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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



Comments on the Gsell lecture


MY REFLECTIONS look backwards at what has been rather than what might be, or what is, let alone make predictions about the future. It’s a long time since I was involved directly in Aboriginal communities.

I will begin with the two concluding points raised by Fr Martin Wilson in his talk: Firstly, Nungalinya College and its place in the training of Aboriginal people for ministry.

Bishop John O’Loughlin, in notes on mission policy for the Daly River Mission in the mid-1950s, listed under the heading evangelisation: ‘establish Church: priests, sisters, brothers, catechists…’—the basics required for leadership of a local Church in the ecclesiology of the time. From the first missionary encyclicals early in the 20th Century, Popes had pointed out the fundamental importance of developing local leadership for local churches, especially in the event of decolonisation.

In 1955 Daly River Mission was just beginning, and it’s future was not assured, as the words of Bishop O’Loughlin at its opening convey: ‘We have established a centre both cultural and spiritual around which may rally the remnants of once powerful tribes…the Mulluk-Mulluk, Brinken, Nangiomeri and Moil, who seemed doomed to extinction.’ With the coming of the mission the hope was that ‘they may now look more confidently to the future.’ [Hearn P.23, 24] It took some vision on the part of Bishop O’Loughlin to see a future Church resourced with ministers from among its own people, when the circumstances of many Aboriginal people, and not just those at the Daly, appeared so bleak.

Nungalinya College is clearly an important place if that vision of a local church leadership is to be realised. Catholic involvement with Nungalinya began when Martin Wilson offered courses here toward the end of Bishop O’Loughlin’s episcopacy.

Martin’s other concluding point, concerned the place of Aboriginal culture in a truly Catholic Catholicism which Pope John Paul II spoke of at Alice Springs twenty years ago.

In the context of Aboriginal culture and Church, I found myself thinking of a very special place, the Daly River Aboriginal Pastoral Training Centre. This was central to the Dreaming of Fr John Leary MSC and Sr Mary McGowan OLSH. It was coupled with Fr Martin Wilson’s Nelen Yubu Missiological Institute, also at Daly River. The dream began at a conference of Missionaries of the Sacred Heart at Daly River in 1975.

Like Nungalinya College, Daly River Centre was a place where Aboriginal people, in the beauty of the River setting, in close proximity to the bush, could reflect, think, pray. There the extraordinarily rich symbolic fields of ‘The Dreaming’ and Catholicism, their narratives, sacramentality, dance, art and doctrine, showed great possibility of mutual enrichment. The agenda of inculturation called for in Pope Paul VI’s 1975 encyclical Announcing the Good News, (Evangelii Nuntiandi), seemed a possibility.

Fr Leary drew partly on the South American Liberation Theologians. The approach moved from reflection on the realities of life in Aboriginal communities, to action based on firm cultural and Biblical/Catholic foundations, leading to further reflection and so on. He wrote: ‘The need is for leaders to help their people live as Aborigines with self-confidence and dignity, in their style, at their pace, making their own peculiar and worthwhile contribution to the world of today.’ [Hearn 241] The late 1970s were a worrying time for all in the Aboriginal communities, a time of social malaise that became entrenched. However, it was, concurrently, a time when
Aboriginal people began to reassert their own cultural identity, in the wake, among other things, of the Land Rights Legislation in the NT.

Fr Leary spoke of ‘authentic development’ for Aboriginal communities: It ‘must be in genuine harmony’ he wrote, ‘with the culture of the person as it exists at this particular time. That is, it must not be super-imposed; rather it must be rooted in, based on, motivated out of the person.’ He went on to state, ‘Only the people who are part of the culture can, through self-examination and action and continued reflection on the action, vouch for this authenticity…Self-determination without self-examination is self-extermination.’ [Hearn 257]

The other ‘wing’ of this Daly River endeavour was the Nelen Yubu Institute, The Good Way. Martin Wilson, its inspirer, imagined it to be ‘a mediating centre between anthropological research and missiological theory on the one hand, and practical religion and social work in the field on the other.’ He wanted to draw on the insights of anthropologists, missiologists, the experiences of missionaries and, especially, the experience of Aboriginal people themselves. Then Aboriginal people ‘could illuminate, reinforce, expand, qualify, question or negate items of anthropological and missiological observation and theory.’ [Hearn 244]

Rarely had the Catholic Church in the NT, in my mind, been in such a good place to explore the Incarnational/Sacramental richness of the Catholic tradition in relationship with The Dreaming in its contemporary expression, and to develop local community leaders.

