Women pioneers of Aboriginal Catholicism


Aboriginal style dot painting in the shape of a crossWe arrived in Ernabella where I was to assume the position of Community Adviser to the Pukatja Community Council after a harrowing journey through floods and mud. On alighting from the Land Rover our family was welcomed by the Council President. Quickly a small group of Pitjantjatjara women drew me aside. 'Welcome,' they said. 'Remember that there are a lot of women here who have opinions and needs too. Don't let the men dominate!'

The word Pukatja referred to a men's tjukurpa (dreaming) and the women were very conscious that they also had a mutual role to play in the running of the community. Clearly they feared that I'd be captured into a male dominated agenda. In the context of our arrival the words of these women have stuck with me over many years like the mud on the wheels of the Land Rover.

Pitjantjatjara culture has two sides. As a man I was welcomed into the men's side and was invited to man-making ceremonies. My wife was similarly quickly invited to attend women's secret business. We both went on trips to exclusive places and saw things that were religiously unforgettable.

Ernabella, having experienced Christianity under the mandate of the Scottish-born Aboriginal rights campaigner Dr Charles Duguid, had morphed into a two-domain religious community. While both men and women enthusiastically follow the tjukurpa at 'business time', on a Sunday many attend the Uniting Church in the heart of the community.

Our family felt quite at home in this new environment, but also benefited from visits by the Catholic priest from Coober Pedy. Father Paul was almost always accompanied by Sister Karen. Given Pitjantjatjara culture this was most sensible. In matters religious Paul could talk with the blokes but only Karen had entrée into the world of the women.

On Sundays we attended the Uniting Church. While the Church had ordained Peter Nyaningu he was not the only person who presided. Often other men or women led the service. Within the Uniting Church in Ernabella women played a pivotal role. The equal and complementary roles of men and women, so central to Pitjantjatjara religious practice, had been transferred to their Christian practices.

A few years later in Alice Springs I witnessed the work of Sister Robyn Reynolds OLSH in the Sacred Heart parish centre. She was a fluent Arrernte speaker and had close, warm bonds with the Catholic Arrernte women in Alice. There were other religious women such as Sister of Cluny Val O'Donnell and many other OLSH sisters who contributed to the development of a unique Catholic Arrernte spirituality. Today Nicole Traves-Johnson centres her life's work on concern for Arrernte people.  

Yet the principal roles in religious practice in our Catholic experience with Indigenous groups have been negotiated by men of the cloth. These wonderful women have been in supporting roles from the earliest days, while the Church's patriarchy has prevailed.

Catholic theology sees sacraments as visible signs of God's efficacious action in the lives of the faithful. The ceremonial action of a sacrament symbolises to the community that something mysterious is occurring. In baptism, for example, the use of water, fire and oil symbolise to the community the changes (cleansed, sighted and chosen) that are experienced by the baptised.

As the Catholic Encyclopaedia says: 'we can say that the whole world is a vast sacramental system, in that material things are unto men [sic] the signs of things spiritual and sacred, even of the Divinity'. Using this definition the Pitjantjatjara ceremonies I have participated in are truly sacramental.

After Sr Robyn left Alice, Agnes Palmer, M. K. Turner and Leonie Palmer emerged as independent leaders of the Ngkarte Mikwekenhe (Mother of God) Community (NMC) of Arrernte Catholics. They included Arrernte practices such as the smoking ritual in the weekly masses. The hymns were sung in Arrernte and, while Fr Pat Mullins SJ was chaplain to the NMC in the late 1990s, the Eucharistic prayer was said in Arrernte. The scriptures were read in Arrernte and Agnes Palmer preached in Arrernte.

The few non-Arrernte present had to do their best to discover what was happening. But for the Arrernte present it was patent.

The Catholic Church has taken some enormous steps towards making its ceremonial life more meaningful to Indigenous members. In my experience it has been women in the main who have pioneered this. But today many of these women in Central Australia, Arrernte and non-Arrernte alike, are ageing or become tired and jaded from lack of recognition. Vernacular practices are decaying.

The pioneering work has been done. It is time for the gifts of women to be recognised and utilised in the religious practice of the Catholic Church, especially in an Aboriginal context.


