St. Anthony’s Parish formerly came into existence in 1915, after having spent a number of years under the Northcote Parish and operating as a “church of ease” for the growing number of Catholic families in the Fairfield/Alphington area. Fr. Michael Hayes was appointed as St. Anthony’s first Parish Priest in 1915 and a presbytery ,formerly the property “Rosebank”, was opened and blessed on St Anthony’s feast day 13th June 1915. Fr. Hayes was an Irishman who by all accounts was a genial , jovial and hard working priest who instantly won the affection of his fledgling parish. Always welcoming to his parishioners, one alter boy recorded his sportsmanlike demeanour and his enthusiasm for kicking footballs with the boys sending the footy high over the pines that lined Austin Street at the time.
One of the primary objectives of the parish community was to secure a school building to provide for the educational and religious instruction of its youngest parishioners. It was with much enthusiasm that some 1,200 people gathered on St. Patricks Day 1917 to observe the official opening of the St Anthony’s Parish School , located at No 43 Austin Street. In the midst of the first world war both materiel & manpower had proved scarce, and the building was purchased second hand from St Joseph’s Parish in Malvern. That purchase also included the acquisition of a Parish Hall which quickly became the centre of parish social life and also accommodated the overflow of school classes as numbers in the parish increased.
The school consisted of 3 rooms, and was initially to house a student population of 80 pupils. The school’s day to day activities were under the auspices of the Sisters of St Joseph. Its first Principal—Sister Isabelle Colvin was a novice of Mother Mary Mac Killop & close personal friend.
The following 2 decades saw both the church and school resources struggle to meet the needs of its pupils and parishioners. The demands of the parish, plus the workload involved in being Chaplin to both the Infectious Diseases Hospital and Yarra Bend Lunatic Asylum, took a heavy toll on Fr. Hayes health. In 1931 the parish reluctantly farewelled Fr. Hayes. After a short transition period Fr. Francis Molan settled into the position and remained until his death in 1969. Although he was a taciturn character, he was driven by the needs of his Parish and saw to it that the construction of a new school was of first priority. By 1931 enrolments were peaking at 317 pupils ! Despite the lack of finances in the community, fundraising stepped up. Parish societies such as the Catholic Young Men's Society & the Children of Mary Solidarity organised garden parties, euchre nights, balls etc to contribute to the coffers. The men of the societies undertook “block collections” going out street by street visiting homes to seek donations.
It was a proud community that joined with Archbishop Mannix in August 1934 to attend the opening & blessing of the new school building. The church was packed & parishioners lined the street, as dignitaries proceeded up Austin St to the new building. The next day the children settled in, no doubt appreciative, whilst savouring their customary bread and dripping sandwiches and playing “cherry bobs” with the pips from their fruit.
A new decade was on the horizon as the year 1939 progressed. Two events of significance were to follow. Another World War was declared as many men of the parish left for foreign lands. In 1939 the parish also suffered the loss of its original church which was burnt down by an arsonist. Fr Molan received burns to his face and hands in his endeavours to save the blessed sacrament. The Parish had to rally again to oversee the construction of a new church. This was achieved surprisingly quickly as it was blessed and opened in 1940. This building remains with few structural changes to this day. Although Fr. Molan was not always easy to get along with as he rigorously applied the doctrines of the church of the day; none could doubt his commitment to his faith or parish. In 1943, the parishioners observed Fr. Molan’s Silver Jubilee by collecting ladies gold rings /brooches, men’s fob chains and gold sovereigns. These items with the addition of the gold plating from the original church tabernacle, were in turn melted down to provide for a new chalice. This item remains in the parish as a cherished reminder of Fr. Molans time at St. Anthony’s .
The impact of the 2nd World War was manifested in the post war era of European migration. Irish Catholics had migrated to Australia in numbers in the 1900’s, many laying the foundation of church & religious orders. Similarly, the influx of migrants in the early 1950’s would change & enrich our community. The vast majority were labourers who sought out the suburb for its affordable housing & close proximity to the city and employment. By 1951 the number of pupils in attendance at the school had risen to an unbelievable level of 420 pupils!. However whilst student numbers were peaking, the sixties bought forth many new challenges. Fr . W. B. Casey was appointed as St. Anthony’s third Parish Priest in 1969 after the death of Fr Molan.
The shift towards a more secular society was in full swing. The church had previously been the main focus of parishioners social as well as spiritual life. The increased choices for entertainment and transportation etc meant that the world had opened up to many. The traditional societies within the church ,such as YCW, Children of Mary etc declined, as did the numbers entering religious orders. In 1974 the first lay principal was appointed at St. Anthony’s. Thereafter followed the removal of the Sisters of St Joseph from the school in 1975. During Fr Casey’s time the church was modernised and in response to Vatican 2 a new altar purchased and the rails along the main altar removed. He endeared himself to many of the younger parishioners as he rode a motorbike and was prepared to give the occasional altar boy a spin around the block. Known as a man of few words who went about his duties in a quiet and effective manner, Fr. Casey was to be replaced in 1978 by Fr. Frank O’Loughlin.
Fr. O’Loughlin was a conservative thinker who paid little heed to any disfavour his actions may attract. Parishioners have recalled his refusal to have girls as altar servers during Mass . Nonetheless, he was also known to be very sociable and a great talker when away from his priestly duties. Fr. O’Loughlin was succeeded by Fr. Neale Wilson in 1989. Fr. Neale was quietly spoken and well read with a gentle manner. He had a love of Italian culture and could speak fluent Italian to his parishioners. As a former Director of Catholic Missions he was passionate about overseas issues and highlighted the cause of missions abroad to his parish. His leadership style was marked by his inclusive and democratic approach. He included more lay people in the administration of the parish and instigated a Parish Pastoral Council. During his time the Parish celebrated significant events including its 75th Anniversary , the Golden Jubilee of the Blessing & opening of the brick church (1990) and a major refurbishment to the school buildings in 1995 . It was with much sadness that the Parish mourned the death of Fr. Neale from lung cancer in 2000. Thereafter followed a period where our parish was in the hands of a parish administrator.
Fr. Tom Doyle combined his duties as parish administrator with his role as Head of the Catholic Education Office. A practical, effective and down to earth administrator with a healthy sense of humour Fr. Doyle continued in his role until the appointment of Fr. Werner Utri in 2003. Fr. Werner ‘s time at St. Anthony’s saw the introduction of many significant changes. On a practical level, Fr. Werner saw a need for substantial renovations to both the presbytery and church. He oversaw the installation of a new church organ and the replacement of the altar with a marble one in 2009. The school underwent substantial alterations to its playground and buildings in 2011. As a community we celebrated the 100 year anniversary of a Catholic presence in Alphington in 2009.
Undoubtedly the biggest event of Fr. Werner’s time was the parish partnership with Holy Spirit East Thornbury. Under his leadership both parishes were lead through the discernment process, effecting administrative and organisational changes along the way. As the Catholic Parish of Holy Spirit and St. Anthony’s our communities continue on this journey of partnership. Together we have made some huge steps and it is the entity of the Catholic Parish of Holy Spirit and St. Anthony that we celebrate today. We look forward to recording our combined histories in the coming decades!