18 January 2024

Surprise windfall brought renewed hope for Australia’s longest-running commercial TV show

| Kellie O'Brien
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Mass For You At Home Fairy Meadow

Mass For You At Home is filmed at the St John Vianney Co-Cathedral in Fairy Meadow. Photo: Supplied.

Filmed in Fairy Meadow, the production of Australia’s longest-running commercial television show, Mass For You At Home, faced uncertainty before a surprise windfall last month secured its future for another year.

Originating in Melbourne in 1971, the televising of Catholic masses went out to tender in 2021 and found a home with the Catholic Diocese of Wollongong, after its online broadcasts of masses during the pandemic attracted national and worldwide audiences.

The four-year contract, which started Easter Sunday 2021 and finishes at the end of this year, helped continue its legacy of bringing Mass to viewers unable to attend in person.

Aired on Channel 10 and Foxtel each Sunday with repeated airings daily, episodes are filmed at the St John Vianney Co-Cathedral in Fairy Meadow four times a year over the span of a week with some of the Illawarra’s best industry talent.

Wollongong father of six and executive producer/director Daniel Hopper said while fundraising efforts in the first two years produced more funds than required, last year saw them below budget as viewer donations reduced due to the cost-of-living crisis.

“Our whole funding model is built on fundraising. It’s not cheap to do this,” Hopper said.

“We do the production on the smell of an oily rag.

“We rely on people, like mums and dads and grandmas and grandpas, donating to us.”

Hopper said the show played an important role for those who couldn’t attend Mass physically and was why it started 53 years ago.

“We primarily broadcast for those that don’t have internet — nursing homes, those in aged care, those sick and housebound, and those in prison. So that’s our audience,” he said.

“I get emails all the time from people saying their parents had just passed away, but they’d watched the show every single day. It was their comfort, their solace, and they never missed it.”

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The financial challenges came to light last year, despite the show still sustaining about 50,000 viewers per week.

“For the first years – 2021 and ’22 – we went over our fundraising target,” he said.

“Then with the interest rate rises, with the cost of living, we were behind by about $100,000 at the end of last year.

“There had been some real questions about would we do it this year, can we continue to do it?”

However, a surprise windfall brought renewed hope – and proved its impact on viewers.

“Then come early December, we got a letter out of the blue – someone giving us $96,000 in their will,” he said.

“That meant we could do it again.”

Hopper said the contract for the Wollongong diocese would finish at the end of this year, but little was known about its future beyond 2024.

“I’m supremely confident that it’ll continue beyond 2024 – it’s been 53 years, so it will continue, but will it continue with us doing it or not is another question,” he said.

“I never say never. But it just means this year is even more special.

“When we shoot in a couple of weeks, I’ll go, ‘OK, we may only have three more of these left, but I’ll enjoy it.’”

He said the show took a lot of time and resources, limiting what they were able to do as a church, but it was that ability to adapt that first put them on the radar to take on the show.

In 2020, the Melbourne crew responsible for the production handed it over to the peak body for all dioceses, the Australian Catholic Bishops Conference (ACBC).

“That’s when COVID hit,” Hopper said.

“We started doing our Bishops Masses online,” he said of lockdowns closing church doors.

With a strong film and TV industry in the Illawarra and Hopper’s industry background as a professional photographer, working at Fox Studios during his university days and being Wollongong executive officer for Sydney’s World Youth Day 2008, he “didn’t want to do things in halves”.

“We were one of the few that did prerecords instead of livestreaming it,” he said.

“We could do a three-camera shoot, and we could do it properly at the co-cathedral in Fairy Meadow, which is a nice church.”

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He said the ACBC approached them to put in a tender and, while a mammoth task and with no TV experience, it was a chance for him to bring the crew back together.

The Illawarra-based credits alone for the show are impressive – with renowned Albion Park cinematographer Glenn Hanns, two of Australia’s best AUSLAN signers, a music director who’s now a seminarian in Rome who mixes the music from afar, a Kiama makeup artist who has worked with some of Australia’s biggest celebrities and a singer who appeared on Voice Kids.

Beyond the show, the church also produces a reflection book for advent and Christmas, and lent and Easter, selling about 50,000 copies around Australia and the world and giving free copies to prisoners.

“As a result, the Wollongong diocese has this connection with inmates throughout the country that no other diocese does,” he said.

“The people who watch our show are those that desperately want to be at church but can’t be there.

“It’s a different type of parishioner. It’s not a cultural thing, it’s actually a deep faith thing.”

He said credit went to Wollongong Bishop Brian Mascord, who “puts his money where his mouth is” to make such initiatives happen.

You can view Mass For You At Home online, or via Channel 10 and Foxtel.

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