Invisible No More

The Story of the foundation and development of the Aboriginal Catholic Ministry 1984 to 1996

The Seed

The Aboriginal Catholic Ministry Melbourne grew from a dream - a dream of belonging, of identity, of ownership and of the unity of Aboriginal people.

This dream grew among our founders. They share the dreams in prayer, faith and love. The dream was a seed, planted and nurtured with patience, hard work and courage.

Their hard work and steadfastness was rewarded as shoots began to spring from the seed. This new growth grew into a sacred place - a place that offers shelter, love and acceptance to those who come.

Aub & Barb Kinchella

Aub: I'm from Moree. I was born on the 18th March, 1932. My father took me to Dubbo on a push-bike. My mother cleaned for the De La Salle Brothers. I was the only Aboriginal student at the De La Salle College at Dubbo. I've carried the faith with me for sixty years. I was around Dubbo for most of my life. I was a baker at Dubbo and at Cootamundra. Then I came to Melbourne , lived with my sister, hit the grog, had a heart attack and ended up in Galiamble half-way house. I've had three heart attacks. I'd knocked around in Melbourne , but didn't meet no-one. If you're black and the only one there, you feel a bit out of place. A lot of people feel out of place.

Then I met Richard Ambrose at Galiamble. He was a Catholic. He asked what my religion was. When I told him 'Catholic', he said 'We'll have to get something going here.'

I met Sr Andrea at Galiamble, and Joyce Smith. Joyce was on the board at Galiamble. Joyce, Richard and I used to meet at Joyce's house. Richard and I used to go there because Joyce cooked a good meal. We'd sing hymns. Sometimes there'd be one or two of us, or a dozen. One night we all met around a big table with Kay Mundine. Sr Joan was there too.

Richard was a great inspiration. You could see the peace and serenity around him. He was a terrific bloke.

Joyce was inspired by the Pope's visit. She spoke about it brilliantly. It must have been right in her heart.

Richard came in and said 'I've got a house!' (for the ACM).

I'll never forget the Mass by the Yarra River in 1993. There were a lot of people there. We've got to get around to tell people about this place. There's only one God who loves us all. Barb was at Winja Ulupna, the women's half-way house. Barb and I were married at Galiamble and then we renewed our marriage vows before Fr Michael Gilbert at Holy Spirit, Thornbury.

Barb: Sr Andrea and I were talking. I said 'Aub is a good Catholic, so I think I'll follow him.'


Aub and Barb Kinchella are the founding Elders of the ACM.

Joyce Smith

When it became public knowledge that the Holy Father was coming to Australia and that he had asked to meet the Indigenous people, it caused great excitement in the Catholic Koorie community. This was a statement within itself for us as Aboriginal Catholics who had grown up in a Catholic home with parents who had great faith, and who had come through the Catholic school system. The Pope was someone we all knew of as the head of our Catholic Church and we knew that he lived in Rome, so the news of him coming to Australia was, I suppose, a reinforcement of our Catholic faith and what we believed in.

My niece Jedda Kelly, Sr Joan Hamilton and I made the journey to Alice Springs with the people from Dubbo whom we met up with in Broken Hill. Everybody was excited about going to meet the Pope there was a feeling of joy and spiritual closeness between all the people on the bus. When we arrived in Alice Springs there were busloads of Aboriginal Catholics everywhere, and Aboriginal people from other denominations who had also made this very special journey.

Kaye Mundine was one of the key people who helped organise and co-ordinate the Pope's visit to Alice Springs. Kaye gave me the great honour of presenting bibles translated into Aboriginal languages to the Holy Father on behalf of the Victorian Aboriginal community. I will never forget the moment of that exchange.

The message the Holy Father gave us that November afternoon was one of reinforcing who we were - the indigenous people of Australia. He told us to stay strong in our beliefs and culture. He challenged us as Aboriginal people to take our place within the Mother Church. He told us that the Church will not be fully the Church that God wants until we have made our contribution to it.

To me that was the challenge we needed to give us the direction to work towards establishing our ministry as Aboriginal Catholics here in Melbourne.

Our small group of Aboriginal Catholics, along with our non-Aboriginal supporters - Sr Joan Hamilton, Sr Agnes Murphy, Sr Andrea Watt and Br Jim Cummins - worked along together. As a result, four of us - Danny Kelly, Mary Pappin, Coral Atkinson and I - were able to attend a meeting of Aboriginal Catholics in Sydney where we met up with the Mundine family, Joyce Dukes, Ray Leslie and Jim Cole.

