Crowds gather at Korumburra church services for victims of poisonous mushrooms

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About 50 parishoners packed Korumburra’s Baptist church on Sunday morning to pray for the town’s mushroom poisoning victims, the congregation’s hymns and prayers audible to those outside the small weatherboard building.

The church has been opening its doors every afternoon to allow people to gather in the aftermath of the tragedy. Other parishes in the Gippsland town have also held regular prayer sessions for the families since news of the poisoning of couples Don and Gail Patterson and Ian and Heather Wilkinson spread.

Left to right: Don Patterson, Gail Patterson, Heather Wilkinson and Ian Wilkinson.

“Please pass on our sincere thanks to our church family for all the prayers and support. We truly appreciate the care and kindness and feel upheld by the love,” a message from the families read.

Members of both families have kept out of the limelight following the tragedy, hiring a media adviser to handle requests from journalists.

The parish was thrust into the spotlight last week after it was revealed its pastor, Ian Wilkinson, and the three others, also part of the Baptist community, had fallen ill after eating what authorities believe were death cap mushrooms at a family lunch in nearby Leongatha.

Parishioners make their way into Korumburra Baptist Church on Sunday.Credit: Paul Jeffers

Don and Gail Patterson and Heather Wilkinson died in hospital. Pastor Ian Wilkinson suffered liver damage and was at the Austin Hospital in a critical condition awaiting a life-saving transplant. The hospital is not providing updates on his condition.

The four fell ill after ingesting highly toxic fungus during a lunch at the Leongatha home of Erin Patterson, Don and Gail’s daughter-in-law. Erin’s two children were also present at the lunch but did not become ill.

Erin, who has denied any wrongdoing, has not been seen in Gippsland since she left her home in Leongatha on Thursday morning, telling reporters she was travelling to Melbourne to speak to a lawyer.

She was later spotted in the city’s legal district and at a bank in William Street, but as of Sunday morning, she was yet to return home.

As parishioners trickled out of the church, some spoke of how they wished Ian Patterson a speedy recovery.

Korumburra is home to several churches who oftentimes combine to hold services and activities.Credit: Paul Jeffers

“Get better quick,” a man said. “We all miss him. It’s a big loss. There’s a big hole.”

Ian, Heather, Gail and Don were all well-respected members of the Korumburra community, known for their volunteering efforts. Ian made wooden toys and maintained the local aged care home, while Heather taught English classes to migrants. Gail and Don were the former editors of the town’s gazette, The Burra Flyer, and worked at the local secondary college for years.

“It’s a personal family tragedy and it reaches out to all the people who touched their lives,” South Gippsland councillor and close family friend Jenni Keerie said last week. “We are trying to come to terms with what that means for our own lives.”

Earlier on Sunday morning, parishioners gathered a few hundred metres down the road, at the Anglican Church of Saint Paul, to say their own prayers for the victims. Some attended the service before walking over to the Baptist church to pray again.

Gail, Don, and Heather all belonged to the Baptist congregation where Ian was the pastor. But in a small, community like Korumburra, the lines between religious groups often blur.

The Anglican and Baptist parishes often combine to hold events and services, and the Catholic, Pentecostal and Uniting churches all plan to hold prayers for the victims.

The Reverend Fran Grimes inside the Anglican Church of Saint Paul in Korumburra.Credit: Marta Pascual Juanola

Since the tragedy unfolded, the Anglican church has assumed the role of advocating for the faith community in Korumburra to allow Baptist parishioners to quietly mourn away from the media glare.

Anglican minister Fran Grimes, a former GP who was tapped to take over the parish six years ago, said the community was weathering a storm of pain and confusion the likes of which she had never experienced.

“We’re very much in the middle of it,” Grimes said. “In a sense, things happen all the time, but they’re beautiful community things. For something like this, which is so terrible, to happen it’s very hard.”

Grimes said nothing could have prepared her for the grief that was to overcome her congregation, but she found solace in fellow minister Jude Benton, who shepherded the community of Mallacoota through the aftermath of the devastating 2019 Black Summer bushfires.

People arrive at the Anglican Church of Saint Paul on Sunday. Credit: Paul Jeffers

“I think we are headed for continuing difficult days,” Grimes said.

“As we pray for Ian, as we farewell Gail, Don, and Heather, I think that’ll be a very difficult time for the town. And as we then live with that loss ongoing, I think it’s going to be difficult”.

As the shock turned to grief, Korumburra’s road to healing is only beginning.

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