A renovated convent has become a home for Ukrainian refugees in Central West NSW
A community effort to transform an empty convent into a home for Ukrainian refugees has paid off, with two families moving in last weekend.
Hundreds of volunteers worked to renovate the old Molong convent, located in the central west of New South Wales, with the blessing of the local Catholic parish.
“I hope that this project inspires other communities, not just in the city but in the bush as well, to find that practical thing that they can do to help people in need,” Father Greg Bellamy said.
The convent, vacant since the last Sister of St Joseph moved out, is now comfortable accommodation for nine Ukrainians.
Earlier this year residents were temporarily housing Ukrainian refugees in their own homes. Workers are in high demand in the region and rental properties are scarce.
After arriving in Australia in May, Alex Volodin’s family was the first to settle in the Central West.
He quickly found a job at a mining engineering firm and says he is extremely grateful to be able to call Australia home.
“Here a lot of people support me, and my family and I say thank you,” he said.
“I am happy here, and my family are very very happy.”
His wife Vika is starting a small business as a seamstress and his oldest son will start the transition program at St Joseph’s Catholic Primary school on Friday, which is next door to his new home.
Anna Kovalenko and her family will be the other residents in the convent.
Fr Bellamy said the congregation was invigorated by her offer to play at their services.
“We haven’t had musicians for a long time here,” he said.
Anna’s husband, Dima, is waiting on a visa that will allow him to work in his trade as a chef.
‘People want to see these people here’
At the weekend, hundreds of locals turned out at a mass to celebrate their hard work. An official ceremony included a Wiradjuri welcome to country and a representative from the Ukrainian Embassy, and the Sisters of St Joseph handed keys to the building to each new resident.
Matthew French, principal at St Joseph’s Catholic Primary School, recognised it as a bittersweet moment.
“That convent has housed the sisters of St Joseph for many many years … it’s a very important building for the sisters,” he said
“It’s probably a sad time … but also a happy time that they are seeing these wonderful families moving in.”
Over 100 volunteers and countless local businesses have taken responsibility for transforming the house.
Each room has been renovated by a different school, community group or organisation.
Mr French says the children at his school were beyond excited to be involved and that he is looking forward to welcoming two little Ukrainian boys into kindergarten next year.
“People want to see these people here; they want to see them safe. They want to see them living in a happy home,” he said.
“The transformation has been incredible, it’s like a new home now.
“It went from being a rundown old convent to being virtually like a new home.”
Tradespeople and workers have come from across the region to plaster cracks, lay carpet, polish floorboards and even install a new kitchen. Builders Rod England, Richard Hoskin, Andrew Cresswell and Ian Monks refused payment for the many days of work they did on the convent.
“People have come from far and wide,” Mr French said.
“I’ve had people come from Trundle to paint … looking at the convent now, you’d be very surprised.”
Philippa Waters, a music teacher at James Sheahan Catholic High School in Orange, was inspired to help Ukrainians find homes and employment here when the conflict began earlier this year.
“Seven families have relocated to the Central West, and they’ve settled in really, really well,” she said.
She has rallied support for the project which has been readily backed by so many in the region, including community stalwart Mary Mulhall. School principals Peter and Melanie Meers have been among those to house Ukrainians in their own homes and the Grand Western Lodge in Millthorpe had three families staying rent-free in hotel rooms.
Local artists Larissa and Loretta Blake donated a number of original artworks to furnish the convent, which is also home to a piano given to the Ukrainians by Australian composer Phillip Wilcher.
The main street of Molong is also covered in blue and yellow flags, stitched by retired teacher Glenda White.
“The people here in the bush have really opened their hearts to them,” Fr Bellamy said.
“There’s been assistance not only with accommodation but helping them to set up a life here.
“We’re very excited. It’s not just about us helping them; they are enriching us as well.”