earliest memories of St
concern the church itself.
late ‘71 I was back in Sydney
after having done the rounds of “training” by the then
policy of Conscription which took some of my peers off
to their deaths or reduced them to a traumatised state
Others, like myself who were considered poor military
material were given softer options. I mention this personal
historical detail because I think that St Vincent’s
offers a challenge in real life terms to anyone who
is prepared to come to it “”just as they are “ and be
confronted by it…….
was and is a meeting point for many things. For myself
it was asking: who was I (?) and because of the very
preferential option of St Vincent’s for the urban Aboriginal,
whether I could look beyond stereotypes to see real
people who lived in a very different sort of world –
a real life “parallel universe” in fact - and whether
I could or wanted to even know about that world.
fact that I was in uniform meant that I was no radical.
The fact that I had opted for the Medical Corps meant
that I was searching for a way to live some sort of
real life spiritually inspired integrity. And so I came
early ‘72 the church had been emptied of all the adornments
of traditional Catholic piety. More than that: all but
the most essential and almost none of the original artefacts
of Christian worship remained. There were some pews
and a new wooden altar (which has always looked deceptively
like stone) rested parallel to the northern (longitudinal)
wall. No carpet, which had undoubtedly been originally
in such a conservative little enclave of Catholic piety,
remained. The rough wooden floor was given a cover of
grass matting. (In subsequent years this was in turn
disposed of.) Above the altar hung a single crucifix
suspended between two ceiling beams. A stone monolith
stood in the area under the choir loft. This was the
tabernacle and a relocated communion rail formed a curved
demarcation to an area which would be used for things
like meditation, the less well attended non Sabbath
masses, the little weekly gospel discussion group that
evolved over the years and a host of celebratory occasions
– including our own wedding reception. But that would
be 10 years later…
was a shock, this church which had been reduced to the
most elementary of sacred spaces. In the years that
followed the dimensions of the sacred would increase
and deepen in ways that would be etched both within
the church and within the very souls of those who would
celebrate both life and death in that place.
stark reality of this emptying of the church was an
act which both allowed and signified a journey towards
many things – hospitality (lived out in the church of
course, but especially in the presbytery and later in
the convent), repentance, reconciliation and in a living
and humanly costly way, real compassion – a “being with”
people who had been born into structural violence. I
came to understand that it was intended to be the sort
of space into which the alienated urban Aboriginal person
would feel not oppressed by the very Un-Aboriginal Sydney
Catholic Church. A perception which was later to receive
formal acknowledgment as a key raison d’etre for the
Australian Catholic Bishops” Social Justice Statement
of 1978 (Introduction, paragraph 2).
also came to understand that it is not possible to be
with people who have been born into structural violence
and not be required to share, in some way, the consequences
of that violence.
way of this sharing has come to be that disarming sense
of embarrassment which comes as one enters the church
for the Sabbath liturgy. The unapologetic presence at
the gateway to the church of the unapologetically dispossessed
urban Aboriginal is without doubt a confronting experience.
In biblical terms it reminds me of the unapologetic
presence of the “Lazarus who was once poor” at the gates
of the very rich Dives (Luke 16. v9-v31). There are
many layers to this experience. I’ve often been struck
by the spiritual incongruity of my “struggling to survive
self” on my way to eat and drink the Body and Blood
of Christ – what greater paradigm of richness could
there be? - being obliged to pass through the disarming
presence of those whose lives (as a group, not just
the individuals immediately visible) reveal the absolute
devastation of the spiritually dispossessed. Born into
a challenged identity which had already been robbed
of the land which forms the core and wellspring of all
Aboriginal spirituality! Yes it is a confronting experience
this. Mercifully I am “released” to go through briefly
reviewing these years I see now the importance of the
personal kenosis, the self emptying, modelled by the
church itself which the sacred space of St
asked of the many who would “come and see”.
the church, the process in myself was neither sudden
nor unduly obvious. Before Maggie and I celebrated our
marriage in the church I had never been game enough
to be a full-on volunteer in the daily life of hospitality.
