FR Modestus Mgbaramuko, arriving from Nigeria to his first posting as a parish priest in Australia, was like the shepherd searching for the lost sheep.
He was relentless and would not give up.
Fr Modestus smiles broadly now as he recalls the many who responded and returned to the fold at the northern Brisbane bayside parish of Sandgate-Brighton.
After six-and-a-half years there, he is bidding farewell to the flock and preparing to head to the United States for full-time study at the Jesuit School of Theology, Santa Clara University, in Berkley, California.
The goodbyes begin this weekend, with a farewell Mass that was to be held on Friday, June 28, the feast of the Sacred Heart of Jesus in Sacred Heart Church, Sandgate, at 7pm.
Among those lining the pews would be some of the “lost sheep” Fr Modestus gathered in the early days.
He recalls that when he met with Archbishop Mark Coleridge before taking up the posting, the Archbishop told him there were challenges ahead.
Among them was dealing with parish debt but another was more obvious when he moved in.
“When I arrived here in 2013, I think one of the first things that struck me within the first five months was attendance to the sacraments, attendance to the liturgy, attendance to the Mass, which was quite down,” Fr Modestus said.
“In fact, I recall I used to say, ‘Who are the owners of these pews?’, ‘Where are the members of this parish?’, ‘They should return and take their places’.”
Another challenge was rebuilding the parish pastoral council and finance council, particularly the finance council.
“Membership of this council had long been suspended because of resignations,” Fr Modestus said.
There were also maintenance issues to confront with the parish’s heritage-listed buildings, including Sacred Heart Church.
“And then in the midst of all that … we were in debt,” Fr Modestus said.
“But I saw that as opportunities for me to also give my best, so I then decided to take, first of all, a deep study of the area and try to build some bridges, make friends, chatted with people …”
Fr Modestus would take his opportunities even when meeting people along the waterfront.
“Some would say, ‘We are Catholics but … um … even though we are not regular Mass attenders and not attending Mass at this time …’,” he said.
“But it was a good opportunity for me to take it up from there.
“Once I hear you’re a Catholic … then the next time I’m going to find you.”
Armed with a list of Catholics registered in the parish, Fr Modestus began making some phone calls, starting with those who had been members of the finance council.
“I started calling … one by one,” he said.
“Some I called and they replied and said, ‘Well, we have moved on now; we’re not really keen on returning’.
“Some I called and they replied and took me to task and said, ‘Yeah, we were members of the council, but we have resigned and we would not like to continue …’
“The most important thing for me was that, whatever anybody said, once I got a reply – positive or negative – I was going to insist on it, and eventually from studying a bit of the details of the issue I got my hands over reasons for their resignation, got in touch with the chairperson of the council when they resigned …”
One key member said he wouldn’t be returning.
“But I insisted,” Fr Modestus said. “And after a series of discussions, he wanted to give it a try just to help me with a soft landing, but eventually he came back and the rest of the members returned and then I had people to work with, great ideas on the table, and then I was able to make a proposal.
“That proposal was the first memo I did for the vicar general.
“I told him, ‘I’ve listened to the people, I’ve consulted, I would like to first of all take short-term measures which I think will respond to immediate needs of the parish’, and then later on I was going to address long-term measures.
“So I submitted a memo to him where I suggested strategies I would like to take.
“Number-one was to reconstruct attendance, that our people needed to come back.
“And I was going to use every means available to me – the Mass, the preaching, the consultation, meeting the people in their play areas like the men’s groups that were having exercises at the waterfront.”
Fr Modestus would not be deterred.
“When I was doing the appeal for our people to come back, there were people who told me point-blank that I shouldn’t call them again, they are not interested in their parish, they’re not coming back, but those are among the strongest people that I have now,” he said.
“They did come back.”
And that’s been heartening for Fr Modestus.
“One thing I’d like to underscore when it comes to my pastoral experience so far in this parish is, we cannot define our decisions about where faith goes,” he said.
“Regeneration is possible because the grace of God doesn’t really go to ask what your old nature is.
“God takes you from where you are.
“The attendance at Mass initially was struggling but with constant appeal and constant dedication and constant sharing of the Word of God, the people came back.
“So I would like to underline it as a matter of pastoral conviction that faith in our parishes is there, is real.
“The people are interested. The people are faithful people.
“They are looking for dedication to the Word of God.
“They’re looking for priests who will disseminate the Word of God, teach the truth about the Catholic faith – what the Church preaches and believes – and God’s people come back.
“They come back to offer worship. And I can tell you that, because I have experienced this in Sandgate-Brighton.”
So as he prepares to leave he’s pleased the parish has better Mass attendances and stronger ministry participation than when he arrived, and that the parish debt has been reduced from more than $300,000 to about $45,000 and strategies are in place to “pay that off”.
Many people had been asking Fr Modestus if he’d ever be returning to Australia.
“Looking at the friendship that I’ve built here, there will always be reason to visit or to come back to Australia,” he said.
He said his last comment would be one of gratitude.
“It’s important for me that the people among whom I have worked, they know that I am grateful,” he said.
“It’s good for me that they know that I saw all those signs of friendships, all those signs of blessing, all the good intentions that were demonstrated. I am grateful.
“I’m also grateful to the Archdiocese of Brisbane, to the archdiocesan administration, to the Archbishop and to the vicar general (Monsignor Peter Meneely), to all who are along the line of our mission in Australia.”