The relatively brief flowering of the Daly River Centre was a loss from which we never really recovered, I feel. As is often the case, it is those ‘outside’ the circle of the campfire who may see more clearly the light it affords. This is what one ‘outsider’, from the Broome Diocese, wrote of their experience at the Daly River Centre:

Sometimes in particular places there seems reason for unalloyed hope. Such is to be seen in the continuing enthusiasm of groups from the Broome diocese who have benefited from the Daly River program under the guidance of Fr John Leary and Sister Mary McGowan. This is a program of spiritual self-discovery and leadership, an integral part of which would surely be the recognition of God’s grace…illuminating all that is good in a culture, all that expresses genuine self-transcendence, and that points to the Other which is nevertheless very close and redeeming in the person of Christ.1

Paul VI’s Encyclical, Announcing the Good News (n.20) stated that ‘The split between the Gospel and cultures is without a doubt the drama of our time, just as it was of other times.’ When Fr Gsell arrived on Bathurst Island, the model of mission he operated out of, the Ethnocentric Model, largely institutionalised that ‘split’ between culture and the Church. Ethnocentrism is ‘the tendency …to regard the ways and values of one’s own society as the normal, right, proper, and certainly the best way of thinking, feeling, speaking and doing things, whether it be in regard to eating, sleeping, dressing…marrying, burying the dead, or speaking with God.’2

In the pre-Vatican II missionary period, Bishop O’Loughlin, successor to Bishop Gsell, stated at the Missions/Administration Conference in 1953 that the missionary task was ‘to substitute a new religion for the old one.’ [Missions/Administration Conference, 1953, p.26. Hearn 78] The ‘problem’ in the eyes of Catholic (and Protestant) missionaries, was that they regarded Aboriginal religion largely ‘as a conglomeration of magic and superstition…’ [M/AC 1957, p.3. Hearn 70] Magic and superstition could have no place in true religion.

Now compare that summary of Aboriginal religion with this one from the well-regarded anthropologist Professor Stanner. Stanner wrote:

Many customs, in themselves not only innocent of evil or repugnant elements but, in fact, of a sacramental order, were also suppressed by missionaries…it was a blindness of the mind’s eye, not just poor observation or lack of information, that made the ritual uses of water, blood, earth and other substances, in combination with words, gestures, chants, songs, and dances, all having for the Aborigines a compelling authority, appear to Europeans mere barabarisms without sacramental quality. One doubts if anywhere could be found more vivid illustrations of a belief in spiritual power laying hold of material things and ennobling them under a timeless purpose in which men feel they have a place.3

The problem was that until Vatican II with its openness to other cultures and a developing awareness of the action of the Holy Spirit in all people, the prevailing theology and ecclesiology afforded no middle ground for the ‘Two Ways’ of Catholicism and traditional Aboriginal religion to meet. Missionaries, because of the perception that Aboriginal religion could be summed up as ‘a conglomeration of magic and superstition’ were unable, in the words of Bernard Lonergan, to ‘proceed from within [Aboriginal] culture and…seek ways and means for making it into a vehicle for communicating the Christian message.’4

At the funeral Mass of Bishop O’Loughlin in 1985, the Tiwi singers began the traditional chant from the old Latin Mass for the Dead, the Dies Irae. It was unscripted, not in the official booklet. The assembled bishops and clergy and religious took up the singing with them. It is a long chant, and one by one the bishops and others began to drop out of the singing as memories failed. But not the Tiwis—they sang it to the very end. It makes one think. Becoming Catholic in this early period meant stepping away from the central ceremonials of Aboriginal religion and entering the new religion through the medium of a Latin liturgy and Marian and other devotions. This was undoubtedly assimilationist, quite ‘foreign’, yet possessed of powerful aspects of symbol, ritual, doctrine and community, and the life of grace. Yet, despite the ‘foreignness’, during the foundation period of the missions, faith was deeply implanted in the context of the Latin Rite Church. In the early missionary period, in many instances, Aboriginal people, including adults, responded strongly to the Catholicism presented by the missionaries.
Evangelisation, of course, was not done in a vacuum. Missionaries had to help a nomadic people learn the skills of settled life. Further, the Aboriginal people contacted by the Missionaries of the Sacred Heart more often than not were in poor health, often landless and disoriented.

Bishop O’Loughlin referred to this aspect of missionary work as ‘integration’. ‘Integration’ referred to the need to find ‘meaningful work’ for the people and to support the poorly resourced mission stations. Work was an absolute necessity as the missions depended for their very survival on local gardens, poultry, goats, cattle, fishing and so on. Other work skills for settled life, such as the building trades, health care workers and teachers, needed to be developed in each community.

When I first went to Port Keats in 1979 local Aboriginal men were proud to tell me that they made the blocks and bricks, lumbered the wood and built the local hospital under the supervision of MSC Brothers and lay missionaries. I also remember my total surprise when I visited Bathurst Island and went into the Bima Wear Factory. The clothing was made by a couple of dozen well-trained Aboriginal women seamstresses under the direction of OLSH Sisters. The men did the screen printing of the fabrics.

These two examples remind us of the enormous effort, sustained over a long period of time, that went in to the transferral of skills to local Aboriginal people by missionaries. It is a story that is yet to be adequately told. The sadness, it seems to me, is that in these post-mission days, that bank of skills appears to have largely been lost.

