IN accepting her award as 2017 Senior Australian of the Year, Sr Anne Gardiner did so “on behalf of all Daughters of Our Lady of the Sacred Heart, who have lived and ministered among Australia’s indigenous people for more than a century”.
“I am most humbled and grateful to receive this award,” Sr Gardiner, a diminutive 85-year-old who has dedicated her life to the indigenous people of the Tiwi Islands, just north of Darwin, said.
Standing next to Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull, and with a Tiwi flag draped around her, she called for greater efforts to understand the culture of indigenous communities such as those on the Tiwi Islands.
“Sadly some of the cultural understandings and their incorporation into policies which enable communities such as the Tiwi to maintain and develop their cultural strength while simultaneously engaging with the wider world are not in place in Australia today,” she told the Australian of the Year crowd.
Joyful is a word that Sr Gardiner often uses.
“Make it joyful,” she implored when The Catholic Leader profiled her life and times in its final edition for 2016.
Sr Gardiner vividly recalled the day she flew to the Tiwi Islands to start her missionary work.
“That was a moment of joy when I landed,” she told The Catholic Leader.
“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 Gardiner was just 22 years old – a member of the Daughters of Our Lady of the Sacred Heart.
Video: Missionary of the Sacred Heart Fr Pat Mara, from Darwin, filmed Sr Anne Gardiner’s return to her home in Wurrumiyanga as Indigenous women welcomed her through dance and song.
A lifetime later, and with her newly bestowed title of Senior Australian of the Year, Sr Gardiner has the imprimatur to talk about her passion – indigenous Australia.
“It has been my joy to witness and experience Tiwi people manage organisations, conduct schools and health clinics, train others in a range of areas and administer businesses,” she said.
“They have done this by being confident in who they are as their language and culture remains strong.
“They have done it too, while having to confront substance abuse, suicide, domestic violence and other signs of a community in stress.”
Sr Gardiner’s labour of love is the Patakijyali Muesum on Bathurst Island – one of the Tiwi Islands.
She helped piece together the museum and lobby funds for it.
Last year she secured about $200,000 in government funding to extend the museum and fit-out new exhibitions.
The museum records the Tiwi people’s spirituality and sporting heritage, particularly in Australian Rules football, which is her passion.
Sr Gardiner is a keen Sydney Swans supporter, and she also has a soft spot for rugby league’s South Sydney Rabbitohs.
The museum also keeps a record of the Tiwi culture and language, and children travel there from local schools to learn about their background.
Sr Gardiner is working tirelessly to make the Patakijyali Museum a showpiece, and no doubt will use her new-found celebrity to promote it’s grand re-opening in March.
“I invite all Australians to support people such as the Tiwi to be visible as Australians to all Australians,” Sr Gardiner said in Canberra.
“I pray that all people in our wonderful country Australia – regardless of language, culture, skin colour or religious belief – may stand tall as proud Australians.”