STRADBROKE Island elder Aunty Evelyn Parkin hasn’t needed to travel the world to uncover spiritual wisdom.
Almost everything required has been found in her beloved Quandamooka country – from the inspirational love of her mother Bethel to the island of her childhood days which taught her the mysteries of Creation.
This much becomes clear listening on a wet, chilly island day in a Dunwich coffee shop to her quiet yet compelling voice.
“Both Mum and Dad were born on this island we know as Minjerribah,” the Aboriginal elder said.
“Dad died when I was 11.
“Mum was like a mother hen.
“She not only looked after the spiritual education and physical well-being of her own eight children but also many others who came along for help.”
Aunty Evelyn walks through a display at Dunwich’s North Stradbroke Island Historical Museum where her words take life in the form of photographs.
The photographs are part of an exhibition Growing Up Catholic staged to mark 170 years of Catholic faith on Stradbroke Island starting with the Passionist mission in 1843.
The exhibition includes photographs and slides of many of her family members including mother Bethel, a brother and sister and great-aunt Bethel.
In the typical way of her people, Aunty Evelyn tells stories to explain the bridge between her traditional Aboriginal beliefs and a deep love of the Catholic faith.
“In the New Testament especially in St John’s Gospel, we read the Word of God was there from the beginning – so when everything was created the spirit of Jesus was already there,” she said.
“If he was there, then he might have been sitting around the campfire with our people … if they knew.
“Actually, they did know the Spirit and called Him by many names.
“If our people knew and had the connection to Mother Earth, then they must have had that connection with the spirit of Jesus.
“And you know in my later studies and teaching, I and others came to understand Jesus was a Hebrew man, a tribal man.
“When he spoke to people of his time, he used the environment around him … the seeds, the olive trees and so on … just like we use the things around in our community for learning.
“In the end, Jesus was someone we could identify through our Aboriginal culture … he’s fantastic.”
The Catholic faith came down to Aunty Evelyn through several generations on Stradbroke Island, with one source being her great-grandfather Richard Martin who came from New Caledonia.
Her grandfather and his siblings were taken from Stradbroke Island to Nudgee Orphanage.
Then there was her formidable great-aunt Bethel who used to instruct Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal Catholic children in the faith.
“I remember every Lent she’d often take us to Stations of the Cross in the Church of St Martin de Porres,” Aunty Evelyn said.
Aunty Evelyn’s deep interest in the Catholic faith led her to complete a Masters of Arts in Theology at Brisbane’s Australian Catholic University campus in 2006.
She then shared this knowledge for two years as a lecturer at the Cairns ecumencial Wontulp-Bi-Buya College for the development of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Church and community leaders.
She admitted at times her students tempted her to join their churches which had women as deacons and ministers.
“They were going on to become reverends and me, Eveleyn, was just a lay person teaching them,” she said.
So why didn’t she leave the her beloved Church? “You know what it is? It’s the ceremony, the rituals,” she said.
“In the end I couldn’t leave it. Because the ceremony is part of my traditional ways.
“Aboriginal people were continually having ceremonies, whatever they did.
“Before they went hunting, they would have a ceremony … it was like a prayer asking for good hunting that day. “Because of that ceremonial life, everything was sanctified.
“That deep love of ceremony, I grabbed hold of that and it stayed with me.
“You don’t realise what it is … there’s something deep inside of you … there’s no name for it, it’s a feeling.”
Given her deep love of Aboriginal spirituality with its strong connection to country, it was no surprise Aunty Evelyn’s departure from Stradbroke Island around the age of 30 caused something of a crisis.
“My husband Alan and I went to the coal mines up at Moranbah where he had a job as a plant operator on the drag lines,” she said.
“We stayed there about 20 years.
“It was a real culture shock.
“I felt so lonely, leaving the community and that … going to a new, strange place, away from the salt water. “I was looking for my own people all the time, but couldn’t find them.
“I had children, two at the time, and another two a bit later … I concentrated on them. However, I had a feeling I should start going to Church more.
“I’d been going on the island, but not all the time.”
The church at Moranbah, St Joseph the Worker, was a lively, big church and soon Aunty Evelyn became involved.
In this community, she studied her first Christian leadership course.
After leaving Moranbah, Aunty Evelyn’s studies continued until she started a Master of Arts in Theology at Banyo’s Australian Catholic University in 2004.
Sitting in the Dunwich museum surrounded by family photos in the “Growing Up Catholic” exhibition, she tells of researching family history to write a book “to honour” her parents.
Much will be about her first 30 years of life, the joyful years she spent on Minjerribah.
“There’s so much behind these photos,” she said.
“That one there’s of my mum shortly before she had to leave Stradbroke Island for the mainland after she had a stroke.
“I want to honour her and the faith and good standard of living she left for her children and grandchildren.
“Mum died in 1989 … she was a wonderful role model … a tough but loving woman.
“She wasn’t one to sit and talk and point her finger at anything – she acted.
“She would not only feed her own children, but everyone else who arrived as well … people remember Mum stretching whatever she had to feed anyone who arrived on her doorstep.
“Later she would visit island residents in mainland hospitals and prisons.”
Aunty Evelyn continued the family tradition recently when she prepared some of the island children for Baptism during “the celebration of 170 years of Mass here”.
She had help from Josephite Sister Kay McPadden and Murri Ministry co-ordinator Ravina Waldren.
“When I was walking around the community, people were saying: ‘Aunty Evie, I’d like to have my children baptised, when can we do it?’,” she said.
“Archbishop (Mark) Coleridge baptised five children on the day he celebrated the anniversary Mass on the island.
“There the children were, standing there with their little candles looking up at the Archbishop. It was gorgeous. I just felt so proud of them.”
And no doubt her mother Bethel, the faith-filled woman Aunty Evelyn described as “a mother hen”, would feel equally proud of her daughter.
The Catholic Leader is an Australian award-winning Catholic newspaper that has been published by the Archdiocese of Brisbane since 1929. Our journalism seeks to provide a full, accurate and balanced Catholic perspective of local, national and international news while upholding the dignity of the human person.
The Catholic Leader acknowledges Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people as the First Peoples of this country and especially acknowledge the traditional owners on whose lands we live and work throughout the Catholic Archdiocese of Brisbane.