May 18th, 2020Father Neil streaming the words of a service
FATHER Neil Fitzgerald could be living in Wales right now. The vicar for Christ Church Daylesford was visiting his uncle with his partner and parents when COVID-19 hit and their airline left them “high and dry”.
Luckily, Father Neil’s other job is as a steward with Qantas so he cashed in all of his staff travel benefits and credits and managed to get all four of them on the last Qantas flight from London to Melbourne.
“When we checked in we were told it was 40 (seats) oversold with 30 staff on standby and I thought ‘OK, we are not getting out of here’ but miraculously we did. I was rapt to get home and I didn’t even mind the 14 days’ isolation, it was actually good to get some work done for the church. If we had not caught that plane we would still be in Wales, mind you we had a lovely cottage, but I think the family welcome would have worn out after a while.”
Father Neil said while all travel was now off the cards, he continued to be employed by Qantas for another month after his isolation, a position decided on seniority. But his only duty was to sit at the airport for seven hours a day on standby in case he was called out.
“There were just two of us in the crew lounge and nobody in the airport which was just bizarre to be in a place like Tullamarine and have no-one around and nothing going on. It was a bit apocalyptic in a way.”
He was officially stood down at the end of April, along with 95 per cent of crew. It’s not the first time Father Neil has been stood down, the other was at the start of his career when the end of his training coincided with the pilot’s strike of 1989. The irony, as he reaches the end of his career, is not lost on him.
Other cabin crew have taken on positions with supermarkets and delivery companies, but Father Neil has been retained by the church which he says has helped with finances.
It has also kept him busy with online streaming Sunday and Wednesday services and podcasting evening prayer four times a week. Podcast CDs have also been delivered to parishioners who are not online.
“The church is going really well. One of my first sermons at the church a couple of years ago was how a church was not just a vicar in a nice building, it’s about the community and the people who turn up each Sunday, whether that is in a nice building or a tin shed.
“We have really had to put that to the test and the response has been overwhelming. We were averaging on the streaming service well over 100 viewings and people have not only maintained but increased their giving which is humbling and incredibly supportive. We are doing food deliveries and still collecting food and clothing for the refugees and the homeless. People have really stepped up and thought outside the box.
“However it is strange to do a church service to an empty church and it’s not something I want to get used to. I feel like Father McKenzie in the Beatles’ song, Eleanor Rigby, ‘writing the words of a sermon that no one will hear’.”
There’s also a phone tree to make sure everyone is in contact, newsletters are still being published and people are meeting via Zoom. “We have actually been one of the most forward-thinking parishes in the diocese. I am incredibly proud of the congregation, they have really shown compassion and care to one another and to complete strangers and to me as well, it has been lovely. I have been overwhelmed by their support and it just goes to show a church isn’t just a building and a vicar, it’s a community. It has been heart-warming.”
So what does the future hold, both in the air and on the ground?
“We have been told by the airline that it will be a totally different animal on the other side of coronavirus so we are not sure what we will be going back to, we are just waiting to see.
“We keep our qualifications up and running either online or at the training centre but we have no idea what is happening from month to month. We are hoping there may be some domestic flights happening by July and perhaps trans-Tasman flights will be one of the first to open up, along with the domestic.
“With the church, we initially had to cut down on the social contact side, telling people just to make eye contact and smile rather than a handshake in a greeting of peace. And there will be more social distancing to come with this relaxation (of the rules) coming. How that will work? We have no idea. I may have to produce a ‘safety onboard card’ to hand out at the door. Or perhaps people can ring up and make a reservation for an aisle or window seat.
“What is it going to look like with 10 people per service and two per pew? Maybe we will have multiple services on a Sunday. But I am hoping the first 10 people are those who are not on social media because they will really be feeling the isolation. We have no idea how it is going to look but it is certainly going to be an interesting time.”
*Donations of food and clothing can be left at the church door.
Words: Donna Kelly | Image: Kyle Barnes