“Look upon our parched land, we pray, and bestow upon it abundant rain, that the pastures, fields and paddocks by your goodness thrive once more.”
The Thursday-night service brings together those of all faiths in the town. Out here, it’s mainly Catholics and Protestants and some who’ve had their belief in an Almighty tested during the worst drought of their lifetime.
Adam Cannon is a regular at St James’, where he is also chairman of the parish council. His family has been farming sheep and wheat in the district, 72 kilometres south-west of Dubbo, for 107 years.
“A lot of people like to ridicule religion,” he says. “But this service tonight is bringing a community together. And in times like this, that’s good for the mental health.”
“You can get through a year or two, and we were prepared for it, but this one has about broken us after four years,” Cannon says.
It’s the 11th time in the past few years the combined churches of the town have come together.
With a population of about 750, Peak Hill has a special place in the history of Australian agriculture as the site of the first public wheat silo in the nation. Its central position in the NSW wheat belt made it an obvious choice but little wheat was delivered during the lean years of 1918 and 1919. The silo filled for the first time in 1920 with a bumper year.
The rainfall records at the town’s post office go back to 1891. The ongoing drought is the longest dry spell during that time.
During the hour-long service they sing with gusto: Here I am Lord, Glory and praise to our God and Holy God We Praise Thy Name.
As they finish to gather in the adjoining parish hall for a cuppa and a sandwich, there are gentle, reaffirming pats on the back. The handshakes and hugs last a little longer than usual – they say everything when words can’t.
Father Manoj has driven 40 minutes down the Newell Highway from Narromine, where he is the parish administrator.
After a year in Warren, a wool and cotton-growing town 120km north of Dubbo, he’s been shifted south by the diocese.
He tells The Sydney Morning Herald and The Age the oppressive drought conditions are worse than he expected.
“It is hard to know what to do,” he says. “Sometimes the people just don’t want to talk about it. All you can do is be there for them.”
Rob Harris is the National Affairs Editor for The Sydney Morning Herald and The Age, based at Parliament House in Canberra