THE pews were almost full at South Brisbane's St Mary's Catholic Church for the first Sunday Mass since the departure of its rebel priest. But many of the 200 people in yesterday's congregation came from outside the parish.
Most of the church's regulars were worshipping metres down the road at the Trades and Labour Council as part of a breakaway group calling itself St Mary's in Exile, led by sacked priest Father Peter Kennedy.
Brisbane Archbishop John Bathersby removed Father Kennedy as St Mary's administrator in February for being out of line with the rules of the Catholic Church on a range of issues, including the role of women and the blessing of gay couples.
St Stephen's Cathedral dean Ken Howell has taken over as interim administrator and led his first Sunday service at the 117-year-old church yesterday.
"There have been uncertainties throughout the history of this church, in fact this is true of every church," he said in his homily.
"There is never a time when the church does not need renewing, nor is there ever a time when the church does not have to face challenges.
"Like in all things, testing times are what built the church in the first place. This is what makes it strong and enables it to be authentic and true to its calling. Today a new chapter begins."
While not mentioning Father Kennedy, Father Howell acknowledged some members of the church's congregation may not stay at St Mary's following recent events.
"It is quite possible that some may be wondering whether to stay with the church or to go in other directions.
"Can I appeal to you to stay with us, because it is best we stay together."
After the service, Father Howell admitted he was unsure how many regular St Mary's parishioners remained after Father Kennedy's departure.
"It's a time of transition and we are confident. Indeed, there is a great groundswell of people in the parishes that are supporting the mood here."
Pat Walker, of All Saints Parish, at Albany Creek, on Brisbane's northside, said she had decided to attend the St Mary's service because: "We're all the body of Christ, it doesn't matter which parish we go to.
"We support one another, especially through times of adversity.
"I think that's important. Father Ken is a lovely, lovely man and I hope that the local people will support him."
Margaret Cashen, who normally worships at St Stephen's in the inner-city, said St Mary's was privileged to have Father Howell.
"I came here to support Father Howell because I know it's been a very difficult time for him," she said.
"He's a very spiritual priest. St Mary's has been given a very precious gift."
Lew Rice, who attended Father Kennedy's service at the TLC, said he still regarded himself as a Catholic.
He said many hundreds of people were continuing to worship with Father Kennedy at the TLC.
"We didn't have to bus in a rent-a-mob," he said.
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