Joyce Dukes was a real inspiration to us and gave us the added confidence that we needed to further our struggle to achieve our ministry.

Fr Eugene Stockton was also a key person who supported us back in those early days. He was instrumental in us meeting our Archbishop Little to let him know of our plans to hold our first Aboriginal Catholic State Conference.

Monsignor Hilton Deakin came along to the Conference to meet us and wish us well. Looking back now I can see that this was a significant visit with him, for he has continued to work with us and be our contact person at the Archdiocese. We have had many discussions and meetings with Bishop Hilton over the years. Following our State Conference our dream of a ministry started to fall into place, due to the efforts of people like Richard Ambrose, Aub Kinchella and Barb, Danny Kelly, Eleanor Harding, Joan Robinson and our non-Koorie support group. We commenced our journey with the words of our Holy Father still fresh in our hearts.

We experienced many disappointments, however. This made our group stronger as we struggled to take our rightful place within our Catholic and to work towards establishing the Aboriginal Ministry Melbourne.

Being an Aboriginal Catholic is very special, particularly when other Aboriginal Catholics share the same vision.

The journey of reclaiming our Aboriginal spirituality through our Catholic faith is eternal work, for sadly our Aboriginal race is still fighting for basic Human Rights in our country. Perhaps our one true Church, the Holy Catholic Church, will be the one with the vision to set the precedent for working towards true reconciliation with us Aboriginal people.

Joyce Smith is a descendant of the Mutthi Mutthi people and one of the founders of the ACM.

Joan Hamilton

In arid lands, even when not visible as waterways,

Creeks, rivers and lakes are nevertheless

Consciously present to those with eyes to see.

When time is right and the rains come,

They link and merge across the land.

Seeds within spring to life.


So it can be said of the Aboriginal Catholic Ministry, Melbourne.

For me, returning to Melbourne in 1985 became a continued commitment to partnership; a story of arid lands, links and connections.

In 1975 I had heard much about Aboriginal people in Redfern and their relationship to the Parish Church. On inspiration I went to Redfern, there meeting Mrs. Shirley Smith ('Mum Shirl'), Fr Ted Kennedy and others. There began an unfolding of the forces of dispossession and its effects on the Indigenous people who had become 'strangers' in their own land. It threw open the doors to it side of living in this land that had hitherto been totally concealed from me, a person so deeply proud to be Aussie.

Reflecting on each day's conversations and happenings in the light of the gospel, justice and truth, was essential. Appropriate action stretched us beyond former boundaries, and centred us in the situation of urban Aboriginal people, giving me a deep respect for and an understanding of their particular struggle.

Returning to Melbourne in 1985, I remember clearly Fr Kevin Mogg's response when I mentioned my hopes regarding urban Aboriginal people. He mused: 'Aboriginal people are invisible to the Church here.' This was echoed by most Melbournites I spoke with at this time.

Then I met with Kaye Mundine whom I had known from my Redfern days. Kaye was always 100 percent centred in her people. She had a real sense of her belonging in the Church and questioned: 'What was Mother Church doing to show care for her many Aboriginal children, who treasured their Baptism but did not find a place in her churches and liturgy?' We talked of the need for consultation with Koories for policy making, thinking of Aboriginal Catholics not serviced by the Church right here in Melbourne, and with the idea of their coming together.

Kaye said: 'You'll have to meet Joyce Smith. She worries about the children of her nieces and nephews who are not Baptised and who could grow up without an experience of their own Aboriginal spirituality or their Catholic spirituality.' I knew of Joyce. I had met Joyce's Mum, Mrs. Alice Kelly, and her Dad, the late Mr. Alf Kelly, at Lake Mungo. They were the Mutthi Mutthi people invited to unveil the National Heritage commemorative plaque. Through Kaye Mundine I met Richard Ambrose at the Health Commission.

Richard's sister, whom I had met in Adelaide, urged me to visit him, as he wanted to create a community like the 'Otherway Centre' in Adelaide. We started meeting for Mass on a regular basis at St Francis Church. Occasionally we'd meet for coffee and a chat with Marie Watt RSM and Ann Duyndham RSJ afterwards. Always the conversation would turn to Richard's hunger for a gospel centred prayer group, and his work with drug-addicted people in his community. Ann listened very carefully to Richard. She offered the use of the front room at St Joseph's, Grattan St, Carlton as a meeting place and we met there a few times for prayer and sharing of hopes: Richard, Nellie Moore and others. I must say I was hesitant as I didn't want to get caught into a mentality that protected us from the issues. I could see that the Church could be comfortable relating to such a prayer group. My concern was that the gospel call to justice and action would be missed. However, Richard felt that this could be the start towards the community of gospel-centred support for which he yearned. The quality resounding through those early years was not only the people's strong Aboriginal identity, but their vibrant and vital centering in their Baptism. This led them to look so expectantly toward the Church. The Kelly's, Mundine's, Richard and Nellie were second, third, fourth-generation Catholics, living examples of the Faith being handed down, all from different homelands, yet sharing this strong identity in their Baptism.

