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Vol 40 No 4

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Martin Wilson MSC

Dawn Cordona

Lorraine Erlandson

Pat Mullins SJ

Peter Hearn MSC

John Wilcken SJ

Patrick McInerney

Abe Ata

Anthony Gooley

Kevin Mark



Gsell Centenary
Missiological reflections


THIS AFTERNOON we are going to reflect on the missiological theory and practice used by Bishop Gsell and his fellow missionaries in the Northern Territory over the last one hundred years. Tomorrow we shall be exactly one hundred years away from Fr F X Gsell’s arrival on Darwin’s wharf as the Administrator Apostolic of the Diocese of Victoria-Palmerston, which eventually evolved into becoming the Diocese of Darwin with F X Gsell msc being ordained its first bishop in 1938.

Cultural and Missionary Expansion

I would like to creep up on my topic. As a person trained in Scholastic philosophy, I like to get back to principles of Being. I remember very clearly one particular day in Rome back in 1958 when I was in the early stages of writing my doctorate thesis at the Gregorian University. I had prepared the first chapter, and wanted to show it to my thesis director, Father de Finance. I waited at the door of the lecture room, where he was giving an emotive and impassioned lecture on the nature and goodness of Being. He was speaking about the transcendental properties of Being, especially that Being is good and, as such, Being is essentially self-expanding. In the words of a classical dictum of Scholastic philosophy, bonum est sui diffusivum. Goodness, and Being itself, is expansive, spreads itself. This was taken to be a first principle, something an intelligent mind simply perceives. Not something you have to prove. At the end of his impassioned talk about the generosity of Being he stepped down from the rostrum and made for the door, where I was waiting with the draft of my first chapter. I approached him and said, Here is the first chapter of my thesis for you to check, please. He threw up his arms in the air—he was a Frenchman—and cried out, ‘I am too busy!’ I was thus introduced to the further lesson that the generosity of Being is grand in theory but has its limitations in practice…

All the same, I believe, that consideration of the essentially expansive nature of Being is relevant to our present discussion. We are considering the missionary impulse that drove men and women to leave their native country and take on a pretty uncomfortable way of life amongst a people foreign to them in every way. Why did François Xavier Gsell and so many other European men and women make the choice to go on mission to foreign countries on the other side of the globe, this one?

The most obvious response is to quote the missionary mandate of Jesus himself when he said: “Go forth and teach all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.” A Christian does not need to search any further, except maybe in order to get a deeper appreciation of the reason behind the evangelical commission. It is the command of the Lord! That is enough. To ask why the Lord would have given such a command is like wondering why Jesus himself came at all. Theologians do wonder about such things. St Anselm defined theology as ‘faith seeking understanding’—fides quaerens intellectum, but we are struggling for substance when we get to ultimate questions.

A non-believer would not be impressed by the mere recitation of verses from the Bible, but would want to ask for deeper underlying reasons outside of biblical realms. Here I call upon the resources of philosophy.

First of all, I would like to lay down a succinct definition of ‘culture’ as ‘the human way of being.’ Particular cultures vary in the ways they embody and express particular modalities in the virtually limitless possible variety. In and through the human persons cultures are alive and have an inner dynamism. Some are more reflective, self-conscious, self-aware than others. Some are more active and expansive. They vary in the way they activate their potential—outwardly, aggressively, contemplatively, pacifically, inventively. Their inner dynamism has periods, highs and lows, is guided, driven, raised up or dragged down, improved or spoilt by the particular minds and wills in which they are incorporated at any particular time. They have a history and a dynamic direction.

