Good habits of an activist nun

A Nun's New HabitIn the parable of the Good Samaritan, a stranger offers his time, effort and money to help a man who would have been thought his cultural rival. The story evokes the Christian imperative to 'love your neighbour', and the idea that 'your neighbour' includes all the downtrodden, regardless of their cultural, political or religious heritage.

Sister Carmel Wauchope, an Australian nun of the Sisters of the Good Samaritan, lives up to the reputation of her order's namesake. Outraged by the conditions faced by asylum seekers in detention in Australia, she has spent her latter years visiting these young men, and advocating on their behalf.

'Sister Carmel is inspirational,' says Robyn Hughan, director of A Nun's New Habit, a no-frills documentary about Sister Carmel's ministry to the residents of the now closed Baxter Detention Centre near Whyalla.

A Catholic nun ministering to these mostly Islamic men, Sister Carmel is motivated by compassion that recognises not only their common humanity, but also the commonalities, rather than differences, between their faiths. 'She has the ability to make people feel really special,' says Hughan.

Through interviews with Sister Carmel, her friends and family, and former detainees, Hughan traces the threads of compassion and the sense of justice that have run through Sister Carmel's life, and sets this against a potted history of our detention laws.

Hughan is an advocate in her own right. She first met Sister Carmel during a visit to Baxter in the early 2000s, while working as a researcher for the SBS television series, Tales From a Suitcase — The Afghan Experience.

'I interviewed 30 or 40 refugees for the program, the majority of them boat people,' she recalls. 'I was horrified when I listened to their stories and realised what was happening — families and children in detention, in the middle of the desert.

'During that time I was going home and crying myself to sleep. So many of them had had their families killed and tortured. You'd think we'd be more compassionate to people who have been through so much, instead of locking them up in centres where they're so isolated and have no contact or hope. I just find it appalling.'

Hughan felt compelled to do something. Talking to Sister Carmel, and observing how this extraordinary nun operates — gentle as a counsellor, firm and tireless as an advocate — she knew she had found a subject whose story would help to shed light upon the emotional and psychological impacts of mandatory detention.

'When I first met Sister Carmel, I just connected with her,' says Hughan. 'I wasn't brought up in a Catholic family — it was anti-Catholic as much as anything. So it was interesting for me to stay in a convent and spend time with Sister Carmel and the other sisters.

'I went in wondering why anyone would want to be a nun. I came out fully understanding why, and thinking how lucky they are to be such special people in other people's lives.'

My conversation with Hughan takes place not long after former Telstra boss Sol Trujillo's notorious sleight against Australians' attitudes to people of other races. There have also been a spate of beatings against Indian students in Melbourne and accusations of apathy against police and politicians. Is Australia, I ask, a racist country?

'There are elements of racism in Australia that, given a trigger, are brought out,' she reflects. 'It depends on our leaders. If you start demonising people and calling them queue jumpers or not treating them like human beings, then that racist element is there.'

A Nun's New Habit arrives at a time when offshore processing of asylum seekers continues to occur at the Immigration Detention Centre at Christmas Island, and when an influx of boats bearing Asylum Seekers to Australian shores has awoken a seemingly dormant paranoia about border protection.

While the timing of the film's release is perfect, that's more providential than premeditated — funding difficulties meant the hour-long film took four years to complete.

'I'm happy that it's there for now,' says Hughan. 'It's very easy for people to forget the circumstances that arose earlier in the 2000s, and for refugees or asylum seekers to be once again demonised as they were before.

'People need to be reminded of who refugees are, the pain they've suffered, that we need to be kind and show humanity,' she says. Any Good Samaritan would surely agree.

A Nun's New Habit is available on DVD from Ronin Films. A Special Screening will take place this Saturday 13 June, 4pm at ACMI in Melbourne, followed by a panel discussion with Sister Carmel, Hughan, human rights lawyer Ben Schokman, writer Arnold Zable and others. Hosted by The Age writer Farah Farouque.


Tim KroenertTim Kroenert is Assistant Editor of Eureka Street. His articles and reviews have been published by The Age, Inside Film, the Brisbane Courier-Mail and The Big Issue.

Topic tags: a nun's new habit, Sister Carmel Wauchope, asylum seekers, Baxter Detention Centre, Robyn Hughan



submit a comment

Existing comments

Yes and the department's lies and paranoia continue. Channel 9 got the refugee stats and discovered that 97.5% of the Afghans who recently arrived have been accepted but we still have 320 Afghanis locked up on Christmas Island including dozens of kids.

On that basis a minimum of 312 will be accepted and certainly all the children and women will be.

It cost over $6 million to "process" the first 159 Afghans so that 4 could be rejected and hundreds of thousands of kids died of starvation while we were wasting this money.
Marilyn | 11 June 2009

Nicely put Tim. Enoyed this a lot.
Jen | 25 June 2009


Subscribe for more stories like this.

Free sign-up