The Immaculate Heart of Mary Parish Thurgoona

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Thurgoona History – Diocese of Wagga Wagga Centenary

The Parish of Thurgoona, began its canonical existence within the Diocese of Wagga Wagga on the 8th December 1998, the Feast of the Immaculate Conception of the Blessed Virgin Mary. Most Rev. William Brennan from the Diocese of Wagga Wagga provided a parcel of land cut off from the Charles Sturt University site by the Albury/Wodonga Development Corporation. Bishop Brennan decreed the fledgling parish to be named in honour of the Immaculate Heart of Mary.

From November 1996, the care of this district was entrusted to the Confraternity of Christ the Priest. During this initial period Fr John Fowles was the local superior and later in December 1998 was appointed Parish Priest. Fr Gerard Ryan and Fr Thomas Casanova were both appointed assistant priests. The new parish included the growth area of Thurgoona and the Table Top district to the north-east of Albury.

The community took up residence in Tawonga Place Thurgoona in two houses. One was a residence, the second was converted into a chapel, offices and a meeting room. It was here that daily and Sunday Masses were celebrated.

In addition, the beautiful chapel at Guadalupe House, the former Orphanage of St John’s, then run as a shared community for the intellectually disabled by the Mother of God Brothers, was available for the celebration of Sunday and daily Masses.

Moreover, the Anglican Community made their little bush Church of St John the Evangelist available for one Sunday Mass each week, until the opening of our church.

Celebration of the first Mass on the land 

On the 8th December 1998 with beautiful flowers and candles adorning the altar Fr John Fowles and Fr Cormac Nagle concelebrated our first mass from the back of a semitrailer.


In the midst of dust and flies stood the shrine of the Immaculate Heart of Mary, with only gum trees for shade over two hundred people in the summer heat sang hymns to honour Our Lady. At day’s end the petition box placed at the foot of the shrine was overflowing.


Building plans

The main job to be undertaken, was the building of the parish church with its associated parish facilities: a presbytery, parish office and meeting rooms i.e. ‘The Marian Centre’. Today in fact, the complex includes a large landscaped car park, devotional shrine, Stations of the Cross in the gardens, a workshop and maintenance facilities equipped with the necessary tools used by the volunteer workers.

To make this extraordinary development possible, it required a twofold effort – the physical development of the unimproved block of land and the financial underpinning of the building project. The latter was achieved by two highly successful truck raffles known as the “Highway to Heaven” Truck Raffles.

Highway to Heaven — Kenworth truck raffle 

To take on such a huge and challenging project, there was a great need for prayer and faith in divine providence. The spiritually- powerful Legion of Mary were approached throughout Australia and were only too happy to unite themselves with us by reciting rosaries for the success of the truck raffles. This unity of prayer gave us great courage that saw us forge ahead enabling us to build our church in of honour Our Blessed Mother. On returning the Prayer Slips with the boxes labelled Rosaries, they totalled over 1,700 rosaries recited.


The parish decided to purchase a $369,000 prime mover, even though we only had $10,000 in the bank. The Project Committee: Barry Pascoe, Ray Byrnes, Peter Tobin, Fr. John Fowles and Fr. Thomas Casanova visited Twin City Trucks Wodonga to arrange the supply and building of the Kenworth Prime Mover, a new model which, interestingly, went on to be a success story for Kenworth, Australia.

Once the Kenworth Truck arrived at the parish. Both Fr. John Fowles and Fr. Thomas Casanova with many parishioners, literally travelled the ‘highways and byways’ of Australia in a massive and highly successful evangelizing and fund raising venture. Groups of people were placed on rosters to canvass the ‘Truck Stops’ selling tickets to the ‘truckies’ often until early hours of the morning.


The parish office was busy organising ticket sales and finally at the Albury Gold Cup, the "Highway to Heaven Truck Raffle" was drawn by the Honourable Tim Fischer. Much to our surprise, it was a young local man who took out the grand prize.

During this time, evangelising was not put in the glove box. It was amazing how many truckies wanted to talk about the hardships in their lives. Many took the opportunity to re-call their past involvement with the church and with renewed enthusiasm gave their support to the ‘Truckies Church of Thurgoona’.

Vision to build

It was our intention to build a church that was Australian in character by capturing earthen colours of the outback. Furthermore, we were committed to build a church that had tradition but at the same time incorporated contemporary qualities and beauty.

