of parish planning.

Dreams of reunion

Fr Bill was, formerly, an Anglican priest. Ordained in Ballarat in 1979, his journey found him entering into full communion with the Catholic Church in 2001. Inspired by the Oxford Movement, a 19th century Anglo-Catholic revival seeking to bring the Anglican Church back to its Catholic roots, Fr Bill and his contemporaries held lofty hopes for the possibility of his church reuniting with Rome.

Fr Bill’s mother, a devout Anglican, believed that their separation ‘from the Roman Catholic Church was a sin of our forebears, and that we had a responsibility to pray and seek that unity for which Christ prayed.’ At that time, there a ‘disparaging of individual conversion,’ he also said, and the hopes of reunion were very much communal; they believed that their communities would see reconciliation with the Catholic Church.

Despite the ecumenical enthusiasm of the ‘70s and ‘80s, at some point ‘the wheels started to fall off’ their dreams of reunion, and Fr Bill knew it was time to make a decision. ‘I think the time just came where you decide that you’ve got to follow your own conscience, and you’re not going to live long enough to see your communities become reconciled,’ he said. In 2001, Fr Bill and his wife Robyn were received into the Catholic Church, and two years later, 2003, he was re-ordained as a Catholic priest.

Fr Bill spoke movingly about the influence Catholic saints had on him, even during his Anglican days – St Francis in particular. Part of his journey towards Catholicism was the experience of visiting the sites of those people who had affected him so deeply.

He recalled his visit to the tomb of St Francis in Assisi, where he felt quite clearly the distance between his church and that of the Italian saint. ‘It just crosses your mind,’ he said, ‘that here I am at the tomb of someone who’s had an enormous affect on me, because of his own spirituality and how he lived the Gospel, but I am not in communion with the Church to which St Francis belonged.’

Fr Bill E
Fr Bill Edebohls

Finding a common home

In some ways, the journey of Ivanhoe Parish over the last few years mirrors the themes that have directed the course of Fr Bill’s reunion with the Catholic Church. Ivanhoe Parish was, at one point in its history, three parishes. In the year 2000, they came together as a cluster to form one parish. Their three centres included St Bernadette’s, Mother of God, and Mary Immaculate.

One of the things they came to realise, Fr Bill explained, was that they were now a very asset-rich parish but quite cash-poor. With three churches, three schools, three presbyteries, one convent and a set of tennis courts, they didn’t have the people or cash flow to maintain these resources.

So the twenty year journey has been about discerning how to unload assets of property of which the parish was a steward and trying to reuse those assets to become a more vibrant and united parish.’

In the end they decided to redevelop Mary Immaculate as the main parish centre, or ‘common home’, and divest themselves of those assets that were ‘surplus to requirements.’ So far this has involved the selling of Mother of God church and presbytery, the leasing of Mother of God primary school to the local State school, and the sale of tennis courts that were attached to St Bernadette’s.

The parish is partnering with Good Samaritan on the Banyule Project, a transitional accommodation service for women who have experienced family violence. Only recently did the State Government approve its provision of the remaining funds to get properly off the ground.

The money that comes with selling their properties will not only fund the redevelopment of the main parish centre, but it will also ‘give us enough cash in the bank to use in ministry and mission as we grow into the future,’ Fr Bill said. Going forward, Fr Bill hopes it will give them the opportunity to employ a pastoral associate and fund ministries in the parish they simply had no capacity to previously. In terms of his vision for ministries into the future, the first port of call is simply ‘greater engagement with the Ivanhoe community.’

We will have facilities that will be available for the community and for the parish, and to engage the entire community in the stewardship of the resources we will now have, once Mary Immaculate is open.’

When is the main parish centre destined to open? ‘Last Christmas,’ Fr Bill said, laughing. ‘COVID put a bomb under all of that.’

The current hope is that Mary Immaculate will finally be open at the end of August, with a blessing from Archbishop Peter A Comensoli on their patronal feast day, but building projects have become unpredictable in recent months. With COVID, supply chain issues, and the struggle to get contractors and subcontractors on site – all of it has meant delay after delay.

Change in the community

Dramatic change is difficult for any person, let alone whole communities. When some things – like churches – that were part of the furniture of people’s lives suddenly have a “For Sale” sign planted out the front, there is a natural grieving that comes with it. Interestingly, the grieving is often felt strongest by those who are on the ‘fringes’ of the community, Fr Bill said; those people who have not been part of the journey of Ivanhoe Parish, but have still benefited from local celebrations like baptisms, weddings, Christmas and Easter.

This is particularly the case for the community attached to Mother of God: they’ve already said goodbye to the school, and the church is next.

Because they’re not closely involved with what’s going on in the parish, they’re a little bit out of the loop . . . And sometimes they react with far more anger than those who are part of the community and have been an integral part of the journey.’

The people deeply invested in these communities, by contrast, have had the time and guidance to come to a point of acceptance.

The main impact is on the community attached to Mary Immaculate since that site has been closed since September 2020. While grieving, they at least have the hope that the church will one day open again: ‘I guess a blessing of COVID is that the churches would have been closed anyway!’

The trimming down of multiple centres to just one will be beneficial for Fr Bill as well. As the only priest for Ivanhoe Parish, he acknowledged that multiple centres are always difficult for a priest:

There’s always a sense that you are more connected to the community in the centre where you live. And there’s a sense that, with the other centres you visit, you’re an outsider.’

Stewardship for the future

Throughout the conversation with Fr Bill, the word stewardship recurred several times. Unlike the earliest days of the Church, where the fledgling Christian communities had little property or assets to speak of, ownership of properties is simply a given for some parishes. However, with an increasingly ageing demographic, poor cash flow and dwindling numbers, the question is thrust upon parishes like Ivanhoe: How we do responsibly steward these resources God has given us? How do we repurpose what is at our disposal to nurture new life going into the future?

Ultimately, the flourishing of the Church isn’t determined by the amount of property it owns. Ivanhoe Parish faced the difficult decision of needing to let go of beloved things in order to embrace a new future. So, mingled with the grieving there is also hope, Fr Bill said. The people ‘are looking forward to a new future together’ where they can become ‘a more vibrant and united parish.’