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Brisbane school breathes new life into 81-year-old country church

Cooranga North church

Opening day: On the front steps of the new chapel at St Thomas More College, Sunnybank, are (back) Bishop Ken Howell; (second row from left) Sunnybank priests Fr Dan Ryan and Fr Dominic Orih; and (front) college principal Les Conroy, Mary Wallis, of Brisbane Catholic Education, and the college’s former principal Peter Elmore, who is now rector of Padua College, Kedron. The chapel was the Our Lady of the Sacred Heart Church at Cooranga North, in Toowoomba diocese, before it was relocated to the college. Bishop Howell blessed the chapel in its new location on March 2. Photo: Alan Edgecomb.

THE last time Catholics living in Cooranga North saw their beautiful country church, it was listed for sale on a website.

Our Lady of the Sacred Heart Church, built in 1937, served Catholics in Dalby, in Toowoomba diocese, and then the neighbouring Jandowae community over 75 years before closing in 2013 due to low attendance rates and a lack of priests available to celebrate Mass.

A Brisbane man saw the online advertisement for the church, bought it, but not, as some thought, to turn it into a bed-and-breakfast venue.

Instead, former principal of St Thomas More College, Sunnybank, Peter Elmore wanted to salvage the church for his Catholic high school, which was in need of a new chapel.

That chapel was relocated to the schoolyard on a 380km trip on June 28 last year, requiring two trucks to load the roof and body of the now 81-year-old church.

After more than six months, the new school chapel is now blessed and ready to serve the religious needs of the school.

Brisbane auxiliary Bishop Ken Howell led the official blessing of the chapel at a school Mass on March 2. But St Thomas More College principal Les Conroy said the Mass was purposely held outside the new chapel.

Blessing the church

Blessing day: (Left) Bishop Howell blesses the new chapel at St Thomas More College. Photo: Alan Edgecomb.

Mr Conroy, who was in charge of relocating and restoring the chapel, wanted the church’s original community to be the first to celebrate the Eucharist in the church.

“Whilst it is part of our community, what we want to do is honour the Cooranga North people,” he said. “They were the last to celebrate Mass in the church and we wanted them to be the first to celebrate in the new chapel.”

The community was also presented with a copy of the original church key, which is now hanging on a plaque inside the church “to acknowledge their journey prior to coming to St Thomas More College”.

When he told the Cooranga North Catholics the school’s plan for the church and its original community, “there were tears”.

“And some of them have been emailing us every day saying they can’t wait until the day they are back in the church,” Mr Conroy said.

About 80 parishioners who last stepped foot inside the church when it closed in 2013 walked through its doors for the first time at its new location for a community Mass last week.

“We wanted them to feel they were still connected to their church even though it’s not physically around the corner anymore,” Mr Conroy said.

The Mass marked the first celebration of the Eucharist in the chapel but not the last.

The school has co-ordinated a roster of priests from Sunnybank, Acacia Ridge, Salisbury and Rochedale to celebrate Mass in the chapel every Thursday at 8am.

The chapel can seat between 80 and 100 people and will be open for use during school hours.

Mr Conroy said the school’s leadership team was focused on making the sacrament of the Eucharist more accessible to Catholic parents, with the roster of weekly Mass and live-streaming of larger community Masses.

While the exterior of the church looks the way it did in 1937, the interior has been a “modern” transformation.

As well as a fresh coat of paint, the school has placed a new stained-glass window of St Thomas More behind the sanctuary, installed halo lights on the roof, added a large-screen television and polished the original timber floors.

A section of the original hand-painted panelling and stencilling on the left wall of the church has been preserved behind a pane of glass.

There is also a custom-built bell tower attached to the church that has already been rung by the school’s 200 incoming Year 7 students.

“Outside, it should look like it did in 1937, but when you walk inside it’ll have that modern feel,” Mr Conroy said.

Inside outside: The exterior of Sacred Heart Church has been maintained, while a view inside the chapel shows the modernised interior with a new altar and the stained-glass window of St Thomas More. (Slide to compare photos). Photos: Alan Edgecomb.

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