We learned of a rammed earth church in Margaret River WA, St. Thomas More’s Church which appeared in a CSIRO building magazine. Fr John Fowles sought Bishop Brennan’s permission to visit Margaret River to see what could be achieved with a rammed earth construction.

Fr. Fowles was overawed with this magnificent Church, “I came away convinced that this was a beautiful alternative to stone and brick. Rammed earth, resembling the Australian landscape, bore a characteristic beauty like no other. With beautiful timbers to compliment the rammed earth walls it had an appeal to the senses that exuded warmth and serenity.

Mini Church

Our plans in front of us, we were ready to commence building. The turning of the first sod by Fr. Cormac Nagle OFM marked the occasion.

This Pioneering Parish founded on virgin soil where only gum trees and native scrub flourished” was destined to be the setting for a beautiful church dedicated to the Immaculate Heart of Mary.

A dirt road was cleared and people gathered to help build a truck shed which had been transported in pieces from Wagga Wagga.  This truck shed was transformed into a mini church where the parishioners gathered on the first Sunday of each month to celebrate Mass.

On the Saturday before the first Sunday, the ladies would gather and arrange flowers and candles, seats were dusted and floors swept. A shrine to the Divine Mercy was set up along with side altars devoted to Our Lady and St. Joseph. The altar was a beautiful white wooden high altar. It was here we all celebrated Mass, marking the Jubilee eve of the Year 2000.

Work was now in progress. The truck shed was named St. Joseph’s Workshop and after clearing the gum trees we were ready to commence our project.  But… where would the materials for the church come from? God would provide in extraordinary ways. A young builder pointed us in the right direction to acquire century old timber trusses. This settled the design issues that had made the planning process lengthy.

With the blessing of the Ordination of Fr. Joel Wallace we not only gained a priest but an enthusiastic worker.  Rolling up his sleeves, Fr. Joel joined in with the hard work that started at dawn and finished at sunset.  Fr. Joel organized the demolition of building materials from a site in Melbourne.  St. Joseph’s Workshop soon became a regular place of activity - de-nailing and storing quantities of second hand timber.  It was then necessary to build a second shed to store additional building materials.

Materials and construction 

A simple traditional church was what we envisioned and we were aided by the demolition of the old Mount Beauty Hospital which had contained magnificently constructed trusses hewn from the Mountain Ash Gums of the Region.  Making a few swift calculations the trusses were purchased and stored along with a significant quantity of tongue and groove flooring. At about the same time, a major timber merchant “FA Stow & Co.” went up for auction offering large quantities of timber from which a sizeable quantity was purchased by us.


One thousand five hundred tonnes of buckshot was purchased. This gravelly earth, low in clay content was necessary for the earthen walls. In a single day, a mammoth operation was undertaken to transport the materials from the quarry to our building site.

The concrete slabs were poured and the rammed earth walls of the church were under construction. By September 2002 the walls, roofing and interior of the Church were completed. A four car garage building was underway and along with the presbytery and Marian Centre, reached completion by September 2003.


Interior furnishings

Having limited funds, our budget for the interior furnishings of the church, presbytery and Marian Centre was left to divine providence. It was beautiful to watch how all was provided, even to the very minuscule detail.


As patroness of the parish, the Immaculate Heart of Mary needed to have pride and place in her church. Where were we going to find a statue of Our Lady? How were we to acquire a statue to give honour to her? It was to be in God’s time, not ours. We needed to wait.

A short time later, two priests travelling through Albury had a mechanical problem on the highway. Seeking help from the parish, we soon had their car fixed and ready to travel again. Sharing a cuppa, the elderly priest told his story of how sad he was about leaving his Marist Mission House of the Immaculate Heart of Mary. The priest told us that his deepest regret was not knowing what was going to happen to the life size statue of the Immaculate Heart of Mary that he so loved.

After telling the priest that our parish was named in honour of the Immaculate Heart of Mary, he smiled and remarked, “I think we have a home for Mary.” It was then, that we realised why the need to wait.


And so, it was that all the statues, altars, crucifixes, pews, sacred vessels and sacristy needs were to find their way to us. Each has a story to tell about God’s bountiful blessings. Certainly there has been a heavy burden of work, but the outcome is the reason for enormous gratitude to our many benefactors and the many extraordinary blessings that have kept tumbling down from above.


