When in Cooktown they tend to the graves of the first two bishops of Far North Queensland, who were Augustinians. One of them kindly prepared this report.
In Australia, the idea for groups of laity to become the Friends of St Augustine began with a young man Edmond Maher of the Augustinian Parish then called Manly Vale (Sydney). Ed’s idea found favour in all Augustinian parishes, Australia-wide, and the movement was born.
Following a visit from Ed Maher in 1998 to Mareeba a group of Friends was formed the following year with Ruth Parker as leader. There were ten founding members, including Ruth, some of who are still actively involved with Friends.
In June 2004, a trip to Cooktown (270 kilometres north of Mareeba) took place with nine members and the then parish priest Fr Rob. This was made within the week of the one hundred and twentieth Anniversary of the arrival of the first Augustinians in Cooktown in June 1884. This was a significant time in the history of Far North Queensland, as the Augustinian friars played such an important role in spreading the Word to far flung outposts.
We travelled in three comfortable cars with bitumen road most of the way, certainly a far cry from travelling experienced in 1884. Our main purpose was to visit the graves of the two Augustinian Bishops buried there, Bishop James Hutchinson O.S.A. and Bishop James Dominic Murray O.S.A., along with seven Sisters of Mercy from Dungarvan who arrived in Cooktown in 1888. Sitting around the graves we recited five decades of the Rosary.
On our return to Mareeba the group resolved that on their next trip they would undertake the cleaning and beautifying of the gravesites. So in June 2005 seven Friends and Fr Rob set out in three vehicles. One of the vehicles was a small truck; it was loaded with spades, rakes, mattocks, a welder, wheelbarrows and a petrol-driven electrical generator. The journey took over three hours with one stop for a cuppa. We stayed two nights at the presbytery – the ladies upstairs and the men downstairs.
From early morning we dug out dead weeds and soil to a depth of four to five inches; the headstones were scrubbed and mould removed; weed matting went down and colourful gravels laid; the decorative fence round the 6.0m x 5.3m plot was repaired by welding. Backbreaking work and none of us under the age of fifty-five! It was truly rewarding and we were so happy with the end result, we vowed to return yearly to maintain the graves.
So each year mainly the same people have travelled to Cooktown and stayed overnight. The numbers range from seven to ten people although in 2012 only six went - three women, two priests and a deacon! One of our female members is now in her early eighties, but she’s a great worker! A few have missed out once or twice due to other commitments but some have participated every year - including Fr Rob and our leader Jeanette. The repair work on the fence has been completed and painted, the walls and brickwork have been painted and at each visit we brush down the gravestones and fencing, pull out weeds and rake the gravel.
We have Mass at each visit in the church, inviting local parishioners to join us as there is no resident priest in Cooktown. The most memorable celebration of the Mass in Cooktown for me was when we celebrated it at the graves in the cemetery. At 6.00am with the sun just rising, Fr Rob presided at a moving Mass.
For the last few visits our numbers have dwindled with only six being able to go in 2012. Three women, two priests and a deacon! This year, 2013, we were unable to make the trip. The presbytery wasn’t available in June or July when it is cooler and with busy schedules it was impossible to get there. In 2014 we will spend two days and nights, as there is painting to do as well as the usual maintenance.
Why do we do it? Well the fellowship amongst the group is special, the Augustinian presence in the Far North is well respected and admire and to be able to thank them in this small way is humbling.