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Meet Cynthia Rowan, Brisbane archdiocese’s new reconciliation action plan officer

Powered by faith: Reconciliation Action Plan officer for Evangelisation Brisbane Cynthia Rowan cherishes the rosary beads blessed by Pope John Paul II when he visited Alice Springs in 1986. Photo: Mark Bowling

ABORIGINAL educator Cynthia Rowan has taken on the important task of raising Indigenous awareness and introducing a reconciliation action plan (RAP) into the Archdiocese of Brisbane.

“The concept of reconciliation is to build a respectful relationship between Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people and the broader Australian community – in this case the Catholic community,” 68-year-old Ms Rowan, a parishioner from St Joseph and St Anthony, Bracken Ridge, who was recently appointed Reconciliation Action Plan officer for Evangelisation Brisbane, said.

A RAP includes recognising Aboriginal cultural protocols – such as the difference between “Welcome to country” ceremonies performed by traditional custodians and “Acknowledgement of Country” at significant events, that can be performed by anyone; building links with traditional custodians of local parishes and communities; naming the traditional land custodians in commemorative plaques; and encouraging Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander flags to be flown in parish grounds and schools where they do not already exist.

It would also include exploring opportunities to increase Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander employment across the archdiocese, and introducing cultural competency training for clergy, staff and key archdiocesan personnel.

In coming months Ms Rowan, will work with half a dozen parishes building stronger links with members of local Indigenous communities and developing local RAP implementation plans that will become a blueprint for other parishes, Church agencies and schools across south-east Queensland.

Ms Rowan said an important part of reconciliation was acknowledging historical injustices and disadvantages experienced by Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples, and about opportunities to gain a greater appreciation and understanding how historical events impacted on us today.

“It’s finding out about the truth of government policies, the impact of colonisation, and that includes frontier conflict, the poisoning of flour and water that was provided to Aboriginal people,” she said.

“Some people say ‘that’s in the past, forget it’, but we celebrate Anzac Day – and that’s more than 100 years ago.

“It’s asking to be acknowledged and respected.

“In some places, Aboriginal people are still seen as on the fringes of society, and it’s not us that put ourselves there.”

Ms Rowan is well-qualified for the RAP role. She is a Birra Gubba woman who grew up with Indigenous traditions as well as embracing Catholicism.

“My grandmother’s country is now referred to as the Whitsundays Islands,” she said. “I was born, raised and educated in Rockhampton.”

Ms Rowan has worked across the Catholic Church including parishes, and diocesan, archdiocesan and on a national levels over a number years, including a one-term appointment as the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander member on the Australian Social Justice Council.

On November 29, 1986, she was one of the key organisers of St John Paul II’s meeting with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people from across Australia in Alice Springs.

Ms Rowan still treasures her rosary beads she held aloft and received a blessing as the pontiff walked through the crowd, along a winding dreaming trail.

That day, Pope John Paul II met and spoke to Aboriginal people, and delivered a speech still remembered for its powerful and uplifting message of reconciliation.

Since then, Ms Rowan has pursued an academic career, been employed to develop and deliver tertiary-level Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander studies, and implemented a number of reconciliation action plans for government agencies, including the State Library of Queensland.

It is 20 years since the reconciliation journey started in Australia and the theme for the 2020 National Reconciliation Week (May 27-June 3) is “in this together”.

“It would be wonderful to launch the RAP during this period,” Ms Rowan said. “It’s not an Aboriginal thing, it’s for all Australians.

“In the context of the Church (including parishes, its agencies and schools) across the archdiocese the inclusion of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander cultural awareness, acknowledgement and flags have already been implemented, and there are some areas where people don’t know where to start.”

It is now several years since an initial reconciliation plan was prepared by the Brisbane archdiocese RAP working group, which includes the Murri Ministry’s co-ordinator Ravina Waldren.

When the RAP was presented to the 2017 convocation of Brisbane clergy, Archbishop Mark Coleridge described it as a welcome move to build stronger parish links with the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander community.

“I am very keen that there be action to try and take the next steps on a long and difficult journey of reconciliation,” Archbishop Coleridge said.

He said the Church must act on its message of healing towards Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people.

In 2020, Ms Rowan said she would be available to guide the initial rollout of the RAP into six parishes, to facilitate meetings and provide information. 

She said it was important that parish teams take ownership of their own plan and develop links with local Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people, and initiate cultural protocols.

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