Home' The Southern Cross : March 2017 Contents Page 12 March 2017
In what has been a lesson in perseverance,
humility and acceptance of cultural
differences, Sisters of the Society of St
Anne-Madras have found themselves
welcomed into the Aboriginal community at
Davenport, near Port Augusta.
During a visit to Adelaide recently, Sr
Delma Rani SSAM, 34 and Sr Kaspar Mary
SSAM, 33 spoke of the challenges they
faced when they began their work with the
community and the rapport that had been
built over time. Now, just over two years
later, it has culminated in them running
programs for the Indigenous women and
children in the community.
“There was much trepidation when we
first arrived and they didn’t like us coming
to their homes. It was really hard to
understand the culture and get along with
the people, especially with the dogs, as
they don’t allow strangers in their territory,”
explained Sr Kaspar, who also paid tribute
to Sr Rose Mary who worked with the
community in the early days.
“We have now earned their trust and the
women and children come to the shed
where we have our programs as soon as
we open it.”
The women’s group was formed to create
an atmosphere where every woman in the
community could have the opportunity ‘to
yarn, to plan, to learn and to earn’. Held
every Tuesday afternoon, there are up to
10 women participating in the activities.
Each week the Sisters conduct education
and skill training sessions covering topics
such as diabetes, kidney health, dangerous
drinking, healthy eating, budgeting and
dementia. They also offer activities
including knitting, bracelet making, card
making and dot painting. This has led to
the group starting a small business to sell
their products – with half the money going
as ‘wages’ and the remainder used to buy
resources for future projects.
Sr Delma and Sr Kaspar have also been
pleased to share some of their culture
with demonstrations of cooking traditional
In addition, the Sisters have established
the Honey Ants Children’s Club which is
open to children aged three to 15, every
Monday after school. The club offers
an environment where they can do their
homework, take part in fun activities,
creative learning and skill training, and a
healthy snack is provided.
Besides their involvement with the
Davenport community, the Sisters also
work with Wami Kata, the Aboriginal
nursing home and make regular visits to
other local nursing homes, two schools,
the hospital, as well as pastoral care and
home visits to parishioners. They also
provide spiritual support to a number of
Indigenous inmates in the Port Augusta
The Sisters are grateful to many people in
the Port Pirie Diocese and Port Augusta
community for their ongoing support. They
include Bishop Greg O’Kelly SJ, Fr Paul
Crotty, Fr Khalid Marogi, Sr Kerry Keenan
RSJ and Sr Anne Foale RSM for their care
and guidance, and Sr Elizabeth Young
RSM and local teacher Hannah Pitt for
their support with the children’s club. They
also thanked Sr Sheela Thomas, a member
of the Congregation who works in the
Adelaide Archdiocese’s Multicultural Office,
for her ongoing support.
Founded by Mother Thatipathri
Gnanamma, the Congregation has more
than 100 houses in India and a few
scattered across the globe in Germany,
Spain, Ghana, Italy, India and South
Sisters learning the Aboriginal way
MISSIONARIES: Sr Kaspar Mary (left) and Sr Delma Rani have introduced innovative
programs to support the women and children at Davenport.
By Lindy McNamara
Sister Anne Gardiner vividly recalls the day
she flew to the Tiwi Islands to start her
“That was a moment of joy when I landed,”
she said. “I got out of the plane and the
children all ran up to me, pinching my skin
and saying ‘you look so young’.”
The year was 1953. Sr Anne was just
22 years old and, as a member of the
Daughters of Our Lady of the Sacred
Heart, she had been asked to move to
Bathurst Island, the smaller of the two
Tiwi Islands, 80km north of Darwin, to live
among the Tiwi Aboriginal people.
“I didn’t know very much about Indigenous
people at all. I was enthusiastic, I was full
of life, I wanted to change the world, but
to go to Bathurst Island I think the people
there changed me,” she said.
She recalls she didn’t know exactly what
her mission would be, but she was well
guided by the man who had founded the
Tiwi Catholic mission in 1911, Bishop
Francis Xavier Gsell, who she met in
Sydney on her way to her new posting.
