AFTER 20 years the doors of the unused nuns’ chapel in the former Santa Maria Catholic Convent in Byng Street have reopened with a grand plan underway to renovate and transform the chapel for use by the nearby Catherine McCauley Catholic Primary School.
Principal Michael Croke said the school community was thrilled with the prospect of not only restoring the chapel but seeing it used again.
The small chapel’s doors were closed when the community of Sisters of Mercy dwindled and the building was found to be no longer suitable for use.
The chapel doors were reopened as part of a ground floor refurbishment of the historic building in which the welfare agency Centacare takes over the remaining floor space on the lower level.
Mr Croke said the reopening of the chapel doors had uncovered some long lost memories.
“Monsignor Sheahan has dedications to both his parents at the front door of the chapel with a small marble font on the left hand side in memory of his father Cornelius and a plaque in memory of his mother.
“When we pulled up all this old carpet we found this magnificent parquet floor,”Mr Croke said.
The chapel has been repainted and new seating will have to be sourced for the sacred area, as the small pews used by the Sisters of Mercy for their regular prayer sessions have long since been removed.
“It is just wonderful to think that this chapel is going to be used again,” Mr Croke said.
“We will probably bring smaller class groups here for services and I can even envisage we will be able to use it for weddings.”
Mr Croke and former convent resident Sister Mary Trainor last week met up for a tour of the former chapel.
“We would come in here early in the morning after getting up at 5.30am for our prayers and the pews were set up in such a way that we were side-on to the altar and had to turn our bodies around to the front,” Sister Mary said.
“Maybe that’s why I’ve got a bad back these days.”
The chapel is located in one of the city’s most historic buildings, which was built in 1918 and was initially used as a presbytery while the Sisters of Mercy were living at a former location in Summer Street before moving to their new location in Byng Street in 1924.
Sister Mary said while the sisters waited in their chapel, or for services to begin, or to make their weekly confession the parish priest would enter from outside and robe up in a small room off the altar, beside the confessional.
“The priest always came in from that room outside and didn’t come through the chapel,” Sister Mary said.
“But confession wasn’t something we had to do every week - it was optional.”
The tour this week brought back memories for Sr Mary who said she wondered whatever happened to the church organ that was located just inside the door of the chapel.
St Joseph’s Catholic Church parish priest Father Paul Devitt said he was pleased the historic building was going to be used again.
“We have Centacare (Catholic Social Services Agency) now occupying the refurbished area on the ground floor and it really is great to think the chapel is coming back into use,” he said.
“When I first came to Orange and saw the building was unoccupied I did think it would be great to get it occupied again, just as we had done with the convent in Dubbo.”
However Father Devitt said at this stage there were no immediate plans to upgrade the first floor of the building that comprises nuns’ bedrooms, a prayer room, a verandah and the nuns’ common room area.
“There are real issues that would be cost prohibitive at the moment,” Father Devitt said.
“There is no external fire exit and no lift facilities to the first floor but what I am hoping is that the income we generate from the ground floor will allow us to go ahead and refurbish the top floor in the future.”