Application to the Northern Territory

In something of a Teihardian stance, I see we have two massive interconnecting cultural movements to attend to. There was the colonial expansion of European culture during the second millennium, and the missionary expansion of christianity during the same time, but particularly in the second half of the millennium. The cultures were simply expanding. When the Jesuits came to the Territory in the 1880s, they summed up their task thus:

Religion is primary in our intention, but in a manner secondary in our practice, because we recognize that we must first civilize the blacks before we can Christianize them…(MacKillop 1893, cf. Wilson 1988:13)

Bishop Gsell stated the same principle and Bishop O’Loughlin after him. In his masterly recent study of the missiology operating in Darwin diocese during the episcopacy of Bishop John O’Loughlin Fr Peter Hearn quotes some succinctly worded notes made by Bishop O’Loughlin while on pastoral visitation to Port Keats mission around 1958. He summarised the mission’s role under three heads:

A) Evangelize—establish church: a) catechists, b) sisters, c) brothers and priests.
B) Civilize: a) Christian family…home; b) schooling; c) livelihood garden, stock, timber, arts and crafts.
C) Integrate: a) cattle stations; b) Farms on Daly [River]. (Hearn 2003:25)

Sometimes the first head was stated as ‘Christianize’. Peter Hearn shows that the mission policy implemented by the Catholic Church in the first half of last century was standard vanilla-flavoured missiology. The missionary aimed to ‘save souls’, both the people’s souls and his or her own in the process. (It might be noted that the word ‘missiology’ itself is a neologism. It came into use during the 1900’s. The Oxford Reference Dictionary of 2003 still refuses to recognise it. All the same, it is a convenient tag to cover the theory and practice of evangelisation. It is interdisciplinary in extent. In spite of the opinion of the Oxford dictionary, university chairs of missiology do exist.)

Two giant waves broke upon the Australian shore at the same time: European colonial extension and Christian missionary expansion operating within two major sections of the church, the Roman Catholic and the Protestant. The details of the complex interaction between these elements in the earlier part of Australian history need not absorb our time and attention now. Here the main thing to note is the extraordinary convergence between colonial and missionary expansion achieved here in the Territory in the early part of the 20th century. The government was happy to use the missions as its ‘agents’ in the work of social development, the church’s ministers being considered, and paid, as government field officers under the title of ‘superintendent’, later ‘community advisor’.

Bishop O’Loughlin expressed his complete satisfaction with the system in the speech he gave at the official opening of the Daly River mission in 1955.

On an occasion like this it is surely a proper time to comment on the enlightened policy of Australian Government towards its native wards…Briefly it is this: to extend welfare services to a section of the community who, because of their history and primitive culture are unable of themselves to be assimilated into the life of the Australian society. In this extension Government recognises and assists Missionary Societies prepared to engage in this work.

In fact, Mr. Hasluck has expressed the view that Government and missions are ‘co-partners in a joint enterprise’. This is eminently just and fair, accepting a principle of subsidising social services which has not yet found acceptance in the Australian community at large. (Hearn 2003:23)

I suppose it is useful to note that the style of language used even in official places last century would be frowned upon today—well-meaning but very patronising. I think some present here today might remember wincing at Bishop O’Loughlin’s deliberate public use of the term ‘myall’, which he defended as being technically exact and therefore inoffensive.

Bishop Gsell made the point even more forcefully: ‘no one, I think, would dare to deny that the true faith is the generating force of civilization.’ (Gsell 1956:38) Many non-believers would indeed deny that true faith is genetically connected to civilisation. Them Bishop Gsell responds to by an argumentum ad hominem:

…these fine talkers, few of whom have given the subject any deep thought, themselves enjoy the benefits of Christian civilization: and they enjoy this security because, in day[s] of old, missionaries brought these benefits to their forebears. The heathens [viz. the unconverted Aborigines] are men as we are men and, as such, they have the same right that we have to the benefits of Christianity. (Gsell 1956:38-39)

Bishop O’Loughlin used much the same argument in his speech at the opening of the Daly River mission in 1955, though with an intriguing turn of phrase he aligned himself more diplomatically with the critics of mission:

We others, even when we disclaim religious belief or practice, continue to live within the framework of a civilization rooted and founded in Christianity. We are the heirs, often unwittingly, of centuries of Christian teaching.

It is too much to expect the aborigines to survive and be assimilated without the faith. (Hearn 2003:24)


The key concept in this view of evangelisation is the word and concept ‘civilise’. By origin it indicates a person living in a civis, that is, a city or a city state. It indicates organisation and structure, systems of responsibility. Up here in the Territory the Jesuits on the Daly River saw their first task in time was to ‘civilise’. Evangelisation would come later, the ultimate goal.

