By Philippa Hitchen
Supporting indigenous women in a remote Australian island community is the topic of a talk being held here in Rome to mark International Women’s Day on Thursday March 8th.
Australia’s embassy to the Holy See is sponsoring the event and has invited a missionary sister who was recognized by the government in 2017 as Senior Australian of the Year because of her work with the Tiwi island people.
Sr. Anne Gardiner, a Daughter of Our Lady of the Sacred Heart, first travelled to the islands, off Australia’s Northern Territory coast, in 1953.
Since then, she has devoted her life to the community, as school principle, setting up support groups and founding a museum to showcase indigenous history and culture….
Sr Anne talks about the two islands, Melville and Bathurst, located about 20 minutes by plane or two hours on a ferry, north of Darwin.
History of the mission
She recounts the history of the mission there, started by Frenchman Francis Xavier Gsell, who arrived in 1911 and learned the local language to be able to teach them about Christianity.
It remained a Catholic mission until 1970, when the Tiwi people were given self-determination, but, unlike other parts of Australia, they asked the sisters and the priest to remain on islands. “We missionaries could be blamed for many things”, Sr Anne says, “but I believe that the foundation set by the early missionaries has helped that place to be as strong as it is today”.
Tackling social problems
She also talks about the problems of alcohol abuse and marijuana, which, she says, “is wrecking the place” as increasingly young people are trying it. The Church runs programmes to try and care for addicts, but she says the problem is getting worse and there is a lack of employment opportunities for young people.
Helping women to succeed
Sr Anne also talks about the challenges of mentoring Tiwi women into leadership positions, first in the school and also in the museum which she set up and has now handed over to the local community. While the women initially resisted the idea of running the museum, she says they have had “remarkable results.
Women, she says, “have more stickability than the men do, and I want to see those women succeed”.