Growing up, my family was part of a bible study group. We met monthly, rotating around each other’s houses. Looking back, I’m particularly fond of one garage that we children were relegated to. Brought along because we couldn’t be trusted to be left alone at home, but not yet able to participate as adults, the garage became our place.
Going to this house was an event that lined the quiet cul-de-sac with vehicles unfamiliar to the locals. I remember pulling up in the family car after dinner on a Saturday night, my brother armed with his green Nintendo DS, me with a book. We’d quietly greet other families on their way in too, carrying their bibles, bible study notes, and cling-wrapped dishes for the supper the night would end on. One mum might’ve even brought along a bag of hand-me-downs for another of the kids there; between the lot of us, we covered every grade in primary school. As shoes came off and we entered the house, we refamiliarised ourselves with each other: kids we only saw on the weekend, friendships kept within church walls and garage doors. The garage was spotless and furnished mainly with sporting paraphernalia: a mini trampoline, hula hoops, a punching bag, a gym ball. Through the walls, we’d hear the dozen or so middle-aged people singing out-of-tune hymns in the living room throughout the night. Some of us killed time playing Mario Kart on whatever devices we’d brought along. Others spent the night walking the fine line between entertaining ourselves and being a nuisance: balls were bounced loudly against the garage door, games were played that squeezed squeals out of us in excitement, tempting, willing one of the grown-ups to visit us.
Let out of the garage again, those nights would always close with supper. I remember the fruit, the snacks and the sweet water that would accompany the conversations that steadily grew in volume and the dogs we only got to pat at the end of the night because they’d been banished to the backyard. Often unwilling to leave, our parents would remind us that we’d all see each other again at church the next morning.
We pull into the parking lot of the temple in Westmead. My cousin and I are sitting in the back seat of the car, playing made up games and cooking up mischief. In the front, my grandmother looks out the window with a rather solemn expression on her face. She occasionally makes small talk with my mother and I overhear their conversations, which mention my grandfather (nana).
As we leave the car, my cousin and I race up the stairs, seeing who can get to the entrance of the temple first. My mum and aunt both make futile attempts to tell us to slow down but both of us are far too excited to care. We wait impatiently while the rest of our family to makes their way over, taking off our shoes at the front. The temple is huge; pandits move throughout, carrying plates of fruit, essence and other miscellaneous items. I accidentally make eye contact with one of them, and feel my heart race as he looks back at me blankly.
As we enter, the heated floors of the temple warm our feet. It’s enormous, and all the children are raring for a game of tip. We start running around madly, while the adults line up in front of idols of various Hindu deities. Occasionally, my grandmother will call my cousin and I over and tell us to join our hands together in prayer or circle a statue three times.
Neither of us really understands what we’re doing but our grandmother seems unusually serious so we reluctantly comply. Soon, my favourite part of the trip arrives: my mother is walking over carrying a box of Indian sweets. My cousin beats me to the laddu that both of us have been eying off and I have to settle for my second choice, the jalebi.
On the car trip home, my grandmother, mother and aunt all share stories of my nana. Exhausted from all the running around, I quietly listen to them, building up a picture of this venerated man I have only ever seen in photos. It’s only years later—when I’m a bit older, I realise we were at the temple to mark my nana’s death anniversary. Looking back, it’s odd to think this was more than just another fun trip to the temple.
My parents tell me that before I got there, they had to fight to keep my primary school open.
St Francis of Assisi in Paddington was home to only around 80 students in total before the 2000s, when Paddington exploded in popularity and size.
It was my home for seven years, from Kindergarten to Year 6, and it was a fairly sedate introduction to Catholicism. We had mass every week with Father Peter, who understood his audience and kept things at a Primary School level. The church, next to our school and sharing its name, was massive and familiar and mass had just been a part of life.
This was worlds away from life in Vincentia, on the South Coast of New South Wales. We’d go down the coast every holiday, including Easter and Christmas. The only thing tying us to religion was my parents’ upbringing and the school my sister and I happened to attend, but each Easter Sunday and Christmas Day, our family was always compelled to find a mass, to maintain our loosely practiced faith.
Holy Spirit Catholic Church Vincentia was polar opposites from the ornate Franciscan chapel we were used to in the Eastern Suburbs. A one-storey brown brick building with a green colourbond roof, Holy Spirit was on a residential street, backing onto bush. Next door were the baptists, who could never draw the same crowds Holy Spirit would attract.
Holy Spirit attracted families from all around Jervis Bay, filling the limited pews and spilling out of the angular walls and into the glass-walled nave. There was a projector screen next to the chancel, which would host PowerPoint presentations of the hymns. Led by the local choir and old female choir master, the average member was post-retirement.
I wish I could remember the Priest’s name, but this story will stand without it. I think I’ve blocked it out. Father Peter had always seemed much older, standing over the kindergarten classes with his white hair. The Priest was much younger and had thinning dark hair.
His sermons were full-on fire and brimstone, reminding the congregation of their original sin and their need for repentance. For a child counting away the minutes until an Easter egg hunt or opening Christmas presents, the mood could not have been darker.
We left St Francis but continued attending Holy Spirit for a couple more years. This continued until the penny finally dropped and we realised how grimly effective it was