The Jesuits used an agrarian model based on the very successful social reconstruction the Jesuit Society had built up in Paraguay some 200 years earlier. They considered they could do nothing of lasting value with the Aborigines, as before with the Paraguayan Indians, unless they could get them to settle down on small farms where the Aborigines could achieve economic independence, their children could go to school and become educated, that is, learn to read and write.

‘To become civilised’ meant to become settled down, basically as a farmer. This proposition is presented as self-evident. Bishop Gsell did not think the task of transforming Aboriginal society into an agrarian one would be easy, but it was the way to go and he was a patient man. He wrote:

…whatever may be said to the contrary, it is not impossible to reform the aboriginal attitude towards life so that he can become a planter and, indeed, a good Christian. Yes, the process must be long and inevitably obstructed by difficulties; but how many centuries did it take white men to emerge from barbarity? The main thing is to face up to the task and to stick to it, trusting in God. (Gsell 1956:39)

On these terms, the ones who became ‘civilised’ were the Brothers. In the early days of each of the mission stations the Brothers put in countless hours of hard labour planting extensive vegetable gardens and orchards. These were an economic necessity as transport to outlying missions was so difficult, often quite impossible for months during the Wet season. Work in the gardens was often a pre-requisite for hand-outs of sugar, tea, flour and tobacco, but once ‘sit-down money’ became available in the 60’s the Aboriginal interest in gardening quite disappeared.

In reading up some of the background material for this occasion I was amused at a comment Bro. Garney Groves had written in his diary back in 1944 when he was working at Arltunga:

Bishop Gsell once told of how, in his own village, each house had a cow and each morning a shepherd would come along the street and the cows would leave their places and be taken to a common to graze. In the evening, they would return and each cow would leave the herd as it came to its own yard.

(Bro. Groves added on a new line in a grim inconsequential manner: ‘My first job was pulling down wurlies.’) He came from farming country near Goulburn in NSW. One can read between the lines: ‘It’s not the way we run dairy farms out in Goulburn!’ I don’t suppose in his wildest dreams Bishop Gsell thought he could reproduce the village style of Sainte-Croix-aux-Mines in the Northern Territory!

It should be remembered that Dom (later Bishop) Salvado of New Norcia in Western Australia had actually tried to share the nomadic life of the tribes. The Benedictines gained good working knowledge of the local languages, but little lasting effect otherwise, and the personal cost was too high. In 1851 Bishop Salvado wrote:

Thus the practical study of the language, laws, traditions and customs of the natives made us realise, among other things, that the very demanding wanderer’s life which we had first adopted was only of doubtful use. It called for the sacrifice of health and life on the part of the missionaries, with little to show for it at the end. On the other hand, the method of stability, that is, the founding of a mission, where hospitality could be given to all the natives who wanted to learn a trade or receive religious instruction, would yield good results, without exposing us to all the hardships of the nomadic life. (cf. Wilson 1988:7)

The mission policy adopted by the Benedictines resulted in founding the New Norcia monastery as a centre of Christian life and education. It is the way the Benedictines evangelised Europe after the barbarian invasions. People would be influenced towards Christianity to the extent that they came into New Norcia’s sphere of influence. A similar policy was followed in the north of Western Australia at Kalumbaru.

Connection between Social Development and Evangelisation

Is it really the case that we cannot evangelise unless we ‘civilise’ first? The gospel was written in a Jewish context. One of the first movements in the early Christian church was to break the connection with Judaism. St Paul contended that to be a follower of Christ one did not need to adopt Jewish culture and ways of worship. The Christian eucharist quickly replaced the temple sacrifices. Some of us would think that we have not moved sufficiently away even yet from Jewish styles of prayer, the psalms and all that. At any rate, it is accepted that the gospel way is quite distinct from the Jewish cultural way. It is significant that in the Acts of the Apostles (9:2) the early Christian church was called ‘the Way’.