Highway to Heaven again — (Western Star) 

Although we had commenced the building stage, there was an urgency to undertake a second Art Union and once again we hit the highways. Capitalising on the good will generated by the first raffle we undertook a second raffle, this time, however, it was a Western Star truck and people rushed to get their tickets.

Each year, a Mass is offered for those who have lost their lives on the highways. A plaque is placed inside the church in gratitude for the support given by those hard working men in the transport industry.

Mary's Birthday gift

The Church opening and blessing was celebrated on Our Lady’s birthday, the 8th September 2002. Then, one year later on 7th September 2003, amidst great joy, Bishop Gerard Hanna consecrated the new Church to Our Lady and also officially opened and blessed the Presbytery and Marian Centre. Many came to witness this occasion with the church filled to capacity. So many people gave so much of their time and labour, and then, to see their vision realised was indeed a reason for celebration.

Annual Parish Ball

It was time to gather the flock and bring honour to Our Blessed Mother. At a Parish Council Meeting it was decided a parish ball would be a way to socially foster the sense of community. The Parish Council entrusted this event into the hands of a little band of women known as ‘The Ladies of St. Therese.’


The annual parish ball was held at the Holy Spirit Hall in Lavington. It was always held the Saturday before Mother’s Day in the month of May, the month devoted to Our Lady. In the weeks leading up to the Parish Ball, the ladies would meet at the parish bringing suggestions and ideas to make this event a success. Many hours went into the preparation. The catering was a huge undertaking and those who attended were left amazed at the amount of food served.

The spirit of hospitality was alive, the hall was packed with people of all ages coming from near and far to enjoy this fun loving event. For the following 10 years, the Immaculate Heart of Mary Parish organised the annual ball, each one growing more successful. What we set out to achieve was certainly delivered, a community coming together joyfully celebrating their faith.

Fly-away to Heaven

The Highway to Heaven Truck Raffles had raised more than half a million dollars and now with our building complex completed, it was decided by the parish to show our gratitude by passing forward our blessings to the poor of East Timor.

A national ‘fly-a-thon’ would be the means by which to raise the funds. This Project was dubbed the ‘Fly-away to Heaven’. A theme song called, ‘Earth Angels Care’ was written. The words expressing the spirit behind this new parish mission: “The gift of giving they say has lost is way, but I’m a believer no matter what you say …”
First the kit aeroplane needed to be built.


The plane was given the name ‘Angel Wings’. Finally, the big day dawned. A newspaper article in The Border Mail at the time headed ‘The National Flight Starts Today’, quoted Father Fowles as saying “This is a goodwill flight leading us into World Youth Day, preparing people’s hearts and minds, and opening their hearts to being generous to those who are really needy”.


‘Angel Wings’ flew the skies on a wing and a prayer touching down at over fifty different destinations throughout Australia. Joining the good will flight were fourteen other aviators who took to the skies as ‘risk takers’ for the cause of bringing awareness to the plight of the East Timor people. The “Flyaway to Heaven” Project raised three hundred thousand dollars for Charity which was donated to the Canossian Sisters Mission in East Timor. It was a great privilege that Cardinal George Pell was able to visit us at that time to bless the project.


Holy Huggers

During Cardinal Pell’s visit, another project underway was the ‘Holy Hugger’ under the name of ‘Our Blessed Mother’s Baby Collection’. This project is for little children, but has also become a favourite of the elderly. The Holy Hugger is a small pillow with the image of the Immaculate Heart of Mary on the front and the Hail Mary printed on the back. It is a spiritual comfort for bedtime, particularly for the mother or child suffering anxiety. This project was blessed by Cardinal George Pell and also received (Pope) St John Paul II’s blessing. Both received their own personalised Holy Hugger.

Legion of Mary

The Legion of Mary were true disciples throughout the development of the parish. There were many prominent members of the Legion from its earliest days in 1997, including retired farmer Doolie Carroll (who was to give 18 more years of faithful service) and Joyce Doolan an extraordinary volunteer at Guadalupe House for many years. Doolie and Joyce have gone on to join what the parish likes to refer to as its “Presidium in Heaven”.  We currently have ten members, mostly pioneering members of the parish.

Without the Legion of Mary the parish community simply could not have accomplished what has been achieved here. The Legion of Mary provided the spiritual cornerstone on which we founded our parish. Yes, the labour was important, however, it was merely a catalyst to the overall outcome which was primarily a spiritual endeavour. The more we sacrificed the more God blessed us with everything we needed. “Work and Pray” is a Saint Benedict dictum that holds well even in our challenging modern era.

