LAST month the people of Wadeye, Northern Territory, celebrated the 80th birthday of Deacon Boniface Perdjert.
Deacon Boniface is senior elder of the Kardu Diminin clan and Murrinhpatha language speaker, and the traditional owner of the land on which the town of Wadeye (Port Keats) is built.
He is also Australia’s first permanent deacon and well known to Missionaries of the Sacred Heart who have worked in the Northern Territory.
His road to ministry was not an easy one and his story is even more important, as Australia celebrates National Reconciliation Week (May 27-June 3), building on the respectful relationships shared by Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people and other Australians.
Deacon Boniface was born on May 14, 1936, son of Perdjert and Pilimbi at Werntek Nganaiyi (Old Mission).
That was just short of a year after the first Mass had been celebrated at Old Mission by Missionaries of the Sacred Heart Father Richard Docherty on June 23, 1935.
His mother Agatha Pilimbi last year celebrated her 100th birthday and still lives in the aged-care centre at Wadeye.
Deacon Boniface is the eldest of two brothers and two sisters.
He was the first child to be baptised at Old Mission on June 28, 1936, by Fr Docherty with Br Quinn as the godfather.
On completing school he began work as a catechist with the mission and worked very closely with Fr Docherty and later Fr John Leary.
In an interview with Fr Martin Wilson in 1978, Deacon Boniface spoke then of his work as a teacher and later as an Aboriginal deacon.
He told Fr Wilson he planned to be a Missionaries of the Sacred Heart Brother, but then married Bridget Narpur in 1958.
They had three daughters Florence Minggi, Margaret Rose Nguluyguy, and Mary Concepta Demngurrtak, and he is now grandfather to 11 grandchildren and has several great-grandchildren.
Bridget died in August 2002.
Deacon Boniface continued to want to work for the Church and the possibility to do so as a permanent deacon became apparent.
On another occasion he has said that Fr Brian Healy spoke to him about working for the Church in this capacity.
He said he was only able to do this after permission was granted from his clan elders and his wife and with encouragement from Fr Leary, who was the parish priest at the time.
Apart from preparations with Fr Leary at Port Keats he undertook a three-month preparation course at St Paul’s National Seminary, Sydney, in early 1974 under the direction of Fr Peter Hoy.
He was ordained the first permanent deacon in Australia at Port Keats on July 19, 1974, by Bishop John O’Loughlin, a member of the Missionaries of the Sacred Heart who was then Bishop of Darwin.
In 1975, Deacon Boniface with about 35 other indigenous Australians from Port Keats and the Tiwi Islands, and accompanied by Fr Leary, Br John Pye, Sr Laurentia and Pat Regan, travelled to the Holy Land and to Rome.
The pilgrims had about 20 minutes then in a meeting with Pope Paul VI.
It was not to be the only meeting that Boniface would have with a pope.
In November 1986, he assisted as a deacon at the Mass celebrated by Pope John Paul II in Alice Springs when Pope John Paul delivered the famous address to the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people.
As deacon he again assisted Pope John Paul at the beatification Mass for Mary MacKillop in Sydney in January 1995, and led the smoking service that began the Mass.
Deacon Boniface travelled again to Rome for the Mass of canonisation of St Mary of the Cross MacKillop in 2010 and took Missionaries of the Sacred Heart Father Leo Wearden with him.
He had also passed on a particular peace gesture from the Kardu Diminin people for the vigil concert in honour of St Mary of the Cross.
On October 18, the day following the canonisation in the square of St Peter’s Basilica, Deacon Boniface assisted Cardinal George Pell as deacon during the Mass of Thanksgiving at St Paul’s Outside the Walls.
The basilica was crowded for the Mass and attended by a number of Australian political leaders, many of Australia’s bishops, and religious and clergy and Australia’s Catholic indigenous leaders who had journeyed to Rome for the canonisation of Australia’s first saint.
A most memorable photo of Pope Benedict XVI and Boniface locked in embrace was taken during the World Youth Day in Sydney on July 17, 2008, as the pope was welcomed to Barangaroo.
Deacon Boniface has played a central work in the history of the Church at what is now known as Wadeye.
Peter Hearn, in his Theology of Mission, writes that Boniface’s ordination as the first permanent deacon was of significance not only for the diocese.
He said the Aboriginal deacon, who preached in language, and the central place that he had in developing the faith community in Port Keats gave this community a direction that was not found in the other missions that he says were very much like any Australian parish.
Deacon Boniface received well-wishes for his birthday from people all around Australia and overseas.
He continues to be a source of inspiration for Aboriginal Catholics.
He paid tribute to the MSC priests and brothers and the Our Lady of the Sacred Heart Sisters for all that had been done for him and to all of them he was truly grateful.
Fr John Mulrooney, who was present for the birthday celebration, thanked Deacon Boniface and the people of the parish for their care, support and attention for the many MSC brothers and priests who had lived at Port Keats.