Is it bound up intrinsically with any specific cultural way? I think we would immediately rule out any candidate that might be suggested. To be Christian we don’t have to think and behave like Englishmen. Or like Italians, or Africans…or Chinese or Europeans, or whatever. Nowadays since the reforms of Vatican II we take it for granted that if we do belong to one or other of these cultures, we have the right and privilege of being Christians according to the manner of our cultural status.

Why then must the Aborigines abandon their native culture and way of living (I use ‘native’ in its original sense) and become a sort of black Englishmen or Frenchmen or—this is a difficult phrase—black white Australians, in order to enter the Christian church? Could not their Christian way of worship be integrated in principle with the wonga or the lirga just as fully as with the very staid and stationary Gregorian chant or plainsong? White Christians attending such an integrated Aboriginal mass might feel rather out of place—but no more, I presume, than an Aboriginal tribesman feels in the pews of a white parish church in town on Sunday.

It is not unexpected that the government would aim at assimilation for the sake of simple public order, but why did the early missionaries assume so easily that one must take on a ‘European’ style of life if one is to become Christian? No wonder our churches are pretty empty of Aborigines.

I liked a comment Pastor Paul Albrecht made to me in Alice Springs in 1975 while I was preparing for a missionary conference for all the MSCs to be held at Daly River later on that year. Pastor Albrecht saw the role of the church in that age of social change was to help clarify the issues for the Aboriginal people so as to enable them to make their own informed choice. If a man came to him and said that all he wanted from white society each year was a new shirt and pair of trousers, Pastor Albrecht would point out that he could fulfil his desires by living out in the bush in the freedom of his own country, doing a good bark painting some time in the year, bring it in to Alice Springs and sell it, buy his new shirt and trousers and go back home. If however he would like a radio cassette, a Toyota landcruiser, a TV set, a deep freeze and an array of similar things, then he had to realise and accept the implications of his choice: house, employment, hours of work, education, community habitation, life under social control and the rest of it.

Appreciation of Aboriginal Culture

When the first missionaries arrived in the Territory they must have come with a great batch of prejudicial notions about Aboriginal society, which had received a very negative press from explorers and anthropologists of the early evolutionist persuasion. They found much in Aboriginal culture not to their liking, but also a lot they came to admire. The Jesuits recorded particular appreciation of the Malak Malak language on the Daly:

It is a beautiful language—or rather, contains the elements of a very perfect one. So philosophical is it, that it forces the conclusion that this despised race in times remote and in other lands was very much higher in the social scale than we now find it…Their language abounds in highly metaphysical distinctions unknown to ours. (cf. Wilson 1988:13)

Is it the case that evolutionist blinkers were preventing them from appreciating the reality before their very eyes?

Bishop Gsell was very critical of aspects of the Tiwi culture, particularly their treatment of young women. He showed a grudging admiration for their democratic social structure (Gsell 1956:28, 54). He saw them as so totally communistic that, tongue-in-cheek, he advised any serious student of communism to go and live with the Tiwi for a while—he was sure such a student would return totally cured of his illusions! (p.32) He showed in his book The
Bishop with 150 Wives that he had paid a lot of attention to the Tiwi social system. In the epilogue Fr Dupeyrat quotes him thus:

Fifty years ago, when I started my missionary life, anthropology was still in its infancy. If it had been developed as it is in our days, it would have been very useful to me and would have helped me to avoid many mistakes. I had to establish contact with the natives, alone, slowly, prudently; I had to endeavour, to the best of my ability, to learn gradually their habits and customs so as to penetrate into their minds and hearts without hurt or shock. (Gsell 1956:173– 174)

All the same I wonder if many missionaries have had as much effect on the very social structure of their people as Bishop Gsell had on the Tiwi. Through the bravery and desperation of Martina, and his courageous and intelligent response to her plight—in the text box at the end of this article I provide a brief synopsis of the incident—he undermined the social structure of Tiwi society. He broke the power of the polygynous gerontocracy. Thereby he created two new social classes: the unmarried, unpromised, uncommitted girls and the free widows. He did not do it in one stroke, but that was the eventual result of the decision he made to buy Martina as a ‘wife’ in 1921. In principle the old men no longer had total control of the young women, nor of the widows, and thereby they lost one of the main levers of control that they had been able to exercise over the young men expecting early access to a wife, that is, a recent widow, while they were being forced to wait for the eventual maturation of their ‘promised’ one’s daughter.

