Friend to Aboriginal People
In December, one of our Lochinvar Josephites, Sr Christine O’Connor, will return to the Diocese of Maitland-Newcastle after spending the last seven years in the Kimberley town of Kununurra. I was privileged recently to visit Christine and experience a glimpse of what her ministry involves.
Christine worked in many ministries in Maitland-Newcastle, including MacKillop House, Special Religious Education and a ministry of presence and hospitality living in a housing commission unit in Hamilton South. Like many Sisters of St Joseph, Christine had also trained and worked as a teacher.
As much as she loved her various ministries, Christine always felt the call to work with our indigenous brothers and sisters. She discussed this with the late Fr Tony Stace who was well known and highly regarded for his work with indigenous peoples, both within the diocese and in the broader community. Fr Stace spent some time with Christine and one day said that she would be very well suited to work with our first peoples.
The opportunity to do so presented itself when Christine saw an advertisement placed by the leader of the Central Josephites, Sr Anne Derwin rsj, calling for people to work in the Kimberley. Christine underwent a thorough discernment process in 2009 and moved to Kununurra in January 2010. Feeling a little overwhelmed and wondering where to begin in her early days there, she heard Fr Stace’s words urging her to go to where the people gathered, to sit with them and listen to their stories. That is precisely what Christine did.
Christine’s ministry in Kununurra is and has been wide-ranging, very much in keeping with St Mary MacKillop’s call to see a need and fill it. In addition to sitting and listening to the people, meeting them where they were, Christine volunteered at the blue school – as the locals called Kununurra District High School – the state school catering for children from Kinder to Year 12. Shortly afterward she also commenced volunteering at the green school – St Joseph’s Primary School. The local names for the schools reflect the colour of the uniforms.
Later, Christine was asked to join the staff of the green school as a teacher’s assistant and by 2014 was working there four days a week. Not only was Christine helping to teach the children and running Seasons for Growth sessions, but also after school care, including cooking classes. Christine was also kept busy sourcing and providing shoes for children for whom bare feet were the norm.
Christine was also asked to be on team at a Drug and Alcohol Intervention program run at Warmun, a further two hours drive from Kununurra. Christine took part in 13 programs until 2014, in many instances looking after the children who accompanied the men and women undergoing the rehabilitation program.
An experience that Christine very much enjoyed was working on the Werlemen program. This provided opportunities for teenage girls, who, for various social reasons, could not attend high school. Indeed, the word “Werlemen” means ‘setting girls on a straight path’. Methods used included academic subjects as well as many cultural activities such as bush craft, sport, cooking and painting. The girls also produced beautiful hand-made cards which they later sold at markets. This not only encouraged the girls’ creativity but also gave them opportunities to relate to others they may never have met otherwise.
Christine has been involved in preparing people for sacraments, including couples for marriage and running Seasons for Growth programs. It is sad that so many from the school communities were dealing with the pain of deep grief and loss issues. In Kununurra and particularly in the smaller community of Warmun, Christine came to know a large percentage of the population through these programs.
Working in the Kimberley has been a huge learning experience for Christine. Even in the short time I spent there it was clear that there were two communities, coexisting – not always happily and with a large gulf between them.
Whilst Christine has been involved in many programs and given generously of herself in each of them, I believe her greatest impact has been through the ministry of hospitality and acceptance she lives each day. Each day I was there many visitors arrived at the convent. Many were children who received fruit, a glass of water and an icy pole as well as a chance to tell their story and feel unconditionally accepted and loved.
Adults too could arrive at any time, sometimes seeking food or shelter or again, the opportunity to tell their stories. One such visitor arrived saying he had just made his way from Mackay in north Queensland. He had no family or friends in Kununurra and had not eaten for a couple of days. To me this speaks of the reputation that the convent has of being a place of sanctuary and assistance in an often harsh existence. It is a sanctuary offering food, clothing, showers, emergency accommodation – filling as many needs as possible.
Asked to reflect on what she will remember most and take with her from the Kimberley, Christine speaks of the incredible spirituality of the peoples and their ancient, timeless land. She smiles as she talks of how Napang, the Creator God, is so visible within the people and what a deep joy it has been to share in that spirituality. Indeed, it was a powerful experience to share in Eucharist at the Holy Place. This is a weekly event where Mass is held in a place reserved within a local Kununurra community.
Christine is too humble to name her legacy to the northwest but I believe she has striven to span the gulf between the indigenous peoples of the land and non-indigenous Australians and other visitors. Not only has she spanned it but she has also taken every opportunity to fill that gulf with the unconditional love of people and of God which she carries so faithfully.
Welcome home Christine!