St Laurence O’Toole centre at Broadmeadow at centre of feud between Catholic Church and elderly Italian community

TO THE Catholic Church, it is an ambitious plan to transform a community centre at Broadmeadow into a school for troubled youths. 

We were told this is going to be your place, you could die here basically. This is where you’ll finish your days. Now that’s been said ‘no, it’s not the case’

- Andrea Rufo

But the collateral damage is being felt in the city’s Italian community, with older members saying they have been turfed from their premises, “trampled” by their own church and betrayed after signing a deed of agreement promising they could use the centre until they no longer needed it. 

Many of the 160-strong group broke down in tears when they were informed of their impending eviction, according to the president of the Italian Welfare Organisation and Newcastle councillor Andrea Rufo. 

UP IN ARMS: Hunter Multicultural Communities president Bob Bell with Italian Welfare Organisation President Andrea Rufo and welfare representatives outside the St Laurence O'Toole church in Broadmeadow. Picture: Marina Neil

UP IN ARMS: Hunter Multicultural Communities president Bob Bell with Italian Welfare Organisation President Andrea Rufo and welfare representatives outside the St Laurence O'Toole church in Broadmeadow. Picture: Marina Neil

One woman says she was told by a priest – in front of several witnesses – that she should keep quiet about the matter if she was a “good Catholic”. 

At the centre of the furore is the St Laurence O’Toole centre on Broadmeadow Road, a hall where members of the Italian community gather on Wednesdays and Fridays to eat a three-course meal, socialise and play bingo. But it’s also an opportunity for three government-funded organisations to provide outreach services to the group of pensioners, many of whom have a disability or are facing language barriers. 

They include the Italian Welfare Organisation, Hunter Multicultural Communities and the Association of Italian Pensioners of Newcastle. 

The groups have spoken out against the church as a united front, saying they were stunned to be served with an eviction notice on September 27, after several failed attempts to negotiate with the church “in good faith”. They say they were never properly consulted about the decision, and that their attempts to contact the church have been met with silence and stonewalling. 

“The [eviction] letter rocked deeply all three organisations. We wanted to resolve this amicably, but that hasn’t happened,” said Annette Gebhardt, the chief executive of Hunter Multicultural Communities (HMC).  “The church believes they can threaten us with their might and money and evict a vulnerable and disadvantaged group out of their home.” 

The dispute dates back to 2002, when the Italians were distressed at news they would be forced to leave their base – of around four decades – on Beaumont Street in Hamilton. 

To placate the group, the diocese offered to relocate them to the hall, next to the St Laurence O’Toole church at Broadmeadow.

The then Bishop, Michael Malone, also signed a legal deed of agreement with the Italian Welfare Organisation, promising them ongoing use of the site. 

“It is recognised that provision of services at the Broadmeadow premises will continue … based on needs of the Italian community and subject to change as the needs of the community change,” said the agreement, obtained by the Newcastle Herald

HMC president Robert Bell said Bishop Malone was not happy at the way the Italian community had been treated and the purpose of the deed was to ensure it never happened again.

He said he was “really cheesed off” that the church had reneged on the agreement because it had taken nearly three years to execute. 

When the Italians moved into their new home at Broadmeadow, they were ecstatic, Mr Rufo recalls. 

“They came back to life … we were told this is going to be your place, you could die here basically. This is where you’ll finish your days. Now that’s been said ‘no, it’s not the case’,” Mr Rufo said. 

“A lot of these people haven’t got the energy and age to be able to rebuild. They’re in their 80s and 90s.” 

The Maitland-Newcastle Catholic Diocese said it was not in a position to respond to questions about the matter on Friday.

But it is understood that under the plan, the hall would be sold to the Catholic Schools Office to be turned into a ‘flexible learning centre’ for a small group of troubled students.

The project would be undertaken in partnership with the Edmund Rice Foundation and would see the first students begin in term one, next year. 

The proposal was first broached with the Italian Welfare Organisation in March, when it was told the hall was a potential site for the school but that no final decision had been made. 

On Saturday June 24, a meeting was held for the Broadmeadow parishioners to discuss and vote on the plan, following mass. But only a few representatives of the Italian community were there, it has been alleged, because they were unaware of the meeting until the eleventh hour and usually attend mass on Sundays.

According to those that did attend, a representative of the diocese said that under church law, the deed of agreement was “not worth the paper it was written on”. 

It was at that meeting that Italian woman, Rachele Dos Santos, says she was approached by a priest and told not to speak to the media about the matter. 

“He came up and said ‘Rachele, are you a good Catholic? Because you won’t make problems for the church’,” she said. 

“I told him I believe in God but not in the church and the people running it,” she said, adding that the saga had caused her to consider changing to another faith. 

The eviction notice set a termination date of December 31. The representatives of the outreach services accepted the church had a right to sell its land, but said it would be impossible for them to find new premises and fit them out to the required standard in such a short time frame.