WHEN Barbara Reynolds-Hutchinson was 18 she made a fateful decision to step into St Francis’ Chapel at the top of Elizabeth Street, Brisbane.
She was not in full communion with the Catholic Church at that stage.
“I saw a lot of strange people kissing statues and what not,” she said.
“But amazingly I felt immediately at home.
“I was looking for more in life, and this was it.
“I went on to take instructions in the Catholic faith and was received into the Church.”
Barbara would later discover she had been baptised a Catholic but her parents’ disagreement with a parish priest over their plans to send her to a state school had led to their temporary estrangement from the Church.
Her contact with Franciscan spirituality at the chapel would prove formational.
For about 20 years she would enter religious life joining the Franciscan Missionaries of Mary until leaving due to ill health about 17 years ago.
More than this – her coming home to the Church after that encounter with its deep devotional life, together with her exposure to many art forms as a child would eventually lead her to become a guide and welcomer in St Stephen’s Cathedral.
The role would bring many other strands of her life together as well – her studies in psychology, being granted a doctorate in Systematic Theology and even her time with the Queensland Police Service in the Juvenile Aid Bureau.
As education officer for the cathedral’s guides and welcomers, Barbara recently had the pleasure of seeing 12 new members join the ministry in a special graduation Mass in the cathedral.
St Stephen’s Cathedral dean and celebrant Fr David Pascoe, in his homily, told the 12 they were “the first face, voice and eyes” of the Church when people visited the cathedral.
“It’s such a vital role,” Barbara said to me later that day.
“You never know who is coming in through the cathedral door.
“As well as Catholics including groups from our schools, we have people from other faiths, tourists and art critics.
“We have to be welcoming without being overwhelming and also have answers to the many questions the visitors will have.”
There are also those who will want to “engage contentiously” about some aspect of the Catholic faith.
Barbara draws on her Queensland Police Service experience to deal with these people who are “often hurting”.
“In briefing sessions, I say to guides and welcomers:
‘Don’t argue. Listen to the person, not their argument because that’s what people need’,” she said.
“When people are hurting for one reason or another, there’s always anger.
“A hurting person is often not nice but we have to accept that.”
Being an inner-city location, St Stephen’s gets its fair share of “street people too”.
“They’re part of God’s people too,” Barbara said.
“We have to treat them compassionately and tenderly.
“At the same time, we can’t let them be a disturbance to those who’ve come to worship in the cathedral.”
Barbara said there were about 50 guides and welcomers but more were needed, starting as early as October this year when the Brisbane Open House weekend is held.
“People will have a full weekend to enjoy Brisbane’s best buildings and inevitably St Stephen’s Cathedral is one of these,” she said.
“Then there’s next year’s G20 summit which will bring thousands of international delegates, journalists and visitors to Brisbane.”
The next full training program is next year, although Barbara also runs interim training as required for those keen to start.
Barbara’s ongoing passion for her work is fired by her love for the history of the St Stephen’s precinct and the cathedral, which she said “is regarded as having one of the best collections of contemporary religious art in the world”.
“I’ve always had a love of history, particularly mediaeval, and this has stood me in good stead,” she said.
“When St Stephen’s Chapel was opened and blessed in 1850 by Fr James Hanly there was just a small community of about 60 Catholic families in Brisbane.
“You often find the names of these early families enshrined in the stained glass around the cathedral.
“Most had left behind famine and war in Ireland to come to this strange new land so different in climate and culture to their own.
“They were also somewhat isolated from the rest of the community to begin with.
“It never ceases to amaze and inspire me that they just got down and did it – became successful in all sorts of ways.
“They were Brisbane archdiocese’s ancestors in the faith.”
Barbara said there was always something new to learn in the guide and welcomers’ roles.
She’s still learning after six years of close association with the cathedral and its precinct.
That’s when she responded to a call for volunteers in the cathedral newsletter.
“I had no idea about the use of timber, stone and glass in construction to begin with,” she said.
“So I was fascinated to discover information such as the source of timber for new roof shingles on St Stephen’s Chapel.
“The shingles were cut from trees at Mount Mee (north-west of Brisbane).”
Then there are the many rich layers in the cathedral’s religious art.
“The bronze crucifix, by John Elliott, in the sanctuary is a particular favourite of mine,” she said.
“Christ is represented with his right arm raised, recalling his representation on Assisi’s San Damiano Crucifix from the 11th Century.
“This gesture is associated symbolically with the resurrection.
“So it’s the dead and risen Christ at the moment of resurrection.
“The same artist also created the wooden sculpture of Mary in what some call the Annunciation Chapel.
“I like to point out to people that Christ’s face and Mary’s are similar – so we are reminded not only of Christ’s divinity but also his humanity.”
For Barbara it’s this witness of the faith within the cathedral, which is so vital.
“All great cathedrals are really alive and transmit a pedagogy,” she said.
“Everything in them has a purpose – to direct our minds to God.
“That’s another key reason why the work of the guides and welcomers is so important and such a special ministry.
“As we unfold the beauty and wisdom in the art, we unfold the meaning of our faith.”
Barbara believes Archbishop Emeritus John Bathersby gave one of the best summaries of the significance of St Stephen’s Cathedral and its precinct.
“The archbishop said it represented the spirit at the heart of the city,” she said.
“This applies to the whole precinct.
“The busy city life flows through the precinct and people walk, stand or sit there at various times.
“St Stephen’s Cathedral is God’s space.
“The two have to go together – like the very flow of life.”
Those interested in becoming a guide or welcomer can contact the cathedral office on (07) 3336 9111.