“He was a physically big man. He had a
very strong voice. He had a very white
beard and he had penetrating eyes,” Sr
“And I asked him ‘What will I do? I’m going
to Bathurst Island.’ And he looked down
through his beard and looked deep into
me and said two words, ‘love them’.”
In the 64 years since, Sr Anne, who still
lives on Bathurst Island, has been guided
by those words of Bishop Gsell.
She set about devoting her life to teaching,
building community and supporting the
Tiwi people and their culture.
Her life’s work was recognised when she
was named 2017 Senior Australian of the
Year and presented with her award by
Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull on the
eve of Australia Day.
She is humbled by the accolade, thankful
to her congregation for allowing her to stay
with the Tiwi for so long, and to the Tiwi
people for allowing her to live amongst
“They (the Tiwi people) have taught me
loyalty, their ability to forgive, their strong
sense of humour which keeps you going,
their friendship and their directness,” Sr
“They are not afraid to tell just what they
think of you, and that’s good. You’ve just
got to expect that you’ll be told off now
Sr Anne’s initial calling to the Tiwi Islands
is another tale worth sharing.
It has to do with a photograph of six
OLSH missionary nuns sitting in a canoe,
resplendent in their crisp white habits,
being paddled between the Tiwi islands.
After growing up in Gundagai in New
South Wales, young Anne Gardiner
completed her secondary school studies
at St Joseph’s College in Albury.
One day while playing basketball at
the college, two OLSH sisters, staying
overnight in Albury, came down to the
basketball courts and gave Anne and each
of the other girls a copy of that photo.
“I kept that photo close to me and that’s
where I got my vocation,” Sr Anne said.
“I suppose I looked at the adventure, in a
canoe like that.
“I wasn’t thinking too much about spiritual
things at that stage but after a few years
with the photo, it kept coming out, and
that’s when I knew I wanted to join the
daughters of Our Lady of the Sacred
A copy of that same photo is proudly
housed in the Patakijyali Museum, where
Sr Anne has focused years of her time and
energy since retiring from teaching.
“These later years, when I’ve been able to
really listen, rather than thinking I knew it
all, I’ve been able to give them a cultural
museum which we’re all very proud of,”
The museum is one of the Tiwi Islands’
main tourist drawcards, a treasure trove of
stories, photos, and soon-to-be interactive
displays explaining the Tiwi dreamtime
and spirituality, the mission years and
the islands’ proud sporting heritage –
particularly in Aussie Rules football.
“We are at present working on a dedication
room, which will contain the names of all
the religious who have worked on both the
islands, and we have a timeline from 1911,
and we’ve been able to secure 134 names
of the first girls who came in from the bush
to become Christians,” Sr Anne said.
The story of how the Tiwi creation
story has blended with Christianity is a
fascinating aspect of the museum.
“It hasn’t been a difficult process because
they are very spiritual people,” Sr Anne
“They have their own spirits. So therefore
they understand that the Great Creator
also is a spiritual person.
“And then you look around and they
take what symbols they have and what
meaning (they have) for their symbol and
then, if we feel, yes, that fits in, that’s how
we put it into Christianity.”
Last year Sr Anne secured about $200,000
in government funding to extend the
museum and fit-out new exhibitions.
She has been working tirelessly with
the Tiwi people, especially the women,
to ensure their culture and language is
documented and preserved for future
The interactive space she has created in
the museum, where children from local
schools come to learn about their culture,
“That’s where I’m focused now. And I’m
handing over the museum to two of the
women early next year,” Sr Anne said.
She has seen much change on the Tiwi
Islands over the years.
“When I came they were all on the beach
in little humpies,” she said.
“Now we have a township, two stores, a
club, a clinic (with two doctors, nurses and
health workers), police station, primary
and secondary school ... yes, it has gone
ahead, but too quickly.”
At 86, Sr Anne’s health remains good, but
she does wonder how much longer she
will have on the Tiwi Islands.
Tiwi elders have already planned her
funeral, and told her she will be buried
there as a sign of great respect.
This article first appeared in The
Sr Anne walks with the Tiwi people
By Mark Bowling
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