For three decades, Fr Anthony (Tony) Kerin—Episcopal Vicar for the Eastern Region and Parish Priest at St Francis Xavier Box Hill and St Clare’s Box Hill North—has been making the trip up the mountain on winter weekends to say Mass at the Mt Buller Chapel, which also marks its 30th anniversary this year. A skier himself—at 70, he only hits the slopes these days ‘when it’s sunny’—he has served the Mt Buller community as its Catholic chaplain in good times and bad.
Explaining how the chapel came to be built, Fr Tony says that when property developer Rino Grollo bought the Mt Buller lift company in the 1990s, ‘he was looking at how the mountain might develop and how things might progress.’ Asking about an empty site across the road from the fire station, Grollo was told, ‘Oh, that’s Church Hill—it was set aside for a future church, if one was ever needed.’
‘And he said, “Well, we need it. We should build it.” So he went round to everybody and asked how much they could contribute to the building of the church. And pretty soon, he had a number of people making … either cash donations or donations in kind.’
A number of businesses donated items like the roofing iron and windows. Local materials were used wherever possible, and much of the labour for the chapel’s construction was provided by the Alpini Association, an organisation of Italian ex-servicemen. Construction of the chapel took about 18 months, and by the time it was completed and opened, everything had been paid for, Fr Tony says. ‘All the costs were met.’
At the opening and consecration on 1 May 1993, around 2000 people attended, about 200 in the chapel and the rest outside, listening on loudspeakers. The Mansfield Courier reported at the time that several hundred members of the Alpini Association ‘in their feathered hats and colourful uniforms brought their families, their friends and their music to the mountain to celebrate the occasion.’
The Alpini Association has maintained a strong connection to the chapel, and each year, on the first Sunday of May, they gather at Mt Buller to celebrate the chapel’s anniversary. ‘So even before the ski season starts,’ says Fr Tony, ‘they go up there and we have an 11 o’clock Mass, and then we go to the ABOM [Bistro] for lunch—120 people or so each year, and normally two buses from the Veneto Club in Melbourne.’
Another fixture in the chapel’s calendar is the annual blessing of the snow and memorial service, held on the second Saturday night of the ski season, just after the King’s birthday weekend. ‘It’s basically a chance to remember some of the pioneers and people who’ve passed away over the summertime,’ Fr Tony explains.
It’s partly because many people who work on Mt Buller work in Europe, Japan or America in our summer. So they go to the other ski seasons and work in the northern hemisphere. So, oftentimes, if lodge members or people or friends they knew had passed away in that time, they weren’t around to be able to attend or to mourn their passing.
With its beautiful stonework and pretty whitewashed bell tower peeping above the snow gums, the chapel has become a landmark in the Mt Buller village. As well as hosting a Catholic Mass every Saturday evening during the ski season, the chapel is used for private prayer, music concerts, art shows and school chapel services during ‘Interschools Week’, the largest snow sports event in the state.
‘It’s often used on the mountain when a non-commercial venue is required for things like community meetings or the mourning or passing of workers or locals,’ Fr Tony says.
Probably the biggest funeral to be held in the chapel was that of Hans Grimus, a much-loved local hotelier and ‘great champion of the Australian ski industry’. About 300 gathered in the chapel and about 1,500 outside in the village square, watching it on the big screen.
‘They’ve now got a big statue at the entry to the village: Hans sitting on the chairlift with his dog, Kaptan,’ says Fr Tony. ‘They were ... legendary. Hans, in fact started as a lift operator and finished up the manager of the lift company, as well as building a magnificent pension hotel and a marvellous Austrian dining room.’
Another memorable event, according to Fr Tony, was the prayer service held to remember Bernd Greber, the head of the Mt Buller ski school who tragically died in an avalanche in his native Austria in 2001. ‘We had a huge service,’ Fr Tony says. ‘And we had a flare run, where the skiers were skiing with flares in their hands down Bourke Street [ski run] to the chapel, and then we had a prayer service.’
Fr Tony has been called on to officiate at many other funerals over the years, as well as weddings and baptisms—‘We’ve got a baptism coming up later in the season’—and then there’s the regular Saturday-night Mass.
According to Fr Tony, regular Mass-goers on the mountain include locals who live and work in the vicinity of the chapel, as well as skiers from various lodges and ski clubs, including the Our Lady of the Snows Ski Club (OLSSC), which was formed by members of the Catholic Walking Club at a meeting at Cathedral Hall in 1956 and is ‘still thriving’. (OLSSC hosted Mass at their lodge for more than 40 seasons before the current chapel was opened and consecrated in 1993.) The Saturday Mass also draws people from lodges such as Opal Ski Lodge (owned by the Old Paradians’ Association Ski Club), the University Ski Club’s Mt Buller Lodge, and Pol-ski, the Polish ski club.
Fr Tony has been supported in this ministry over the years by other Catholic priests who have occasionally made the journey to Mt Buller to celebrate Mass, including keen snowboarder Fr Dan Seratore MGL of St Benedict’s, Burwood.
While the Catholic Mass is the only regular religious service currently held there, the chapel is also used by people of other Christian denominations and religious faiths, including Muslims, who can use the prayer room at the rear of the chapel.
Particularly in the chapel’s early days, Fr Tony says, there were opportunities for friendship and shared ministry with clergy from other traditions. ‘Initially, when it first opened, the Anglican vicar from Mansfield and the couple who were the Uniting Church ministers in Mansfield were very involved,’ he says.
In recent times, Mansfield’s non-Catholic congregations have increasingly been served by clergy who’ve ‘come and gone’, filling in from other places. But while the involvement of other faith traditions in the life of the chapel has waned, it is ‘still open and available for their use, if they might wish to use it. And a number of them do use the chapel for weddings, particularly in the summertime.’
Fr Tony says that one of the more challenging aspects of his ministry at Mt Buller has been caring for people who are ‘out of place’. Noting that the demands of working in the ski industry ‘can be pretty disruptive’, he says he has sometimes found himself counselling and encouraging those who might be feeling the strain of living and working above the snow line.
‘Sometimes the mountain resorts have a … reputation for nightlife and partying and all that sort of stuff,’ he explains. ‘But that gets pretty tiring after a while when you’re in a situation where you’re away from home, you’re cold, you’re working long hours.’
He cites the Thredbo landslide disaster in 1997 as a time that was particularly difficult for many in Australia’s close-knit skiing community.
‘Most of the 18 people who were killed at that time were known to people who work at Mt Buller, because the ski industry is a very small industry. There are about 400 people who work in that industry year round. And they all know each other because they might work on different mountains here in Australia, but they’ve worked together in Europe or Japan or America. So most of those people were known by others.’
Along with the challenges, though, there are many joys. ‘We’ve had some wonderful weddings at the chapel. I remember one of the first baptisms I did there: the baby was a descendant, on his father’s side, of Michael Kennedy, the sergeant of police who was shot [by the Kelly Gang] at Stringybark Creek [in 1878]; on his mother’s side, he was a descendant of Joe Byrne, who rode with Ned Kelly. So there’s a lot of connections of people who’ve been around the area a long, long time.’
With a significant connection to the area himself—his parents lived in Mansfield for about 28 years from the early 1990s—Fr Tony clearly has a deep affection for the mountain, its stories and the community who call it home each winter.
Mass is celebrated at the Mt Buller Chapel at 6.30pm on Saturday evenings during the ski season (17 June – 30 September).
Lucy Davison11 July 2023
Christian Bergmann03 July 2023