Opinion2 020923

A Bush Fire Fought by the Virgin Mary

Here is a true story that will give you more courage and confidence in Our Lady. In the vast wheatbelt of Western Australia, you can find a little bit of Spain. Welcome to the Benedictine Monastery of New Norcia! It sits in the bush 132 km from Perth and is so Spanish in style that you might think you are in Andalucía.

In 1847, a hardy band of missionaries arrived here to set up their school and mission to the aboriginals. Under the remarkable leadership of Dom Rosendo Salvado, who learnt the language of the local Aborigines and was writing anthropological pieces about the culture of the indigenous inhabitants, the settlement grew to over a thousand acres of land where sheep and cattle ran.

His successor, the energetic Dom Fulgentius Torres, was responsible for much of the design and construction of the current buildings.

All went well, until one day a bush fire broke out. It soon engulfed a vast swarth of country east of the monastery. The wind was driving the flames directly towards the buildings. Of course, in those days there was no rural fire fighting service. It was just the monks and their Aboriginal friends, who grabbed whatever shovel or sack was to hand, and formed a line to try to hold off the advancing wall of fire.

As word spread, hundreds more aboriginals from the locality rushed to help. But no matter what they did, the fire could not be halted. They were becoming desperate.

At that moment the abbot had an idea. Since human help was now of no avail he turned to Heaven. Taking a little painting of Our Lady of Good counsel from the monastery, he held it up facing the coming wall of fire. Everyone was shocked to see he did not move at all as the fire came sweeping in his direction. The helpers yelled and shouted at him to run for his life. But he just stood there. The intensity of the heat was making them all sweat; smoke choked them; burning embers fell all around.

Surely the abbot would die this day?

To the astonished witness of all, the wind then swung around to the west. The flames no longer had a wind behind them. They lost their intensity; embers stopped falling; the smoke cleared; the wall of fire faltered and died down.

The danger was over.

Cheers rose all around. The monastery , with its treasures and precious library, the school, the outbuildings and the stores, were saved.

The monks moved to the chapel. All who could fit, crowded within. The ‘Te Deum’ of thanksgiving was sung out loud, as the clear tones of the monastery bells carried the good news across the Australian bush.

Opinion piece written by Paul Folley.

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