By Selina Venier
FR LINO Valente’s name is as synonymous with the Granite Belt, near Queensland’s southern border, as is the production of fruit and wine.
Ordained in St Mary’s Church, Warwick, on June 29, 1954, the jovial Stanthorpe identity is, this year, the longest-serving living priest in the Province of Queensland, with only Bishop Raymond Benjamin, who is retired, ahead of him with 65 years since his ordination to priesthood.
To mark the milestone, more than 200 parishioners joined Fr Valente and almost 20 extended family members for Mass in St Joseph’s Church, Stanthorpe, 60 years to the day of his ordination.
Stanthorpe parish priest Fr Brian Connolly concelebrated with retired priest Fr Don Murray.
The Mass was followed by a banquet lunch described by the diamond jubilarian as “the best ever”.
Fr Valente’s sister, Rita, and other family members joined him in St Patrick’s Cathedral, Toowoomba, on July 7, for the diocesan jubilarian Mass.
Lino Anthony Valente was born in Texas, 2km from the Queensland-New South Wales border.
The 86-year-old vividly recounted his childhood experience of “Mass in a shed once a month with about a dozen others”.
If the nearest priest, Fr James Wiemers, wasn’t able to collect the Valentes before Mass they instead “pedalled five to ten miles”.
“We were as poor as church mice but we were happy,” Fr Valente said.
They eventually bought “a little Austin” and enjoyed constant companionship among other Italian families.
Artura (Tulia) and Giacomo (Tony) Valente, a tobacco farmer, led a family Rosary every evening, and faith expression was “a normal part of everything”.
Fr Valente, who was first educated by the Sisters of St Joseph, was 11 when Italy and Australia went to war.
The family were deemed potential “enemy aliens” and were moved to an Internment Camp in Victoria.
They were fortunate to eventually be together and given luxuries like dental care and a form of schooling – “a dream”.
Released by the end of 1943 and with “a taste for education”, Fr Valente looked to pursue his schooling.
He completed junior studies with the Christian Brothers in Warwick and was eventually educated by the Marist Brothers (then at Mt Tamborine).
Senior and priestly studies were completed at Pius XII Provincial Seminary, Banyo (now Holy Spirit Provincial Seminary).
Fr Valente’s first priestly five-year appointment was to Dalby, west of Toowoomba.
He remembers then arriving in Stanthorpe on January 23, 1960, but was later sent to Inglewood, Wallangarra, Annerley, Toowoomba and Crows Nest before returning to the Granite Belt “for good” in 1981.
Locals well remember Fr Valente’s leadership in Wallangarra, to this day talking about his fundraising efforts to pay the debts associated with building St Mary’s Church.
Asked about the popular “Wallangarra bazaar”, or second-hand initiative of that era, he laughed animatedly and said they “made about $100 a week from rags and bags”.
Today, Fr Valente continues to celebrate daily and Sunday Mass, visit the sick and infirmed, and participate in the sacramental life of people of all ages in Stanthorpe, Lyra and Wallangarra.
It’s not only the six decades of priesthood however to endear him to countless families and individuals near and far.
On June 29, Fr Connolly poignantly recounted why Fr Valente is so revered.
“There are no barriers between Lino and people,” he said at the banquet lunch.
“How many of us have experienced his warmth and his kind and caring spirit?
“What a wonderful trait in a priest.
“Fr Lino has touched the lives of so many with his cheerful and engaging personality over all these many years of his priesthood.”
Fr Connolly also shared personal insights into the impact of the brotherhood of the priesthood on the “very human and happy” jubilarian.
“Lino loves being with his brother priests; he never misses a seminar or any diocesan gathering or Mass,” he said.
“His hearing has deteriorated in recent years and often he forgets to put in his hearing aids.
“Often when we’ve come home from a seminar and I ask him, ‘What did you think of the talks?’; he invariably says, ‘I couldn’t hear much but it was good to be with the boys’.
“… Fr Lino … (is) always a priest of the diocese, a priest among priests.”
Away from crowds, a conversation with Fr Valente soon turned to those he’d loved and seen called home to God.
His father was the first of his parents to die and his mother was nursed for 20 years in Canossa Aged Care Facility, Brisbane, dying from dementia.
Fr Valente spoke of “friends who are alive and friends in heaven”.
“I look out my unit window and see the cemetery,” he said.
“I pray for all my friends.”
One such friend, not resting in the Stanthorpe cemetery but certainly in Fr Valente’s thoughts and prayers is seminary classmate Fr Miah McSweeny.
Fr McSweeny, from Cairns diocese, died about a month shy of his 60th anniversary.
“It’s worth mentioning that Miah would have been standing next to me,” Fr Valente said.
Also dotted within the conversation is admiration for Pope Francis’ charisms.
It’s no wonder Fr Valente quoted the Pontiff on his diamond jubilee commemorative cards.
“When Pope Francis was elected he came to the balcony, said good evening and then, ‘Pray for me’.
“I wrote that and, ‘And for me’ (on the anniversary card) because if it’s good enough for the Pope, it’s good enough for me.”
Fr Connolly mentioned this affinity to Pope Francis too.
“Pope Francis was asked recently how he would like to be remembered by history,” Fr Connolly said.
“His response was, ‘I have not thought about this. But I like it when you recall someone and say, ‘He was a good guy; he did what he could and he was not that bad. With that I would be content’.
“Pope Francis is a very humble man and so is our Fr Lino.”
And with that, all those gathered raised their glasses of local wine to toast the man, the priest and friend who so often led them to the Vine and will continue to do so as long as the Vinedresser allows.