Our Parish History

This account of our history is primarily John Edwards' article in St. Luke's Wantirna publication - "Celebrating 25 Years"


By the late 1960s, the transformation from bushland to suburb was approaching the last of its many stages. As survey pegs and house frames started to spread across the hills they brought in their wake a host of new needs. Newlyweds and young families, as well as needing shelter, had to be fed, clothed, taught - and supplied with all the other necessities and amenities of modern urban life. The little groups of shops at Studfield and Wantirna Mall started to grow, primary and secondary schools appeared in the centre of the estate and the Catholic Church acquired land on Stokes Road.

It was to take much time and an arduous struggle, however, before that land came to fulfil the purpose of church and school for which it was intended. From earliest times Wantirna was part of St Joseph's parish at Boronia; the first Catholics in the area faced a journey of between 3 and 4 kilometres to Sunday Mass or for their children's schooling. As the gaps between new houses along the streets shrank and disappeared and populations grew, the need for worship and education, for a sense of self as a community, intensified. True, there were state schools in the area, and good ones, and churches at Boronia and Bayswater, but here in Wantirna an ever-growing number of young Catholic families were beginning to seek cohesion and identity in their own right.

In 1978 a Sunday Mass centre was set up in the state school at Regency Park: the young families would arrive at the school early, well ahead of the scheduled Mass time, clear away and stack the little desks, set up seating and altar, arrange banners and flowers, tune up their guitars, practice their hymns then fill the room to bursting with their spirited and spiritual, youthful and hopeful post-Vatican II worship. After Mass there were cups of tea, groups in conversation and children darting about in play as the place was re-established as a classroom. More families came; soon the schoolroom was not big enough and Mass was moved to a covered shelter outside. If it was cold in winter and hot in summer this could be endured, what mattered was the spirit of the place - hope, excitement and the vast future that lay ahead.


Bishop Eric Perkins and Fr. John Van Suylen, 1978 It is impossible to give any account or re-imagining of those times without acknowledging the central role of Fr John Van Suylen. In fact the importance of that role cannot be over-emphasised; from the beginning, as assistant priest at St Joseph's Boronia, he took particular interest in the young and growing community. The early history of what was to become our parish is intertwined with the fervent Christianity of Fr John; if these were times of youthful energy and optimism - and they were - Fr John was the very man to reflect and embody their spirit. Risks were run and great leaps forward were taken, huge beyond practicality and courageous beyond folly, but all taken in faith.

A faith not misplaced. In 1978, with Wantirna still straddling Boronia and Bayswater parishes, a house was purchased in Haileybury Court to serve as a convent for Sisters Aileen Shanahan and Mary Ryan, both destined for roles with the school and the parish. In fact the school was opened in 1979 with 116 children and the involvement of 65 families. The Eucharist was still being celebrated in a classroom - actually numbers had so grown that two were needed - but at least at this point it was in our own school!

In January 1980 Archbishop Little pronounced the creation of the new parish of Wantirna with Fr John as parish priest. It was a time of excitement, growth and building. Numbers both at the school and the weekly Eucharist continued to increase and planning for the second stage of the school commenced only a month after inauguration of the parish, only to be revised upward for an even larger project. At this stage Knox had become the fastest-growing residential area in Australia and, to the Catholics of Wantirna, nothing seemed too daunting to tackle.


Celebration of Eucharist, 1978 With the second stage of the school - the bigger, up-scaled version - the next step was planning for a priest's residence and parish centre. In November of the same year, 1980, it was decided to build both together. The second stage of the school was completed in August 1981 and opened by the Reverend Dean Wall. In the following month, with attendances continuing to skyrocket, the Mass centre was relocated from its two-classroom status to the large area in the middle of the new stage two. Within three months, by Christmas of that year, it had become clear that this in turn was not adequate - the need for a parish centre was becoming more urgent. As in the later case of building the church finance was a problem and one of the many innovative fundraisers was the purchase by parishioners of bricks for the new building.

When school resumed in 1982 enrolments had risen to over 400, almost four times the number of only three years before, and work on the parish centre pressed on. Then, less than two months after commencement of the school year, on 21 March, Archbishop Little opened the chapel, community centre and parish house. He con-celebrated Mass with Fr John and Fr Malcolm Campbell before a huge crowd gathered beneath the gum trees in front of the centre in what he referred to as 'God's own Cathedral'. He was quoted by The Advocate of 1 April as asking the congregation: 'Wouldn't it be great if, from this beginning of this parish we all had (Christ's sacrifice) in our hearts and that throughout our lives we saw this as the centre of all our community life?'

A parish centre coordinator was appointed and within a very short time many activities were organised. Saturday and Sunday evening Masses were celebrated in the centre. A commentary of the time wrote: The prayerful atmosphere and decor were appreciated as a contrast from the Masses celebrated at the school and were a foretaste of things anticipated when a church would be built. This however seemed a long way off...' In those heady times, however, 'a long way off was different from what it might be in another era. A former parishioner recollects ' ... in an early conversation between Fr John and me, when I innocently inquired as to "when are we going to build a Church?" he replied "How about now!" Before I knew it the Church Development Committee was in place ...' Indeed the continuously expanding community soon outgrew the new centre and by 1983 all weekend Masses had to return to the school, despite overcrowding to the point of discomfort. The new centre had already become too small.