Mike Bowden headshotMike Bowden has a Master of Aboriginal Education at Northern Territory University. He was founding coordinator of the Ntyarlke Unit at the Catholic high school in Alice Springs in 1988. From 1993 to 2001 he was manager of community development at Tangentyere Council. In 2005 and 2006 he was acting principal at Ngukurr School and Minyerri School in the Roper River district of the Top End.

Dot painting image from Shutterstock

Topic tags: Mike Bowden, Aboriginal Australians, Ernabella, Pat Mullins, Coober Pedy, Pitjantjatjara



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Existing comments

So why in God's name are not the women's gifts not been recognised. has it to do with the supposed male superiority.
irena mangone | 16 July 2013

irena mangone 16 July 2013 "So why in God's name are not the women's gifts not been recognised. Has it to do with the supposed male superiority?".......... Partly. But mainly because of the downside of 'tradition.' Tradition is a two-edged sword, formulated in ancient times when no one had the data- (knowledge and consequent understanding) to make definitive solutions to the problems facing human advancement. Like everything else traditions need to evolve. Clinging blindly to old traditions leads to stagnation and fossilisation.
Robert Liddy | 16 July 2013

Mike you speak of committed and wonderful pioneers and truly life giving and empowering moments in our past – of a time when Aboriginal contribution was truly welcomed. Moments that need re-kindling. As I travelled through outback NSW and then to coastal Queensland regions over this past month- including over Aboriginal Sunday and NAIDOC week- I was truly saddened to see little if any recognition in our church services of Australia’s first peoples. I know of wonderful initiatives by Aboriginal Catholic Ministries around Australia yet many seem reluctant to embrace these? In 1986 Pope John Paul II said (when speaking to the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Island people in Alice Springs), " The Church herself in Australia will not be fully the Church that Jesus wants her to be until you have made your contribution to her life and until that contribution has been joyfully received by others." Your article and its call are timely as NATSICC announces National Consultation into Indigenous Inculturation of the Catholic Church in Australia. See http://mediablog.catholic.org.au/?p=2133 I hope that we as church truly embrace these consultations in a spirit of openness and move much further forward as we are called to do and 'be'.
Georgina | 16 July 2013

Surely some attention needs to be paid to the fact that an all male celibate priesthood in the Catholic Church is unlikely to attract Indigenous men. Other Christian traditions here have Indigenous married clergy. They are trained on site. They live their calling in tandem with their traditional culture. What other models are possible? In my experience, the encouragement and affirmation of men in Church life is slim, the invitation for women to take up authentic responsibility in the Catholic Church is slim. Clergy come and go, offering the sacraments but rarely passing on what has been done before; never really asking, never really listening, never really depthing relationship. And sadly, the opportunities prescribed each Sunday to share the Biblical Narrative, so that people can find their own path with Jesus, gets caught up in all too detailed western homilies that have little relevance to the complexities and demands of living in two cultures. " The Church herself in Australia will not be fully the Church that Jesus wants her to be until you (Indigenous people) have made your contribution to her life and until that contribution has been joyfully received by others." More relevant than ever!!!!!
David Woods | 16 July 2013

Thank you for your reflections on the need for greater recognition of Indigenous ceremony in the religious practice of the Catholic Church. As Indigenous people, we are a spiritual people, irrespective of where we come from. We are connected through spirituality to the richness of our culture and peoples. Catholicism has a lot of gain from the sacredness of Australia's oldest living culture and more particularly the incredible role that Indigenous women play everyday life and spirituality.
Toni Janke | 16 July 2013

Toni Janke 16 July 2013 “Catholicism has a lot of gain from the sacredness of Australia's oldest living culture and more particularly the incredible role that Indigenous women play in everyday life and spirituality.” When God said : ‘It is not good that man should be alone. I will make him a helpmate’, it is becoming evident that he meant more than just for propagating the human race. The case for male-only government of the Church rests mainly on “tradition”. Such ‘tradition’ is a weak refuge for those who are afraid to explore and profit from the bountiful treasures of God’s creation.
Roberet Liddy | 17 July 2013

I too yearn for more inclusion of Aboriginal spirituality in our churches throughout Australia. We have so much to learn and they have so much to give. When will we have our truly Australian Church that can be a beacon to others.
Sue | 21 September 2013

Thanks Mike - helpful background, loved reading your article.
Darren | 07 October 2013


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