Being something of a drifter I was known by Ted and
Tom (Hammerton) and Mum Shirl to be recognisable for
years as one who visited. I/we were known well enough
by Mum Shirl that she came to our wedding – and, not
surprisingly to those who knew her, simply “took charge”
in matters of directions to guests and later when it
came time to give a blessing at the cutting of the cake!
real changes within me came with the natural unfolding
of our lives together in the context of other lives
at St Vincent’s, both Aboriginal and not. It is difficult,
even impossible to do justice to these experiences.
It needs time and much reflection to bring out the reasons
why, for instance people like Pattie Newman touched
us most deeply. Why she became significant to us such
that we shared the celebration of her child and ours
in a common baptism ceremony. And why, less than two
years later we came together with the community to grieve
her loss (at the age of 26).
would be fair to identify a kind of raw vulnerability
to a young girl who had been so alienated from her nurturing
history that at the age of fourteen she had little idea
that she was Aboriginal. Pattie wasn’t a radical either.
I recall that she thought Land Rights was bunk!
was undeniable though, that despite her levels of awareness,
her life was viciously circumscribed by powerful forces
which contributed to her death as an Aboriginal without
were many Baptisms (of both Aboriginal and non Aboriginal).
Our own three being among them. But there were also
many, many funerals. It would be fair to say that the
majority (obviously not all) of these were young Aboriginals
who died far too young and often in tragic circumstances.
That is why members of both groups hold St
to be a sacred space.
(progressive) history of the land upon which the church
and all of the surrounding buildings stands is important
to any understanding of what is now St
Church and the Aboriginal Medical Service.
of course, all of the land was (still is and always
will be) Aboriginal land. It is axiomatic that this
fact is not recognised by either contemporary society
or by the contemporary Catholic Church. This failure
of recognition is in spite of the Church’s own proclamations
of principle, but not its practice. Anyone doubting
this should seek out a copy of the 1978 Social Justice
Statement of the Australian Catholic Bishops!
one knows (now) whether the particular land in question
was the sight of actual bloodshed by the colonising
powers. What we do know is that the land became “the
property” of a strawberry farmer. The farmer in turn
gave it to the Religious Sisters (Mercies ?) who subdivided
the land, placed a school on the land they retained
and gave the unneeded (?) section to the Archdiocese.
This once taken and once given parcel of land is where
the church and presbytery and car parking space now
is considerable poetry that in the same year as the
self emptying of the church - 1971- the Aboriginal Service
opened in Redfern and would come to occupy the building
- archaic as it is - of the former school at the back
of the church. This land and property had come full
circle: once taken, once given and then given back again
- no strings attached - by the Nuns to the descendants
of the original owners.
is considerable odium emanating from the fact that the
car space at the rear of the presbytery, attached as
it is to the parcel belonging to the Archdiocese and
desperately needed by the Medical Service to provide
an Ambulance thru-way is tied, not with string, but
with considerably more power by the Archdiocese who
show no sign of knowing anything of the open handed
Justice of the good Sisters. One struggles to plumb
the depths of renewed meaning to the saintly maxim that
“possession is theft”.
is even more dumbfounded to read the CCJP 1978 Statement,
signed by the Bishops, called ABORIGINES, that draws
its inspiration in turn from the world Synod of Bishops
is a powerful document and it is difficult to believe
that the same Church which says that “….Church bodies
- dioceses, religious communities, parishes should be
especially responsive to such an appeal (p11/12) - (the
process of restoring further land)”- could today show
no sign of being able to live out this particular “cost
of discipleship”(p20).The developed understanding of
evangelisation (p18) which the Bishops professed in
1971 seems to have evaporated over the years. One might
well ask: “If the Aboriginal people of Australia
do not feel hope, fidelity and love from the Christian
community, this would be a sign that we are being unfaithful
to the Gospel of Jesus Christ.” (p20).
by Peter Griffin