CYNTHIA Rowan treasures the rosary beads that were blessed by St John Paul II the day he visited Alice Springs 30 years ago.
It was the November 29, 1986, and a day of many highlights for Queenslander Ms Rowan who was one of the key organisers of the pope’s meeting with indigenous people from across Australia.
The day was to prove a pivotal moment during Pope John Paul II’s tour, as he met and spoke to Aboriginal people, and delivered a speech still remembered for its powerful and uplifting message of reconciliation.
“I was the mad person in the background organising the stuff,” Ms Rowan, a Birri-Gubba Juru woman who grew up in Rockhampton, said.
Ms Rowan’s role in the papal visit sprung from her involvement as state secretary and treasurer of the Queensland Aboriginal and Islander Catholic Council and secretary-treasurer of the Rockhampton diocesan AICC, in which she often lobbied on key pastoral and social justice issues.
“My role was almost like a national co-ordinator of the activities in Alice Springs as part of the pope’s visit,” she said.
“We negotiated Alice Springs specifically because it is the centre of Australia.
“It was chosen for a reason, to bring people together in a neutral place.”
For 18 months leading up to the Alice Spring event, Ms Rowan, representing Queensland as a member of the National Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Organising Committee for the meeting between the pope and indigenous people of Australia, had travelled back and forth from Queensland to the red centre talking with traditional owners; local, territory and Commonwealth government officials; as well as Church leaders involved and preparing every little detail for the arrival of Pope John Paul and an estimated 7000 Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders and their Catholic parishioner supporters.
“I travelled to Alice Springs two weeks (beforehand) to finalise arrangements for the event, a concert of local Aboriginal talent – information on different types of accommodation was distributed across the nation,” she said.
“It was a happy event where there could be fellowship, socialisation and lots of activities.”
However Ms Rowan also recalls it was “the hardest time of my life”.
“It was the first time I had really been away from my family. I relied on local acquaintances, priests and nuns to get me through,” she said.
A few days before the papal visit, convoys of buses started arriving from parishes across Australia.
Ms Rowan waited in great anticipation to meet the group from Central Queensland.
“There were more coaches from Queensland that came to Alice Springs than any other state, and that is a reflection of the parishes, which supported our trip,” she said.
“Rockhampton had two coaches and a mini-bus. The trip was supported from just families that saved for ages.
“It was a wonderful journey – the laughter, the sing-alongs in the buses.
“The icing on the cake was to come and hear the pope’s message.”
The day of John Paul’s arrival, Ms Rowan remembers starting early, frantically organising to make sure everything was right – but it wasn’t.
“All the Aboriginal flags across the Alice Springs Showgrounds had been hung upside down,” she said.
Ms Rowan, who was 34 at the time, put it right.
Later in the day, and on the trip from the Alice Springs airport, the popemobile overheated and broke down.
The pope had to change vehicles to arrive in town.
But the small setbacks were overshadowed by his message and the deep, personal connection made with indigenous people.
Ms Rowan had organised a huge calico banner with a simple “Welcome” in Polish language with the message painted in red to match the colours of the Polish flag.
“He saw it and he stopped to read it. It was our way to acknowledge him and his cultural background. That personal relationship was very important,” she said.
Like so many in the crowd, Ms Rowan held her rosary beads aloft and received a blessing as the pope walked through the crowd, along a winding dreaming trail.
He stopped at various stations along the trail to talk to indigenous representatives from across the continent and receive gifts.
At the first station, Rose Borey, from Stradbroke Island, presented Pope John Paul II with a copy of the Our Father in the Gurumpul language of the Stradbroke Island people, the first indigenous Australians to receive Catholic missionaries.
Then the pope delivered his speech – just as a storm was brewing, whipping up the red dust, and swirling through the crowd – that is most remembered, emphasising the unique importance of Australia’s indigenous people.
“Your culture, which shows the lasting genius and dignity of your race, must not be allowed to disappear,” he said.
“Do not think that your gifts are worth so little that you should no longer bother to maintain them. Share them with each other and teach them to your children.
“Your songs, your stories, your paintings, your dances, your languages, must never be lost.
“If you stay closely united, you are like a tree standing in the middle of a bushfire sweeping through the timber.
“The leaves are scorched and the tough bark is scarred and burned; but inside the tree the sap is still flowing, and under the ground the roots are still strong.
“Like that tree you have endured the flames, and you still have the power to be reborn. The time for this rebirth is now.”
Ms Rowan said the pontiff’s message resonated deeply – for her own faith and, more broadly for indigenous people.
“He built my confidence in my faith as an Aboriginal person; there is no doubt about that,” she said.
She also recalled how the storm was building during the pope’s speech, with thunder and lightning in the distance, and then as he finished the heavens opened with a downpour.
“The timing was absolutely brilliant. God was good that day,” she said.
Ms Rowan and the other members of the national Aboriginal and Islander organising committee received a black-and-white studio photo of the pope as an official reminder and thank-you for their work in organising the Alice Springs event.
“My experience was different than for most people there. It wasn’t the papal visit that was the big thing, it was the journey to get there,” she said.
She said the event helped forge lifelong friendships with her fellow national committee members and she witnessed the indigenous ministries take shape and grow stronger.
Since the event she has kept her rosary beads in the original tiny brown pouch, tucked in her handbag that she always carries with her.