The excitement of the time derived, however, from much more than the simple facts of growing numbers and the bricks and mortar needed to keep pace. Here was a generation of people of approximately the same age, with the same faith and beliefs, similar ideals and goals, facing similar problems and difficulties, sharing identical experiences. Their babies were born within months of each other; their children grew and played together on the new streets. The unique phenomenon of an entire suburb being created and a faith community coming into existence in such a short space of time created an event of shared experience barely equaled by the mythical Australian country town. And hand in glove with shared experience went shared lives, in worship and in daily activities, from working bees to dinner parties and shared holidays. The spirit of those times shines through the accounts of many of the church groups that were formed then - their stories can be read and the spirit that the new, young parish gave them can be felt in the accounts on the following pages.

More yet: young families, new careers, new suburb, new parish and the winds of change sweeping through an age-old church: Vatican II. The parish was endowed with a priest who was youthful, vital, and open to the new and untried - while Masses were well attended and venues were being Mailed and rejected, the leadership group was engaged in earnest debate as to whether in this new era a church was needed at all. In the end the decision was, as we all can see, for a church. Not, however, that this might have been a purely parochial decision: in September 1983 the Diocesan Extension and Maintenance Fund decided to look at ways in which they could assist new parishes and noted that they should do all in their power to see that St Luke's had an adequate Mass centre as soon as possible. The leaflet 'New Growth' was distributed throughout the parish and prayerful preparation began.

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Church construction begins From 19 September until 8 December prayerful consideration, tentative planning and many meetings resulted in a decision to move ahead, in fact, it was decided to build. Again, the process that followed was typified by the breathless faith-filled headlong rush that had been the signature of parish development to that point. Finance was an immense problem: with a parish of predominantly young families, every available dollar had to stretch an extremely long way (how much did you have to spare when you were a one-income family with maybe three or four school-age kids and a fairly new mortgage?). Architectural and constructional simplicity were essential and church furnishings and accessories were often acquired through modern miracles. There are many stories from that time:

Fr John, whose vitality and spirituality were not matched by financial acumen, ordered upholstered pews from a local manufacturer on 14 days' credit. The pews were made and delivered, and fine pews they are - to this day they remain an asset to the church - but there was no money to pay for them. Dave Blizzard, a leading figure at the time, went into action on the first Sunday of their arrival offering parishioners the opportunity to buy the pews they were seated on, bank card accepted. The money required for the pews was raised. It is not relevant that at the time of this dazzling sales drive Dave was a senior officer in the Victoria Police.

There was no altar or money to acquire one. Unbidden, undiscussed, unannounced and almost unnoticed, Gerry Konynenburg, a parishioner and local builder, went to work. Behold, as if by magic, an altar and lectionary appeared!

The church begins to take shape, 1984 Building had commenced in July 1984 (see below), and by Christmas, stark masonry and bare roof trusses were visible signs of a work in progress: an incomplete shell, a church on the way but not the place to celebrate Christmas. That, however, is exactly what happened, with brave optimism and the church in its raw glory. To quote Dave Blizzard, 'Wiring, aluminium foil framing etc. was everywhere to be seen. I recall some form of temporary lighting. It wasn't exactly like the stable at Bethlehem, but it was close. But nevertheless celebrate we did, in large numbers'. Did they cart seating all the way up from the school and back again? Did Fr John use a hand-held megaphone? 'A new expectancy was felt by us all as we prepared in our uncompleted church to share in the birth of Christ. The structure, as yet unfinished, seemed a fitting place to remember His birthday. Then back to the school to await the completion of our much anticipated church.'

Only to jump the gun once again. 'Palm Sunday 1985 witnessed our celebration "in the spirit of the Exodus" from the school down to our new church. In procession, we carried all those things we would need for our Eucharistic celebrations - our church stood, bare internally but externally complete. The whole church resounded with the hymn God is Building a House. The dream of celebrating our Sunday Eucharists in our own church was quickly becoming a reality'. And they pressed on '... on Holy Thursday night - the church was hardly lit, parishioners on entering were rather bewildered as they stood or sat in little groups on the floor - this was really and truly pioneering stuff, all brought about by Fr John's wisdom in giving the gifted members of the community their head. I truly believed that our parish was living the vision of Vatican II'.


Archbishop Frank Little delivers his homily at the Consecration Mass, 1985 Then the great day arrived. On 15 September 1985 St Luke's church, Wantirna, was consecrated by Archbishop Frank Little; in a little over five years from the creation of the parish, a minor miracle had been worked. To quote Dave Blizzard again,'... I think it is fair to say that we have never again experienced that sense of belonging and that sense of parish family, such as we experienced during our time at St Luke's'. A community had been formed to become an outstanding model of Christian fellowship from the none-too-abundant resources of young families battling to establish themselves in life. From these very finite resources, a church had been built. The achievement was, of course, the culmination of years of working bees, fetes, raffles, balls and every other form of fundraising activity ever known to the Catholic Church. In addition to the fundraising activities, the individual efforts of so many parishioners brought the project to fulfillment; people like Lawrie O'Shea, Danny Richards, and Des Dineen, whose handiwork remains to be seen in the completed building.