Joan Hamilton is a Sister of St Joseph. Her support of and commitment to the founders and members of the ACM has become a model for the involvement of religious people in Aboriginal Catholic communities.

Marie (Andrea) Watt

In 1982 I took some time off from my formation work with the novices. I went to Adelaide and for part of the time I worked at a drop-in centre. I met Aboriginal people there, both as fellow staff members and as clients. This was a rich experience and outreach work. After a couple of months I felt I was getting a tiny insight into how the Aboriginal community worked, and some of the contemporary problems and difficulties.

When I was leaving Adelaide I was saying 'goodbye and thank you, it's been a great experience; in Victoria we don't have many Aboriginal people etc'. One man challenged me to 'Go home and look!'

I did not know how to begin contacting Aboriginal people. I met Yvette Isaacs. She must have thought 'Who's this white do-gooder?' but she introduced me to Galiamble, a halfway house for Aboriginal men.

There I met Richard Ambrose, an Aboriginal Liaison Officer with the Health Commission. Part of his job was to liaise with the Aboriginal alcoholic recovery centres in Victoria.

Richard was the first Catholic Aboriginal man I'd met. He was very welcoming. We had a long conversation - that was my first sense of a future ministry (ACMM). He said to me 'Catholic Aboriginal people are so scattered here in Melbourne. I've got this dream of gathering people.' I think he may have been thinking of a priest being involved in this dream. I said 'Maybe together we might be able to do something?'

Then Joyce Smith's brother, Tom Kelly, came to Galiamble. Aub Kinchella was already at Galiamble (Barb was at the Aboriginal Women's House; Aub and Barb married a few years after this time). Greg Coe was also on the staff at Galiamble. Nellie Moore was around the group too. We used to have meetings at the Mercy Convent at Fitzroy.

This group got the idea of bringing those people together: Richard, Aub, Barb, the Kelly's. Joan Hamilton was in on this too. We said 'Let's have a Mass somewhere.' There seemed to be a real hunger for the old days', or their memories of the old day's -the holy pictures, holy water fonts, the familiar things that said 'We are Catholic!'

We organised a Mass at the Pallotines' place at Millgrove. The Kelly's were strongly represented. This was the group's first public function together. Wally Sylvester was very warm, very welcoming.

Joyce, Nellie, Richard, Greg Coe and others often met also at ACCA, the Aboriginal Child Care Agency at the top end of Brunswick Street, Fitzroy, where Joyce worked. They began to think 'maybe we won't feel so much like strangers, so much on the outer, if we go as a group to Mass at St Francis.'

In 1987 I went to Adelaide again, for a brief time. I received a phone call one morning (at 6 a.m.!) from Hilton Deakin, asking me 'What do the Aboriginal people really want? As Vicar General I feel I have some power to change things. I want to use it wisely.' I felt his desire was genuine. He was aware that I had had first hand experience with Aboriginal people in Melbourne. Joan Hamilton and I were the two other connecting points here. It was a disgrace, really, that there was so little outreach from the church here at that time.

The use of the name 'Aboriginal Catholic Ministry' was an issue. For them the biggest thing was to be known, accepted, welcomed in, as Aboriginal Catholics. Hilton Deakin sometimes talked about Aborigines (referring to the people he knew in the Northern Territory ) as if the people he was talking to here weren't. Of course for a long time we had categorised people as 'half-caste', 'quarter-caste', etc. That was behind the 'invisible' thing.

Richard had an incredible appreciation, a deep love of scripture. He had held to this as his experience of faith through all those years. He didn't care what else we did, as long as scripture was the basis. This need, this desire to be nurtured by the Word, made the group right for Lumko.

Marie Watt is a Sister of Mercy who provided spiritual support to the founders and members of the ACM.

The Invisible Ones in Victoria.

We Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Catholics in south-eastern Australia did not feel at home in the Church in the years before Pope John Paul II's visit to Australia in 1986.