Besides regular Legion of Mary meetings, we also have a Perpetual Novena weekly in honour of the Immaculate Heart of Mary. Since commencing in 1997, there have been tens of thousands of petitions offered to Our Lady, the fruits of which are in the lives of those who have given themselves in service.

Working bees

The parish needed people to roll up their sleeves besides been involved spiritually. It took courage and mature faith to undertake what too many, appeared to be a fool hardy adventure. This vision to build a church when there were three other parishes in Albury was a radical undertaking. It eventuated, with many hours of servile work undertaken by a band of courageous volunteers, over three years.


It seemed that the harder we all worked, the more blessings rained down upon us. One elderly Legionary would come along wearing her artificial leg and insisting on painting boards. Others would help with smokos and lunch, while others sanded or de-nailed second hand timber. Even a few ‘truckies’ passing through Albury gave of their time. Johnno Lawrowicz (a deceased Legionary) would camp all night at the building site for almost three years doing security work.

Another financial success was the building and selling of a town house in Thurgoona. This beautiful four bedroom home was built on the original Mercy Orphanage land which has since developed into a suburban community. No sooner was this home built than it was sold.

Even today a group of volunteers, some of whom are pioneering members, gather each Saturday morning keeping alive the Spirit of self-sacrifice and service doing necessary cleaning, maintenance and gardening.


The Parish Gardens 

Once the Church complex was completed it was time to establish a layout for the car parking and surrounding gardens. The asphalt was laid and parking spaces were marked out. The Stations of the Cross which were originally in the grounds of Guadalupe House have found a new home along pathways in our gardens where people come to meditate. The Grotto to the Immaculate Conception is the focal point of many outdoor services. More than thirty tonnes of stones and concrete were poured into the grotto which was built by Fr. John Fowles and the St. Joseph’s workers.


Unity and Community 

From the beginning of the parish, the lively sense of community has been very strongly evident. A parish is more than its buildings, the ‘sheep of the fold’ are what truly makes a ‘Church an ecclesia, a Community’.

Many volunteers who offered their time and services over the years have made it a priority to build upon this foundation to achieve a truly Catholic sense of solidarity and community.

Today the parish gardens noted for their beauty are regularly maintained by our gardening volunteers.

We are blessed with several active Legion of Mary presidia as well as a wonderful team of catechists who handle both the sacramental preparation of our children and the teaching of scripture in our State Schools.

Another important focus has been the youth group. Over the years it has reflected the life of the parish, in that the Thurgoona area itself has seen the arrival of many young families with their children and witnessed their growth and maturation as this dormitory suburb has developed into an established independent community.

World Youth Day 2008 left a great memory for the parish in the shape of one of the Pilgrim Crosses erected in the grounds of the parish gardens. The parish was glad to welcome many overseas pilgrims on their way to Sydney 08. We sponsored ten East Timorese youth so they could experience Sydney World Youth Day, this was funded as a result of the Fly-Away to Heaven fly-a-thon.

To all those who have offered their hands, feet and voices to do God’s work during this spiritual journey, a heart- felt thank you. God bless you all.

Our magnificent blessings 

Old-timers’ can identify some of the early `altar servers’, now with young families of their own. Recently the parish was delighted to see Sean Byrnes, one of the first altar servers, was ordained to the priesthood in the Wagga Wagga Diocese. Marco Killingsworth, another late vocation, also a parishioner for some years is presently a deacon awaiting ordination to the priesthood. These are the first we pray of many vocations to come from this parish community dedicated to Mary's Immaculate Heart.

How proud we all were of the achievements and blessings received. It was a joyful sight to have a crowded church and to sing “Hail Queen of Heaven” while Rev. Bishop Gerard Hanna, together with Fr. John Fowles lead the way into our new church. The church that will always give honour and glory to Jesus Christ, true God and True Man, through His Mother Mary.

May God bless all those associated with the Immaculate Heart of Mary Parish and may the Immaculate Heart of Mary, to whom this parish is dedicated smile on her sons and daughters in the Thurgoona region and enable them to grow in holiness so that they may attain the goal for which they were created – ‘Happiness with God in Heaven’.


Immaculate Heart of Mary Pray For Us