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The Mercy Sisters of the Pilbara

  • 21 September 2021
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