I went off to AIATSIS recently to consult the anthropological records, expecting to be confronted with a host of objections by anthropologists to what this missionary had done. In an article in Hecate (1986:91) Tony Scanlon referred to ‘considerable opposition from anthropologists and other groups’. Scanlon’s own criticism was mainly of style: the dismissive way Gsell spoke about Aboriginal culture. He had better founded complaint when he considered the way other missionaries in the north had broken up existing polygynous marriages and redistributed the wives on the spot, thus causing a deal of confusion in the kinship system. The trouble for Gsell’s critics was that they tended to be applauding the incoming liberation of women in their own home societies, so could scarcely condemn the new freedom women were gaining among the Tiwi. If Fr Gsell had been going about his task in a rushed and violent manner, that could have been a basis for criticism. On the contrary Fr Gsell was praised by the leading anthropologist of the day, Professor Baldwin Spencer, for his careful approach. In his biography of Baldwin Spencer Professor Mulvaney writes (1985:301):

Gsell’s elementary yet tentative anthropological approach towards first comprehending Aboriginal culture and language, in order to transform it, gained Spencer’s grudging approval. His correspondence contains numerous references to the strength of Gsell’s character and his success, as compared with [others]…

More serious criticism came from within the mission itself for precisely the opposite reasons. His MSC companion, Fr Bill Henschke, was writing to the Australian Provincial superior 1920–21 in complaint about the lack of standard missionary activity. By that time there had been no adult baptisms, no attempt at adult instruction, the free distribution of food and tobacco without the demand for anything in return—in fact he believed the mission a total failure and he expected its imminent closure. (It is ironic that that was the very same time as Fr Gsell made his epoch-making purchase of Martina.) His own desire was to get as far away as possible, preferably to New Guinea. His letters make sad reading. He had been worked constantly for six years in the saw mill with no chance to do normal priestly ministry. His main comfort came from the care the OLSH Sisters showed for him. Reading Fr

Henschke’s complaints and having heard in an interview many years later the comments of another of Bishop Gsell’s early priestly co-workers, Fr John McGrath msc, one has to acknowledge that Bishop/Fr Gsell was a hard task-master. In the event Fr Henschke was mercifully moved to Darwin in 1922, where he remained in dedicated service until his death fifty years later.

Nowadays we profit from the perceptive investigations of anthropologists like W E H Stanner and have come to admire the poetic mysticism of Aboriginal religion. Aboriginal artists have introduced us somewhat into the richness of their vision of the world. We are bewitched by the Dreaming. We are learning to admire the intricacies and functionality of their kinship systems.

Social Development

While I have suggested criticism of the connection that early missionaries in the Territory perceived between Christianity and a settled agrarian way of life, I have to acknowledge that the Catholic view of mission as spelt out in the Papal missionary encyclicals of last century—well covered by Peter Hearn in his thesis (Hearn 2003:27–30)—outline a responsibility of the church to develop social systems that promote justice and proper human development for all peoples.

More importantly, Vatican Council documents envisaged a world wherein every human value that is good would be acknowledged as part of God’s creative plan and so become an operative part of the Kingdom of God on earth and in time. That is what the missionary is endeavouring to bring about! Nowadays in the Vatican II era the missionary goal is much bigger than the ‘saving of souls’, as it was when Fr Gsell and his companions first came out to this part of the world; it is even more than ‘planting the church’; it is saving the world itself, with all its particular cultures and peoples, men and women whether they be inside or outside the formal structures of church membership. As St Paul saw, it is redeeming creation itself and restoring everything in Christ.