While assimilationist terms like ‘integrate’ and ‘civilise’ were used as policy labels for missions, in reality Catholic Missions were places where Aboriginal culture survived, despite some aspects of it being discouraged. Some essential elements, such as access to clan lands, the kinship and totemic systems, mythologies and languages, found a continuing place on the missions. Anecdotal evidence suggests that tribal elders were known, consulted, appealed to, and respected by missionaries. Further, although the nomadic life- style came to be abandoned, missionaries encouraged the traditional skills such as hunting—in the course of time with rifles and fishing lines—and gathering, and the passing on to the next generation of the extraordinary knowledge of the flora and fauna of the bush possessed by Aborigines. Together with these cultural forms, traditional art was developed under the influence of missionaries and corroborees of traditional music and movement were enduring features of mission life.

A basic requirement for Aboriginal culture to survive is access to ancestral lands.

A fact, in the main unknown, about Fr Gsell is that when he first went to Bathurst Island the Tiwi Islands had been divided into pastoral leases. At the time, only two had been applied for. Fr Gsell single-handedly badgered the Commonwealth Government in Canberra to have all pastoral leases removed, and the Tiwi Islands made into Reserved Lands solely for the Aboriginal people. This was also in line with mission experience from the time of the Jesuits in Palmerston and Daly River in the 1880s, which sought remoteness from the corrupting influences of the dominant culture. [Gsell, 150 Wives, p.42f. Hearn 90]

Fr Docherty, the founder of Port Keats Mission in 1936, is credited by the Aboriginal people of Peppimenarti with having the lands they now occupy added to the Daly River Reserve once a pastoral lease had expired. [Hearn 217] In Alice Springs, MSCs were instrumental in obtaining a land grant of 425 acres at Charles Creek for the Aboriginal people dispossessed in the Centre.5 That mission was moved during the war to Arltunga and finally to its present location in Santa Teresa in 1953. Likewise at Daly River, MSCs obtained land for the mission that remains in the possession of local Aboriginal people.

Finally, it may surprise people to learn that from their inception, MSC—OLSH Missions were not intended to become places where large populations resided, let alone grow into townships. At the opening of the Daly River Mission in 1955, Bishop O’Loughlin spelt out the policy for all missions:

The policy of the Mission is to provide schooling for the children—medical care for the sick and ailing, and for mothers and babies especially…We do not intend to gather permanently on the station a large section of the adult population. These will continue to obtain gainful employment on the farms and cattle stations. [Hearn 23]

Only those adults were to reside on the mission station who were necessary to build and maintain the infrastructure needed for the mission to fulfil its primary purposes of education, health care, and training of young adults for work in the wider economy. It was a limited notion of mission.

However, circumstances beyond the control of the missionaries meant that the limited missionary enterprise blew out to become an all-encompassing mission. For example, at Daly River in 1958, only three years after the Mission opened, huge floods destroyed the farming industry along the Daly River and inundated the mission. The farms never recovered and the Aboriginal people lost their jobs. They looked to the mission for survival. The mission had a pre-flood population of 62, including 50 school children. Post flood, they had to house and find work for a fluctuating population of up to 400–500 in time, with 168 adults and 130 school children in residence immediately after the flood. Overnight the Mission station became a permanent township with all its complicated needs—something never envisaged in policy. [Hearn 110]

A seven-year drought in the 1960s in the Centre of Australia meant that Aboriginal people employed on cattle stations were put off in great numbers. An article in the Centralian Advocate reads: ‘Facing starvation, the natives have trekked across scorched country to the [Santa Teresa] Mission’ [Hearn 108]. Santa Teresa Mission was forever changed as the numbers seeking refuge in it overwhelmed the station. It, too, became, almost overnight, a mission of around 400 to 500 people—a small town in effect, in which the missionaries had to try and find ‘meaningful work’ for them.

The story of the build up of populations in all missions put enormous pressure on not just the missionaries, but also the people. It presented them with realities largely not foreseen.

A constant theme in missionary correspondence and meetings over the decades was the effort, nonetheless, to create local leadership and an environment in which people could thrive, ‘at their pace, in their own way’ as Fr Leary often wrote.

It is an effort that is still being taken up, thankfully, through places like Nungalinya College.

Fr Peter Hearn MSC lived and worked as a missionary in the Northern Territory for eleven years. From 1979-82 he ministered at Port Keats—Wadeye at the time of its transition from a Catholic Mission to leadership under a local council.

1. McMaster, N CSsR, ‘Better With…or Without? Four Years’ Ministry in Kununurra WA’, Nelen Yubu, No 11, 1982, p.26. Hearn, 300.
2. Luzbetak, LJ, The Church and Cultures: New Perspectives in Missiological Anthropology, American Society of Missiology Series, No.12, Orbis Books, Maryknoll, New York, 1988, p.65.
3. Stanner, W E H, ‘Religion, Totemism and Symbolism’ in White Man Got No Dreaming, p.140. Hearn 75.
4. Lonergan, B. Method in Theology, Herder and Herder, New York, 1972, p.285. Hearn 77.
All quotations are taken from: Hearn MSC, Peter, A Theology of Mission, Diocese of Darwin 1949–85. ‘An Analysis of the theology of mission of the Catholic Diocese of Darwin in its ministry to Aboriginal People during the Episocpacy of John O’Loughlin MSC (1949–85).’ A thesis for the degree of Doctor of Theology presented to the Sydney College of Divinity, August 2002. Nelen Yubu Missiological Unit, Kensington NSW, 2003.