There was an element of the unconventional in the choice of architects: rather than select from the panel proffered by the Diocesan Extension and Maintenance Fund the parish engaged an industrial architect, James Fong, whose bold and strong emphases set the building's character. And even at the eleventh hour there was drama as the Diocesan Fund's contribution was found to fall short of the expected amount. An energetic committee formed Project 500, its target to raise $50,000 without which there was going to be no church. The money was raised in twelve months, the church was built, the crowning glory of the young parish had been achieved.


Within a short time of achieving its new church, the community was facing unexpected difficulties. In the wake of a resounding achievement came stresses and tensions, not the least of those relating to money. A huge new debt coinciding with escalating interest rates and other problems brought, not resolution in the spirit of earlier times, but difficulties for which the experience of the pioneering years had given neither precedent nor guidance. So, at the point of its greatest joy, the parish was pitched into an era of great sadness. Resolution between differing viewpoints proved impossible and just when the parish could have consolidated its achievement and commenced again on its journey toward better knowing and serving God it came instead to a parting of the ways and by 1987 Fr John had left the parish.

Abruptly there came a change of character and pace - in the wake of breathless excitement and headlong rush and, as the parish caught its breath - a new mood of uncertainty. Into this period came Fr Maurie Cooney as parish administrator. Led, inspired and tirelessly supported by Fr Maurie the community set out on a new path of healing and consolidation. One cannot overstate the significance of Fr Maurie's presence at this time. Appointed at a critical period in the history of the parish, he worked skilfully and with insight to nurture available strengths - steadily parish finances improved, numbers at Sunday Mass began to rise again and past troubles sank into perspective. If the early growth of the parish was an era of youthful exuberance then the new times could be characterised by a move toward maturity, a new, more reflective Christianity, supported and strengthened by Fr Maurie's scholarly homilies and unceasing work with the community. His busy schedule included heavy demands on his time from the archdiocese yet these never intruded on his ability to meet the equally heavy demands made by the parish.


The stories of our parish groups are told in other sections of this publication. It is a mark of the nature of our parish and parishioners that, from the earliest times, the sense of community lying at the heart of Christ's message should permeate downward, into our daily lives, as well as upward, in worship. Our diverse groups reflect our interests, demonstrate our Christianity, and help to bring it into our daily lives; our groups grow from the strength of the parish and add to the strength of the parish. It could be said that the parish groups of St Luke's played an important role in Fr Maurie's work of consolidation. Then in June of 1993 he handed the reins as parish administrator to Fr Michael Miles.

For all parishes in modern day Australia a new attitude throughout the nation towards the church and towards Christianity has brought new challenges. Falling attendances in the late twentieth century, continuing into the twenty-first century, are a reality of mainstream churches. Sunday is no longer a day of worship but a day of recreation, sport, shopping, restaurants, theatres - and maybe worship, as well. Fr Michael Miles, as administrator, fought, as did the priests in all the parishes around us, against this new trend. He represented for us a stalwart commitment to our faith and true partnership in the living Jesus.


Fr. Tim and Gayle Ashdowne during the parish office extension, 2004 In 1995 the period of administration came to an end: St Luke's again had a parish priest.
Fr. Tim Tolan was welcomed to St Luke's on 22 June 1995. He brought to us a Christianity that meshed ideally with the times - having dared, risked and won through to achieve, almost against the odds, the building of a school, parish centre and church; having weathered troubled times and been strengthened by those times, we were ideally placed to respond to a priest whose homilies address mature thinking Christians, whose trust in us challenged, and continues to challenge us to live increasingly stronger Christian lives.

At the same time, or in fact in February 1994, some 14 months before Fr Tim, a new and dynamic force came to join St Luke's: Maria Newbigin was appointed as the first pastoral associate. Few will forget the warmth and enthusiasm she brought to this new role. For instance, the part she played with Fr. Tim in establishing the Leadership Ministry team. Many have a special place in their hearts for her. She remained with St Luke's until late 2005 and will always be remembered for the lasting impression she left on the parish.

Each passage in history comes with its own challenges. The era of Fr Tim's stewardship faced the same problems of falling attendances and with them falling income for the church. Health for Fr Tim had been at times a serious issue. Sadly, Fr. Tim passed away in April 2008.

In August 2008, Fr. Vel Maglica was warmly welcomed to St. Luke's as our parish priest. At no time in the life of our church, and at few times in that of our parish have there not been challenges. St Luke's faces its current challenges as it did those of 1980, 1983 and 1986 - with the spirit in which it began and with which it has been tempered over the years. That spirit will continue on.

In October 2013 Fr. Vel Maglica leaves St. Luke's Parish after being assigned a new role. Fr. Michel Corriveau is welcomed to St. Luke's as our parish priest.

In March 2015 Fr. Michel Corriveau leaves St. Luke's Parish after being assigned to another parish. Fr. Joseph Amal sdb. is welcomed to St. Luke's as our parish priest.

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