We felt isolated in church, even at Mass, because 'often we experienced people looking down on us, not talking to us at the sign of peace. The looks we got without anything being said made us uneasy'.

We thought that most Australians had not heard, or had chosen to forget, the words that Pope Paul VI spoke to Aboriginal people during his visit to Sydney in 1970: 'we know that you have a lifestyle proper to your own ethnic genius or culture - a culture which the Church respects and which she does not in any way ask you to renounce...'

A further problem for us was that most non-Aboriginal people in south-eastern Australia at this time generally did not think of us as Aborigines. This was because they clung to stereotypes about 'real Aborigines' being 'full-bloods'. We did not match these myths.

The first national Aboriginal Mass at the 1973 Eucharistic Congress in Melbourne, at which Aboriginal Catholics from Queensland, Western Australia and the Northern Territory played a prominent role, probably reinforced the belief among Victoria's non-Aboriginal Catholics that 'there aren't any Aboriginal Catholics here'.

A 1975 study of the relationship between Aboriginal people and the Catholic Church in Australia, prepared for the Australian bishops by Rev Hilton Deakin, reported for Victoria and Tasmania that 'there is no specialised ministry (for Aboriginal people) at work in either state. Any needs that are met are filled through agencies such as the St Vincent de Paul conferences'.

'I certainly found it very difficult when I first came to Melbourne. I remember going to Mass up here at St Mary's and feeling very isolated, being the only Aboriginal person there. And then after I'd married and established our home over at Broadmeadows, going to Mass at the local parish church there and experiencing the same feeling of isolation. And I suppose I felt it more after coming from Balranald, where everybody knew everybody, you walked down with all your school mates and things like that. But here in Melbourne it was all very, very awkward and it didn't give you incentive to go back again to Mass'.

Joyce Smith

The Dream

The Aboriginal Catholic Ministry Melbourne grew from a dream: a dream of belonging, of identity, of ownership and of the unity of Aboriginal people.

The dreamers were a group of baptised Aboriginal Catholics who first met at Galiamble, a drug and alcohol recovery centre in St Kilda. Richard Ambrose was Aboriginal Liaison Officer with the Health Commission; Joyce Smith, a Social worker with the Aboriginal Child Care Agency, was a member of the Board of Galiamble, as well as supporting her brother who attended Alcoholics Anonymous meetings there; Aub Kinchella had been a resident at Galiamble. There they also met Sr Andrea Watt RSM, who visited Galiamble and Winja Ulupna, the nearby half-way house for Aboriginal women.

Richard told Sr Andrea that 'Catholic Aboriginal people are so scattered here in Melbourne. I've got this dream of gathering people.'

Gradually in the mid-eighties other Aboriginal Catholics gathered around the core group. Richard, Aub and Barb Kinchella, Joyce and other members of the Kelly family, Nellie Moore and others began to meet with Sr Andrea and Sr Joan Hamilton RSJ at the Aboriginal Child Care Agency and at the Mercy Convent at Fitzroy for gospel sharing and exploration of their Aboriginal spirituality and Catholic heritage. They seemed to have a hunger for the things that said 'We are Catholic!'.

The group's first Public function was a Mass at the Pallotine fathers' place at Millgrove. For many it was their first Mass for years, and the beginning of reclaiming their Catholic faith. Fr Wally Sylvester was very warm and welcoming.

Then the group began to attend Mass together at St Francis Church in the city. They thought that perhaps they wouldn't feel so much 'on the outer' if they went together to St Francis. Over cups of coffee after Mass they talked about their concerns.

They worried about their young people who were growing up out of touch with their Aboriginal spirituality and out of touch with the strong awareness that their parents held of the spirit of Jesus in their lives. They began to dream of a place for Aboriginal Catholic people, a place of their own, which would keep them united and where they could be Aboriginal and Catholic.

In Melbourne in 1986 this seemed an unbelievable dream.

'I'm from Moree. I'd knocked around in Melbourne, but didn't meet no-one. If you're black and the only one there, you feel a bit out of place. A lot of people feel out of place.'

Aub Kinchella

'Richard was the first Catholic Aboriginal man I'd met. He was very welcoming. We had a long conversation - that was my first sense of a future ministry (Aboriginal Catholic Ministry). He said to me 'Catholic Aboriginal people are so scattered here in Melbourne. I've got this dream of gathering people'. I think he may have been thinking of a priest being involved in this dream. I said 'Maybe together we might be able to do something?'

