A ROW of olive trees offering leafy shade to a stately old presbytery in a small country town in NSW give no clue to their fascinating origins and how they came to be where they are today.
The story behind the trees is an absorbing one and goes back to one of the most significant Christian sites in the world, Gethsemane, the garden across the Kidron Valley from Jerusalem in which Jesus went on the night of his arrest.
Catholic priest and decorated army chaplain, Fr Thomas Mullins brought to Australia cuttings from olive trees in Gethsemane, the trees of which are said to be descended from those in the garden at the time of Christ.
Fr Mullins, the first parish priest at Ardlethan, in south-west NSW, planted the cuttings when he returned home from World War I duty in the Middle East.
They have flourished into tall, fruit-bearing trees providing shade and an important historic link to a proud part of the Church’s heritage.
Fr Mullins’ adventurous life is an engrossing tale. Born in County Limerick, Ireland, he came to Australia in 1900.
He was the priest at Barmedman, the parish which then included Ardlethan, and he celebrated fortnightly Mass in the town which would eventually become his home from 1910 in the newly-built public hall which later became the Masonic Temple.
A good horseman, Fr Mullins in the early days often rode from Barmedman to Ardlethan, a good 80km on rough roads, to say Mass.
On other occasions, he served his large parish travelling in a buggy drawn by his two fractious horses.
Fr Mullins was rector when Bishop of Goulburn, John Gallagher, laid the foundation stone of Ardlethan’s Church of Our Lady Help of Christians on May 21, 1911.
The church, completed at a cost of £1200, opened in March 1914, just months before the outbreak of hostilities in Europe.
Enlisting from Barmedman in March 1915, Fr Mullins was appointed chaplain to the 5th Light Horse Regiment, joining the unit at Gallipoli in November 1915, one of the 331,781 brave Australians to serve overseas in the Great War of 1914-18.
The Australian War Memorial in Canberra has a narrative of Fr Mullins when he was in Egypt, in which he mentions the water shortages and dysentery at Gallipoli and the non-effectiveness of other Catholic chaplains due to illness or wounds.
Following the evacuation of that famous peninsula, he served with his regiment through the arduous campaigns in Palestine and Syria, becoming a victim of malaria in the Jordan after the cessation of hostilities.
A gallant soldier, Fr Mullins, a lieutenant colonel, was awarded a Military Cross in January 1918 and was mentioned in despatches four times.
Returning home, he took up residence at Ardlethan in the now National Trust classified presbytery erected during his war service by relieving priest Fr M.D. O’Sullivan, Ardlethan by then having become the centre of its own parish.
Fr Mullins planted his precious olive cuttings, carefully brought back from the place where Jesus suffered his Agony in the Garden, and lovingly tended them for the rest of his life.
For the next two decades Fr Mullins concentrated on his pastoral duties and in advancing the cause of Catholicism.
In 1923 he established a convent and school adjacent to the church, inviting the Sisters of St Joseph to staff the school.
With Ardlethan’s tin mining boom and the subsequent increase in population, the church was being filled to capacity and there was already talk of enlarging the building.
This, however, did not happen until 1957, when the original high vaulted structure was renovated and enlarged, without losing its original character and imposing appearance.
Fr Mullins died in the middle of a heat wave on January 14, 1939, aged 62, after a period of illness attributed to his war years.
So hot was the weather at the time that his funeral was held in the early hours of the day to escape some of the heat.
Laid to rest in the Ardlethan Cemetery, his passing was mourned by the whole community.
When the church was remodelled, a beautiful white Sicilian marble altar was erected in the sanctuary and in it was set the symbol of Fr Mullins’ gallantry, his Military Cross.
Nearby, Fr Mullins’ olives from Gethsemane thrive as a constant reminder to parishioners not only of their parish’s first priest but, quite literally, the roots of Christianity.