Hope Rises from the Ashes

Reprinted with permission: The Southern Cross
By Lindy McNamara

Father Mark Sexton
Fr Mark Sexton holds some charcoal taken from bushfire ravaged country near Parndana which was to be used to create ashes for an Ash Wednesday ecumenical service on the island. Picture: Sean McGowan

Ashes taken from a blackened roadside on Kangaroo Island have provided a symbolic reminder of devastation and new hope for locals who attended an ecumenical Ash Wednesday service on February 26.

The ashes were collected by Northern Light parish priest Fr Mark Sexton who spent most of February on the island working as a chaplain for the Australian Defence Force.

Fr Sexton said it was a fitting gesture to mark crosses on people’s foreheads with the local ashes in solidarity with those who have suffered from the bushfires and as a sign of hope as they rebuild their lives.

Emeritus Bishop Eugene Hurley, who has been staying on the island for several weeks to provide pastoral support to parishioners while Noarlunga parish priest Fr Josy Sebastian has been on leave, was also planning to attend the Ash Wednesday service at Parndana.

Dressed in Army greens and living with other Reservists in tents on Parndana oval, Fr Sexton said his most important task during his time on the island had been to listen.

“My main role is just to offer a listening ear… to be there and let people talk to me,” he said.

“For some of them it’s the most they have spoken about the fire since it happened. We have people here who have lost everything, but they still think there are others who are worse off.

“Some farmers are still looking at what needs to be done and not knowing where to start, and feeling overwhelmed.”

Helping people in the aftermath of a fire is unfortunately something Fr Sexton has previously experienced. In 2015 he returned from a sabbatical in the United Kingdom to witness the impact the Pinery fires had on many parts of his Lower Mid North parish.

“There are many similarities to Pinery, but I am stunned by the incredible loss of wildlife here,” he said.

Fr Sexton paid tribute to the Reservists throughout Australia who have been doing a “wonderful job” helping with the clean-up on KI. Some of their tasks have included clearing debris, sawing trees, removing fences and erecting reflective posts on the roadside.

Despite the damage caused and the blackened surroundings, Fr Sexton said it was heartening to now see new growth popping up following the recent rains.

“And it’s really important for people to know that the island is still open for business,” he said.

Parishes in the Adelaide Hills and South East also collected ashes from bushfire affected regions which were mixed with ashes from Palm Sunday fronds for use on Ash Wednesday.

About 20 parishes and schools requested to use these ashes in their services, to show their solidarity with these communities.