Mary MacKillop sent her Sisters to mission to the children of remote and isolated Australia. Today this same spirit inspires the Sisters of St Joseph on mission to Australia’s first people in the East Kimberley of Western Australia. DAN McALOON, of Catholic Mission, tells the story
LIKE the veins running over the back of his hands, Patrick Mung Mung knows every feature of his Dreaming land.
This is Gija country: the brown earth and iron red hills of the East Kimberley region of north-western Australia at Warmun (Turkey Creek) on the western edge of Broome diocese.
Aged about 62, a former stockman, Patrick Mung Mung is an elder of the Gija Aboriginal people – a law and culture man who keeps the songs and dances of his ancestors alive.
Patrick is also an astute cross-cultural communicator. With paint mixed from charcoal and ochre, he paints his Gija dreaming in evocative paintings that today hang in art galleries from Canberra to New York to Paris.
It is for the love of his people that Patrick today works with Josephite Sister Theresa Morellini, running a drug and alcohol intervention program at the Mirrilingki Spirituality Centre in Warmun.
The residential program addresses the issues of alcohol abuse that continues to devastate Patrick’s people. For the Gija, alcohol abuse has cost too many young lives.
“We are having funerals, funerals, funerals, all the time,” community chair Shirley Purdie said.
Although Warmun is a “dry” community, elders like Shirley and Patrick say tougher licensing laws in Western Australia are needed to stop sly-grog runners.
Adult education is a powerful weapon in the elders fight against this abuse. In this cause the Gija are aided by their longstanding relationship with “Mary MacKillop’s Mob”, the Sisters of St Joseph of the Sacred Heart, who for more than 30 years have lived with them.
At Warmun the sisters established Ngalangangpum (“Mother and Child”) School: a model of “two-way learning” where formal education is combined with the Gija determination that their language, songs and dances be included in the curriculum.
When alcohol abuse became rife in Warmun, the Gija called back one of the school’s first teachers, Sr Theresa Morellini, to help.
In the spirit of Mary MacKillop, Sr Theresa heard the people’s need.
She and another sister established a safe house for women and children.
“I came back as a pastoral worker,” Sr Theresa said.
She soon realised that to be effective she needed training in indigenous counselling.
“So I went to Canada and trained in the drugs and alcohol counselling program there as the issues (there) were similar for our indigenous people.”
Today Sr Theresa facilitates three drug and alcohol workshops a year at the Mirrilingki Spiritual Centre run by the Broome diocese.
She is a sensitive link between the people and the social agencies that come to Warnum.
“I do the follow-up work with the people,” she said. She has also been instrumental in training Gija elders Patrick Mung Mung, Mary Thomas and Betty Carrington as team leaders in the program.
“We work together,” Sr Theresa said.
“At the end of the program we do therapeutic work in the bush where can use healing, culture, as well as psychology.
“We’re also looking at where we can set up a healing place here for the people. This is the work the Gija calls me to do.”
Broome diocese receives the largest proportion of funds from Catholic Mission’s Home Mission Fund.
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.