This brings me back to my beginning, the Teihardian view. Over the ages one can discern an expansion of human culture in awareness, language, information technology, music, art, mechanical technology, medicine, food production…in spite of all the negatives of war, cruelty, inhumanity, social injustice, persecution, ethnic cleansing and the rest. Parallel with it, intrinsically connected with it at times, subtly informing, reforming and purifying it, is the other great force stemming from the life, death and resurrection of Christ the Lord. Reflecting on this century of missionary endeavour makes us aware of the great saga we are involved in.

* * *

In conclusion I would like to make two points:

Firstly, Nungalinya College where we are meeting today is both a symbol and an instrument in a most important relatively recent missiological advance in the diocese of Darwin. An Aboriginal Christian ministry is being formed: surely it is only Aboriginal ministers who can guide and nourish the completion of the missionary process amongst their own communities.

And this great work of ministerial formation is being performed by three of the major branches of the Christian church working in formal union. It augurs well for the future. The Nungalinya commitment is surely one of the high points of Bishop Ted Collins’ episcopacy.

Secondly, we should remind ourselves of the challenge with which Pope John Paul II confronted us and the Aboriginal people of Australia at Alice Springs back in 1986 when he addressed them at Blatherskite Park:

You are part of Australia and Australia is part of you. And the Church herself in Australia will not be fully the Church that Jesus wants her to be until you have made your contribution to her life and until that contribution has been joyfully received by others.

Fr Martin Wilson msc has taught philosophy in Australia and PNG. In 1977 at Daly River he established the Nelen Yubu Missiological Unit and published its journal, Nelen Yubu until 2003. He now concerns himself with publications and occasional addresses.

Gsell msc, F X, The Bishop with 150 Wives: fifty years as a missionary. Angus and Robertson, Sydney, 1956.
Hearn msc, Peter, A Theology of Mission Diocese of Darwin 1949-1985, Nelen Yubu Missiological Unit, Kensington, NSW. 2003.
MacKillop sj, D, ‘Anthropological notes on the Aboriginal tribes of the Daly River, North Australia’, in Transactions of the Royal Society of South Australia, 1893.
Mulvaney, D J & Calaby, J H ‘So Much that is New’ Baldwin Spencer, 1860-1929 A Biography. Melbourne University Press, Melbourne. 1985.
Scanlon T, ‘‘Pure and Clean and True to Christ’: Black Women and White Missionaries in the North’ Hecate, 12(1-2):82-105, 1986
Wilson msc, M, Ministry Among Aboriginal People: missiological overview of the Catholic Church in Australia. PICT series. Collins Dove, 1988.


Martina’s story

A brief summary might be helpful. Gsell describes the pivotal incident in Chapter V, simply entitled ‘Martina’. She was ‘an intelligent, lively little girl’. Like some other little Tiwi girls, she stayed with the Sisters for schooling, but back in 1921 was not yet baptised. An old man came out of the bush one day and claimed her as his ‘promised’ wife. With sorrow, Fr Gsell had to say farewell to her: they were all bound by the tribal law. Martina begged to be allowed stay, but she was led off in tears. She did not settle down and was punished with a spear-thrust into her leg. As soon as she could, she fled back some 40 miles to the mission. When her husband and his companions came with their spears ready to take her back, with a fight if need be, Gsell managed to delay them. Over night he got the idea of buying her from her husband and his tribe. Tiwi were quite happy to sell their women for a few days to visiting pearl divers and such like, but to sell her forever was not an action sanctioned by tradition! Gsell laid out a most enticing array of goods like axes, knives, flour, tobacco and pipe. After long discussion the Tiwi men decided that they could sell Martina as his wife, provided he kept her as such. So Fr Gsell gained an official Tiwi wife. He said he never agreed to the codicil that he would not pass her on to another. In due course she found a young baptised Tiwi man whom she was happy to marry. They had five children. When her daughter, Elizabeth, was claimed as ‘promised’ wife, Gsell came to realise that in buying a wife he also had to add ownership of his ‘wife’s’ female offspring into the bargain: he had to buy off the prospective son-in-law as well. When Gsell was made bishop, he was proud of the soubriquet ‘Bishop with 150 wives’. Sadly, Martina contracted leprosy later on in life and died at the Channel Island leprosarium.