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Salute to parish secretaries: Frances Gallagher, St Bernadette's Castle Hill

'A welcoming face at the front desk'

Every parish has one – but just who are they and what do they do? In a new series commencing in this issue of Catholic Outlook, we will delve into the lives of our devoted-to-the-cause parish secretaries, who are in many cases the first port of call and welcoming face of our parishes.

The inaugural interview is with Frances Gallagher, a familiar face to parishioners at three parishes in our Diocese and currently Parish Manager at St Bernadette’s, Castle Hill, where she works with the parish priest, Fr John Boyle, and other members of the parish team.

Frances Gallagher, Parish Manager at St Bernadette’s, Castle Hill
Frances Gallagher, Parish Manager at St Bernadette’s, Castle Hill.
By Virginia Knight, Catholic Outlook, June 2010

Frances was born in Lithgow to Frank and Marie Hanrahan and has three brothers and one sister. The family moved to Cabramatta and she attended school at Sacred Heart Primary before moving on to St Mary’s at Liverpool for her high school education.

Upon graduating, Frances’ first job was with the bank of NSW (now Westpac) where she worked until leaving to start a family. She has four children (Mark, Jackie, Cathy and Sean). Mark now lives in Ireland, which makes seeing her grandchildren extremely difficult. “It’s a sad fact that Fr John met my granddaughter before I did,” Frances said.

It was not until her daughter Cathy had started school that Frances would return to the workforce when a job opportunity came out of the blue.

“A friend phoned to ask if I was interested in taking over her job as Cathedral secretary to Fr Brian Larkey. The hours were 9am to noon, Monday to Friday, which were ideal for a mum with three school-aged children.

“I was given job training for two mornings, which included a crash course in how to use a computer, and then left to my own devices!”

Frances is still working in parish offices in a career that has included 12 years at St Patrick’s Cathedral, seven years at Our Lady of Lourdes, Seven Hills and the last two years at Castle Hill.

The greatest change she has seen over the past 21 years has been keeping abreast of the great leaps forward in technology. When Frances first started work in a parish they did not even use overhead projectors – now there is multimedia everywhere. To use a photocopier she had to go next door to the Centacare office.

She has had to master new programs, new equipment, learning most of it on the job, generally only with basic or no training and sometimes without even a manual.

“I was around in the days before TV,” she muses, “and now I am updating websites and dealing in multimedia.”

'The cog that keeps the parish moving'

Determined to get to the nitty gritty of what it is like to work on the front line, I ask Frances to tell me what it is like to be a parish secretary; what she does, what are the highlights and the challenges.

“At the Cathedral I covered almost everything: reception, hall bookings, finance, wedding and sacrament bookings and preparation, catering and hospitality, and organised maintenance. At Seven Hills I did all of that and in my spare time took care of the gardening!” she said.

“The parish secretary is the cog that keeps the parish moving. They are the first person you see when you come through the door so it is very important to be welcoming.”

Frances said the best thing about the job was the people. She has been blessed to develop enduring friendships with her co-workers, likening the parish office experience to working with a team in almost a family atmosphere.

The parish secretary is often a counsellor and a confidante, sharing the joys and the sorrows of parishioners. “It is very important to be discreet and respect those confidences,” Frances said.

Finally, I asked Frances to share her most challenging moment. Without pause for reflection she says: “Relocating more than 100 engaged couples when St Patrick’s Cathedral burnt down. I had to find churches for all of them, with some weddings taking place in a matter of days and weeks, but we did it.”

However, she goes on to add that the loss of the Cathedral itself was not one of her saddest moments. “A church is just a building. It is the people who stay with you and affect you as you get caught up in their lives.”

In her downtime, Frances can be found plunging into home renovation, a necessary but often enjoyable past-time, which sees her plastering and painting with great skill and energy.

And occasionally, when the calendars are in alignment, she likes to catch up with friends over lunch (or at least coffee).

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