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The Mercy Sisters of the Pilbara

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In the late 1970s, two Mercy sisters answered a call to work with Aboriginal people, and they chose a place in the Pilbara region of Western Australia that had a notorious reputation. Sisters Bernadette Kennedy and Bernadine Daly arrived in the largely Aboriginal town of Roebourne in Australia’s north-west in mid-1978 to see if they were needed. They quickly discovered that in a town ‘awash with alcohol’ there was great need.

The Aboriginal people of Roebourne had been driven off their land and were subsequently discarded by the pastoral industry in the 1960s, with many of them surviving in a makeshift shanty town. Soon after, the iron ore boom brought thousands of cashed-up mineworkers to the region, which magnified social problems. The local pub, the Victoria Hotel, became one of the busiest licensed premises in the state. Alcoholism among the Aboriginal population was rife, along with domestic violence and teenage pregnancies (many of them the result of workers preying on the teenagers).

Kennedy, aged in her mid-30s and Daly in her 50s, undertook training in alcohol counselling and began running small groups that were based on the principles of Alcoholics Anonymous, but with an indigenous twist. The sisters initially moved into a caravan before acquiring two houses in town to run the program.

In an account of her time in Roebourne, Kennedy wrote that nights in the village often ‘erupted into violence’ and the severe shortage of housing meant that ‘those who wanted to escape the grog could not control a living space in which to do so’.

But Kennedy and Daly gained deep insights into Yindjibarndi spirituality and culture. Kennedy wrote years later:

Media reports prepared us for the social dislocation, but very quickly we discovered something else. We had the extraordinary privilege of meeting many old men and women, elders, who shared their stories with us, took us into country and exhibited a spiritual connection with land that was not just words but lived experience. Minkala [God] gave them this land and it was obvious that this same Minkala continued to touch them to their inner core. Profoundly moving spiritual conversations took place around our kitchen table, and much learning. It was like living in a parallel universe: the Yindjibarndi land was so obviously theirs in every sense; and yet, legally it was not.


'Michael credits his grandfather’s victory over alcohol and his restoration to the status of a respected elder to the work of the sisters.'


One of the first locals met by Kennedy was Yindjibarndi elder Woodley King, who told her: ‘I’ve been praying for someone to come and help us.’

King, at the time around 60 years of age, admitted to drinking too much and getting in trouble with the police. He was one of the first to join the program which challenged participants to invite God, whom the Yindjibarndi spirit called Minkala, into their hearts. ‘I did that and he came alright,’ King told the West Australian in 1984.

After kicking his habit, the tall and solidly built King emerged as a towering leader of his people. He began working with the sisters as a drug and alcohol counsellor in the early 1980s, and then gained a paid position funded by the state government. King conceived of a plan to work with alcoholics and the youth by taking them out on country. ‘Minkala put it on my heart to get back some land for Yindjibarndi people — to help these young fellas — with the grog problem,’ King told Kennedy. With the help of the sisters and government officials he secured a plot of 40 hectares with a 90-year lease about 130km inland from Roebourne. This came about as a part of a settlement King brokered to compensate the community for the building of the Harding River Dam on Yindjibarndi country in the early 1980s. King had led the community’s bitter opposition to the dam.

He organised the building of a small community of about a dozen houses. He named the place Ngurrawaana, which means going back to country. King’s grandson Michael Woodley remembers going out there to build the houses. They made concrete with river sand and poured the foundations using wheelbarrows. In due course, a small school was built. The set-up was very basic. The community relied on a nearby spring for water; there were pit toilets and no mains electricity. Much of their food came from hunting, with some supplies brought in by a bus King acquired with the help of a Catholic aid agency so he could take people there from Roebourne.

King paid special attention to the youth of Roebourne as he could see that some of them were getting up to mischief while still at primary school. He took Michael and several other Yindjibarndi youths out of the local school in Roebourne so that he could educate them in traditional law. Michael lived there from the age 10 to about 20, and became immersed in his culture. ‘I always felt really happy being with my grandfather,’ Woodley said of his time there. ‘There was no other place on earth that I wanted to be.’

Michael remembers meeting the sisters when he was about nine. He said that when they arrived in Roebourne, his grandfather was ‘lost and confused by alcoholism’ and had nothing to live for. King also went on to give extensive evidence for Yindjibarndi’s first native title case. The determination in their favour was handed down a year after he passed away in 2012.

Michael also went on to become a community leader and drew some inspiration from the first book he ever read, Nelson Mandela’s autobiography, Long Walk to Freedom, which the sisters gifted to him. In 2007, at the age of 34, he became chief executive of the Yindjibarndi Aboriginal Corporation, a position he still holds, and has led the Yindjibarndi in a David and Goliath struggle against mining giant Fortescue Metals Group (FMG). The company has mined about $20 billion from Yindjibarndi country since 2013 even though it had no agreement with YAC, the court-appointed representative body of the Yindjibarndi people. This is an extraordinary departure from standard practice in the community.

YAC has pursued a second native title claim since 2003 which culminated in a determination of exclusive possession in 2017. FMG appealed all the way to the High Court, with the appeal defeated by YAC in May last year. FMG now faces a damages claim, or an out of court settlement.

Just prior to the start of the native title case in 2015, Kennedy sent Michael a strong message of support. She wrote: ‘We will be praying that Minkala will touch you with clarity of mind, strength of heart and a calm spirit — in the hope that justice will at last be done.

Daly passed away in 2016 and Kennedy in 2018. Both remained in regular contact with the Yindjibarndi community throughout their lives, though only Kennedy was alive when the Federal Court affirmed the Yindjibarndi’s exclusive native title rights in 2017.

Michael credits his grandfather’s victory over alcohol and his restoration to the status of a respected elder to the work of the sisters. ‘I am today an image of my grandfather because of Sisters Bernadine and Bernadette, who simply saved Woodley,’ Michael wrote in eulogy for Kennedy when she passed away.



Paul Cleary is the author of six books on resource conflicts and policy, and war history. He now works with Aboriginal communities around Australia. His account of the work of the sisters and the Yindjibarndi struggle can be found in his new book: Title Fight—how the Yindjibarndi battled and defeated a mining giant.

Main image: Sister Bernadette Kennedy, left, and Berndardine Daly, with Woodley King and his partner Berry Malcolm, far right. (Pauline Kennedy)

Topic tags: Paul Cleary, Mercy Sisters, Queensland, Pilbara, Yindjibarndi, Woodley King, native title



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Existing comments

Thank you for this article. I met Sr. Bernadine and Sr. Bernadette in the mid 1980's in Perth . They were still caring for Aboriginal people dealing with alcohol struggles . They formed a team of people who became prison visitors after the riots in Fremantle jail. I was fortunate to be accepted into that programme. In preparing us to take up this role, Bernadine & Bernadette gave one of the best training courses I have ever attended; to see Jesus in everyone we meet, the offenders, no matter their offence, the victims of crime, the prison staff, to acknowledge that we too could be walking the path of the people we met in jail. In the selection interview I was asked what I would consider the worst crime someone who might befriend me could have committed and how I would deal with it. Child abuse was my reply , and I would acknowledge that the justice system was dealing with it. I learnt not to step back from such a person: it can be a real challenge to see Jesus in everyone we meet, and to believe that another might do the same for me.

Elizabeth Mulrennan | 27 September 2021  

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