In the City of Wyndham in Melbourne’s west, Werribee is one of the fastest-growing suburbs in Australia. ‘Our parish is one of the largest parishes in Melbourne and it’s still growing,’ says Fr Albert Yogarajah, Parish Priest and Episcopal Vicar for the Western Region. ‘We expanded, not only in number but geographically. Now we have five schools, with a sixth on its way for next year. And we have two regional colleges. Two major hospitals. And we have about six or seven nursing homes.’
With three priests in the parish, they have always maintained a busy schedule. ‘Before COVID, we would often hold two Masses on Saturday evening, three or four Masses on Sunday morning, and one Mass Sunday evening. Every weekend we went out to different schools and would hold Mass there.’
Each Mass drew around 200 people, with a weekend total of around 2,500 people.
When the churches shut, they began to live-stream Saturday evening Mass and upload them on YouTube. Most Mass attendees switched to the online model seamlessly. ‘With online Mass, you’re counting families, not individuals,’ says Fr Albert. ‘So we would have around 200 or 300 hits, representing 200 or 300 families.’
But successfully running online Mass was only one part of their digital engagement strategy during COVID-19.
In May, Assistant Priest Fr Anil Mascarenhas began hosting Rosary evenings.
‘Since then, we have been continuing the Rosary at 7pm on Zoom. The most we’ve had is 70 families join us. But on average we have 50 families every evening,’ says Fr Anil.
‘When we started it was smaller,’ says Fr Albert. ‘Then it grew by word of mouth.’
How have they maintained those levels of engagement? The priests add that they have been actively using digital tools like WhatsApp.
‘We send a reminder via the WhatsApp group every day at 6.30pm,’ says Fr Anil. ‘Thirty minutes before we start the Rosary.’
‘We have two WhatsApp groups,’ says Fr Albert. ‘One is the Rosary group, every day for those who want to attend. The other is a Parish Friends group with around 150 people. We also send them a WhatsApp message every day as a reminder for family prayer time.’
Other activities throughout the year have included a youth group, which has remained active with about 50 members. For that, Fr Anil organises sessions on Zoom. There’s also sacramental preparation for children on Zoom, Children’s Liturgy every Sunday, and English charismatic prayer group meetings every Tuesday, also on Zoom.
Now with churches opening across the state, Fr Albert describes the relief of parishioners. ‘People have been longing to come to church,’ he says. ‘They have Mass online but they didn't have the Sacrament of the Eucharist physically.’
‘Now every day we have four Masses each weekend, with up to now 20 people at each. People register a place through TryBooking, and depending on restrictions, we are planning to have 80 to 90 people because of the space that in the church.’
‘All the people cannot participate in all the Masses yet. We are hoping to see some more changes in December, but for the moment, live streaming and online uploading of Mass will continue.’
It’s been a difficult year for everyone, they admit. ‘Not to have contact with anyone, and saying Mass to empty pews and say “The Lord be with you,” and have no one respond,’ Fr Albert says.
Werribee and its surrounding areas were harder hit by COVID-19 than almost anywhere else in Victoria. An aged care facility, Baptcare
Wyndham Lodge had 260 cases of COVID and 30 deaths.
Unfortunately, we were hit by COVID in one of our nursing homes. One of the worst in the state. We lost many parishioners,’ says Fr Albert. ‘And we held a lot of funerals.’
The toughest part, he says, was knowing that for some people’s final moments their own families couldn’t see them or attend the funeral.
Donning full protective gear, they were able to visit Baptcare . ‘The staff were all grieving as well,’ Fr Albert notes.
The priests also visited COVID wards in hospitals. ‘The patient was able to see that somebody was there for them in a time when even their loved ones could not be close to them.’
And the family wanted to know that somebody visited their loved one before they passed away,’ Fr Albert adds. ‘There was some relief in the faces of families grateful that at least somebody was there. But it was confronting.’
With the state reaching 28 days with no cases, the atmosphere is noticeably more hopeful amongst parishioners. And with the season of Advent beginning a new liturgical year for the church, Fr Albert and Fr Anil have no plans to slow down. For them, it’s a time to reactivate everything that has been put on hold throughout the year.
‘At the moment we are planning on having RCIA [Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults] with people who have been waiting a long time to receive the sacraments,’ Fr Albert says. ‘There’s first Reconciliation, which had been postponed. Confirmations. And weddings. All these things have been crammed together. Everything is extra busy before Christmas. Christmas is normally a busy time, but this time is extra busy.’
‘We are taking things day by day.’
Melbourne Catholic03 December 2020
Melbourne Catholic27 November 2020