When the pandemic sent the Melbourne community into lockdown last year, parishes scrambled to find ways to keep their local communities engaged. For St Andrew’s in Werribee, it meant rethinking their digital strategy to ensure that the pastoral and spiritual needs of one of Melbourne's largest parishes were adequately looked after.

The parish quickly set up a regular livestream to welcome families at home into the celebration of the Eucharist. They employed online tools like Zoom to conduct online sacramental preparation sessions for parents and children, youth group meetings and other parish group gatherings. They also employed the instant messaging service WhatsApp to help keep people connected, especially during the strict lockdown period.

One of the fruits of that period is an online Rosary group which, for more than a year now, has been meeting daily via Zoom and gathering an average of 50-60 families each night. Then-Assistant Priest Fr Anil Mascarenhas would message parishioners each day on WhatsApp and invite them to the evening prayer group.

The ministry continues to have a profound impact on parishioners, including the Carvalho family. ‘Although we knew many families just by their seeing them in church, we now know their names too,’ says Stevin, who attends the online Rosary group with his wife Evie and their daughters Sarah, 11, and Emma, seven.

‘During Covid we as a family were watching the daily TV Mass at 7pm every day. We then switched over to the Rosary as this way we got to connect with our fellow parishioners and enjoyed the daily interaction,’ says Stevin. ‘We were surprised to see over 50 connections and it has gone up to 80 connections in some instances.’

‘Before the Rosary, we would do prayers ad hoc, at different times. The biggest positive out of this is that we now have allocated 7pm as family prayer time,’ says Stevin. ‘Sometimes we have visitors over and we will say the Rosary together with them as well. ‘My younger daughter Emma has memorised part of the litany just by hearing it repetitively.’

Stevin says the Rosary group has not only encouraged family prayer, but has also helped build a stronger sense of community among parishioners.

‘The prayer group consists of families from different backgrounds and also the elderly who are living by themselves,’ says Stevin. ‘Sometimes you forget that there are people on the call who are living alone. Father told me that he makes it a point to visit these people and especially so during COVID.’

He recalls asking after one of the elderly parishioners who he noticed hadn’t turned up one day, only to discover that she had passed away. ‘That really touched me because she was only there two or three days ago. And we found out that she lives alone.’

The Carvalho family Supplied

During this Year of St Joseph, the group has also started praying the St Joseph Prayer. In recent weeks, many of the families have been praying for deceased and sick relatives. It seems there’s a lot of sadness at the moment, Stevin shares, something his family has sadly not been immune to, with his mum passing away in India recently.

‘She wasn’t well for a while. Us not being able to go there (because of COVID) took its toll on her I think and that was a challenge for us. Dad is there by himself now. We just say to him, “Sit tight. Take each day at a time.”’

Stevin’s family hails from the south western coastal area of India. He migrated to Australia with his wife in the mid-2000s. They are also active members of the Melbourne Konkan Community, an association for Mangalorean Catholics who speak the Konkani language. The group was formed as a way for those from the Konkan region to support one another here in Melbourne.

‘We created this group about 10 years ago, which has got about 120 families registered and we conduct about six or seven events per year,’ Stevin says. It was through this community that Stevin first met Fr Anil, who is also from the Konkan region of India. ‘He said his first Mass with our community. Coincidentally, he then got allocated to Werribee. Since then I just try and help him with different things.’

In early 2021, Fr Anil moved to St Kevin’s in Hampton Park and local families took on the responsibility of organising the evening Rosary group.

‘When Fr Anil was transferred we were worried how the Rosary would continue but it has done very well,' Stevin says. 'A few families have taken on the responsibility to conduct it every day. Fr Anil still does drop in a couple times a week and says hello along with our parish priest Fr Albert and the other (assistant) priests, Fr Dong Tran and Fr Anton Aseervathampillai.

Stevin and his family are also involved in other aspects of the parish life, including organising the annual parish fair, regular cleaning of the church, youth group, providing hospitality and fundraising. He says that his own sense of outreach was strongly influenced by his aunt and uncle, with whom he lived when he migrated to Australia.

‘I remember very clearly probably eight or nine years ago, my uncle won the lotto and half of it ($5,000) he just gave away to the church. I thought, Wow, all your life you’ve been buying these lotto tickets and you finally won and half of it you just gave to the church without thinking twice. That touched me.

‘At the end of the day, we are all working, but no amount of money is ever going to be enough. So for me, you just come to a point in life when you say, Alright, now I have to give back as well. And when you do it, somebody else sees it and you find some common ground.’

It’s this sense of Christian charity that Stevin believes is key to inviting people to participate. ‘I’ve invited friends to tag along in cleaning the church and to be part of the parish groups too. That’s usually the best way.’

‘I like being part of something – back home in India we were always part of the local church. I think that’s just part of how we grew up. First you become an altar server and then you become part of the youth group… and then you are just “hanging out” in church. That’s the culture,’ Stevin reflects.

It’s a culture that he and Evie have also tried to cultivate with their own daughters. His eldest daughter Sarah has just joined the parish youth group which Stevin believes will help her meet other young people also learning about their faith.

‘They form a bond with all the other kids. Not just a school group but this youth group of like-minded young people. They then meet each other for the Zoom Rosary group in the evenings and what happens is that the kids then don’t feel that it is “uncool” that you are praying the Rosary. They realise: Oh OK, you are on the Rosary as well.’

Archbishop Comensoli speaking with Stevin, Evie and Fr Anil at the 2021 Patrick Oration Catholic Archdiocese of Melbourne

Earlier this year, Stevin and Evie accompanied Fr Anil to the 2021 Patrick Oration, during which Archbishop Peter A Comensoli reflected on how the local church is being called to find new and creative ways of encountering Christ, especially in light of the pandemic. During his Oration, Archbishop Comensoli acknowledged the work of the Rosary group as a simple but striking example of where the seeds of the Gospel are being nurtured and sewn locally.

‘On a personal level, it was great to see the archbishop and meet him especially because we can sometimes feel so far,’ said Stevin. ‘Archbishop Comensoli spoke beautifully about how we have to come out from these tough times and continue to do the good work that Jesus has done amongst our families and in our local community.'

Stevin believes the Rosary group is an important means of reaching out to people. 'We should keep doing what we do but do it better,' he says.

'There are obviously people having tough times so you never know how this (Rosary group) might help. To serve others has been a key message that we have taken back with us.’

To learn more about the Rosary group and how to join, please contact St Andrew's Werribee.