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‘I’m literally repairing a building’ – Franciscan following St Francis in saving leaning church

Restoring the church: Franciscan Father Stephen Bliss is following the calling of St Francis. “I understand what St Francis was on about now. The building is vital but it’s really, really strengthening the community,” he said. Photo: ABC News/Baz Ruddick

AS Fr Stephen Bliss stands at the altar rail of heritage-listed St Brigid’s in Rosewood, he can appreciate his calling as a Franciscan friar is restoration.

“St Francis said to repair the Church, I’m literally repairing a building,” Fr Bliss said.

Built 110 years ago, the ornate weatherboard church holds pride of place in the centre of Rosewood, but has been declared unsafe as it sinks into rich, black soil that covers the City of Ipswich.

St Brigid’s is known to have been leaning for a few decades, but that has accelerated in the last year – from 90 millimetres to more than 200 millimetres.

“Inside you can see the lean on it, and it’s wide enough for me to stick my finger into the cracks,” Fr Bliss said.

“We’ve been told not to have services in there at all.

“Basically if I go in there I let the insurance company know.

“It’s not going to fall over but it’s a bit alarming that it has moved over three inches in the last year.”

St Brigid’s is the largest timber Catholic Church in the southern hemisphere, with seating for 400.

Built from local timber and affectionately known by locals as “the old girl”, the Queensland Heritage Register lists St Brigid’s as historically significant for its close association with the development of the Rosewood district in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, and with the expansion of the Catholic Church in Queensland.

“Parishioners now in their 70s and 80s – their grandparents helped to build it and lay the stumps,” Fr Bliss said.

“It’s very well known in Rosewood and is used for Catholic and ecumenical celebrations, so there’s a lot of interest in restoring it.”

The restoration project is estimated at up to $3 million.

Engineers have submitted an initial proposal and Fr Bliss is expecting a second engineers’ report soon.

“It’s quite a significant outlay, but the community is certainly on side and will rally around that,” he said.

“I’m very confident in talking to the engineers that they’ll bring it in well under that.

“The church will need to be re-stumped. There are 180 stumps in it so they will need to be replaced and then a buffer mat will be put on the stumps.

“The engineers’ proposal is to lift St Brigid’s by 1.8 metres, replace 180 stumps (the inside stumps will be concrete and the exterior, outer stumps timber) to keep the historical nature of the place.

“They will put in a buffer mat across the stumps, then lower the building and then she’ll be right for another 190 years.

“Once I get a final report I will take it to the parish council and set up a beloved committee and the committee will then co-ordinate the restoration and get some people involved in applying for grants and local fundraising.

“I’ve already started initial negotiations with local, state and federal government.”

On a lean: The interior of St Brigid’s Church, Rosewood.

2020 has been difficult for Rosewood’s Catholics.

St Brigid’s was closed due to the COVID-19 pandemic, and again when it was assessed by building engineers.

As a temporary measure Mass is being held in St Brigid’s school hall next door.

Following an amalgamation of four parishes last December, the Rosewood faithful are now part of Ipswich Catholic Community including Ipswich, Leichhardt, North Ipswich and Rosewood.

It’s a big stretch for Fr Bliss, who is parish priest of not only the combined Ipswich community, but also Esk Catholic Community – an area three times the size of Singapore.

Out of 17 churches in his parishes, 12 are heritage listed in some form, requiring special upkeep and renovation.

“It wasn’t really what I was thinking I would do when I was appointed parish priest,” Fr Bliss said.

“I love being here and the community is great, and it is often through projects like this (St Brigid’s) that the community is strengthened.

“Certainly the people at St Brigid’s are 100 per cent behind getting ‘the old girl’ restored.

“I understand what St Francis was on about now. It’s actually helping us to restore and rebuild our own community.

“The building is vital but it’s really, really strengthening the community. I think this is something that is really bringing us together with a unique project.

“I mean what other parish has a church that is falling over?”

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