SISTER Anne Gardiner vividly recalls the day she flew to the Tiwi Islands to start her missionary work.
“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 Anne said.
“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 63 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.
“You live a life that must be very much like the Palestine of Jesus’ day,” Sr Anne said.
“You walk with the people, you mourn with the people, and listen to their stories.
“Jesus was a great storyteller and I think the Gospel comes alive up here.
“And I am very, very grateful for the time I’ve spent with them and prayed with them, gone to their funerals and smoking ceremonies, and your faith deepens because there’s quite often a funny side to it, quite often a serious side to it, and you laugh with them and you cry with them.”
For decades, Sr Anne ran the island school.
She has taught generations of Tiwi children, and was known to be strict and determined that they attended school.
“I was in charge of the school when the word ‘principal’ wasn’t known,” she said.
“I taught them all. I taught people who are now working in the school, those who are now in the island clinic. Many of them have made good.”
Sr Anne was recently honoured for her lifetime work by being named as the Northern Territory Senior Australian of the Year.
Next month she will travel to Canberra to take part in the national awards presentation.
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 them.
“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 Anne said.
“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 and again.”
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 Heart.”
A copy of that same photo is proudly housed in the Patakijyali Muesum, 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,” she said.
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 said.
“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 generations.
The interactive space she has created in the museum, where children from local schools come to learn about their culture, is visionary.
“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.”
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.