MOVING to Orange and managing a country parish was something Noreen Towers had always thought she’d end up doing - she just didn’t realise it would take her 40 years to get there.
Now a Uniting Church reverend, her ministry includes seven churches in the Orange area.
Reverend Towers admits that after spending most of her life working with Sydney’s homeless, she’s pleased to have a change of pace.
“Coming to Orange really appealed to me, I’d grown up with a bush church and in a way this was like going back to my roots,” she said.
“The people here have been very accepting and welcoming. I call them salt-of-the earth people.”
Despite dreaming of life in a country parish Reverend Towers was surprised to have completed her religious training and at 23 find herself “landed in an inner-city parish in Darlinghurst”.
“When I took over the parish there were 12 elderly people attending church and a few Sunday school people,” she said.
Told her job was to increase the number of churchgoers, she decided to start inviting the homeless people she saw in the streets around the church to come inside.
“I’d see them sitting in the gutter with bottles in their pockets and I’d invite them in,” she said.
“The next week they’d invite their mates to come and the next week more would come.”
A year later she had built up her congregation to 200 people and so began a career of helping homeless people try and get their life back on track.
“The original 12 people were divided about me inviting the homeless into the church,” she said. “Five of them stayed, believing that God had given us a new ministry, right on our doorstep.
“The other seven left ... they didn’t like sitting in church next to someone that smelt and that disappointed me.”
It was during this time that Reverend Towers realised her calling was to “minister to those people with huge needs”.
“I just started seeing them as my friends,” she said.
Under the Wesley Mission mantle Reverend Towers set up a “daycare centre” for the homeless where they were able to cook meals and socialise.
Eventually a hostel opened, the first of many different accommodation facilities the Wesley Mission would offer the homeless.
Reverend Towers was eventually awarded a Churchill Scholarship allowing her to travel overseas and examine a variety of different ways to assist the homeless.
Over the years Reverend Towers has helped a range of different people in need including the mentally ill, drug addicts and alcoholics, however after 40 years of this kind of work she knew it was time to move on.
During her five years in Orange she hasn’t had much time to focus on the plight of the local homeless people, although she did established the Mustard Tree Cafe to cater for people who appreciate being able to have an inexpensive home-cooked meal and some company.
With no plans to move, Reverend Towers said she doesn’t miss her old life.
“I miss the clients and the fellowship but I don’t miss the administration work,” she said.
“I’m happy to be here ... although I’m still flat out!”