St Marie (Andrea) Watt RSM

'Richard, Aub and the others were trying to find a place again in the church. Most of their recent church contact, as far as I knew, was attendance at funerals, mostly at St Mark's Anglican Church, Fitzroy. I used to feel an ache in my heart, seeing Aboriginal people at the back of the church at those funerals. The Mass at Millgrove was a welcoming into their own tradition.'

Sr Marie (Andrea) Watt RSM

'Our elders and their faith in God were the major force in starting the Ministry. Their strength and presence continues to bind this group together.'

Vicki Walker

Meeting The Pope

Ten years ago, Pope John Paul II made a seven-day tour of Australia. On the 29th November, 1986 he met Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples gathered from all round Australia at Alice Springs.

For months before this, communities of Aboriginal and Islander Catholics had been planning to get some of their people to the heart of Australia to represent them in meeting the Pope.

The opportunity for the Melbourne Aboriginal Catholics to be represented came in a phone call to Joyce Smith from Sr Miriam Gibbons RSM in Dubbo, NSW. There were a couple of spare seats on the bus going from Dubbo to Alice Springs. Would some of the Melbourne Koories like to join the Dubbo mob on their pilgrimage to meet the Pope?

So Joyce Smith, her niece Jedda Kelly and Sr Joan Hamilton RSJ set off for Alice Springs with people from the Dubbo area. Joyce remembers the togetherness, the spiritual connectedness of the little group from Melbourne, and the people from outback New South Wales, as they journeyed to Central Australia.

When Pope John Paul II arrived at the Showgrounds, Aboriginal Catholics welcomed him warmly in song and dance, and presented him with gifts from Indigenous Catholics in each state and territory. He also received a 'Petition from the World's Oldest Living Culture', which called on John Paul II to 'add your voice to our 200-year old struggle for peace and justice'.

In reply, John Paul II spoke to the Indigenous peoples of the importance of maintaining their culture, and of their contribution to the Australian Church. His address included these words:

You do not have to be people divided into two parts, as though an Aboriginal had to borrow the faith and life of Christianity, like a hat or a pair of shoes, from someone else who owns them. Jesus calls you to accept his words and his values into your own culture. To develop in this way will make you more than ever truly Aboriginal.

Joyce, Jedda and thousands of others were energised and empowered by their meeting with other Indigenous Catholics from all around Australia and with the Pope. John Paul II's words gave Joyce and her colleagues a mandate (which some came to regard as their, ammunition') for their struggle to be recognised as Aboriginal Catholics in Melbourne.

'It was a wonderful thing to be with other Aboriginal Catholic people. Once you arrived in Alice Springs there were busloads of other Aboriginal people who'd made that special pilgrimage to be there, and the atmosphere was just electrifying and magic.'

Joyce Smith

'The Pope really put out a challenge to us as Aboriginal Catholic people, to take our place within the mother church and that the church would not fully be the church until we made a contribution to it. And those very, very strong words that he said, gave not only myself, but probably Aboriginal people all over this country, that strength, because you needed to have strength, you needed to have confidence to go and seek within your local diocese and to present your case to them, and say 'Hey, we are Aboriginal Catholic people and we want the right to have our masses and our ceremonies in a place that is culturally relevant to us'. So you needed to have those words from the Pope for that to happen, and that was probably the biggest gift that he gave us as Aboriginal Catholic people when he came here. Because I think that, with that visit and that encouragement - and we also had it in black and white, we had that statement in black and white - gave us that strength and that confidence to go forward from there on.'

Joyce Smith

'This was not only a call to the Aboriginal people; it was a challenge to the Australian Church, a programme or manifesto for the Church in her service to Aborigines. That call was made to all Aborigines, including those in the cities, where the bulk of Aboriginal people now live.'

Eugene Stockton 'Aboriginal Catholic Ministry, Sydney'

'Joyce came back from the Pope's visit to Alice Springs filled with enthusiasm. The effect of that visit, being at that gathering, was the strong realisation that there was a whole nation of Aboriginal Catholic people, and that here in Victoria we have to do our bit. There was an experience of strength, of overall solidarity.'

St Marie (Andrea) Watt RSM

'Joyce was inspired by the Pope's visit. She spoke about it brilliantly. it must have been right in her heart.'

Aub Kinchella

Aboriginal Catholic Ministry Melbourne

The Aboriginal Catholic Ministry Melbourne was founded in May 1986 by Richard Ambrose, Joyce Smith, Aub and Barb Kinchella and others. We had no resources, no premises and no recognition by the Archdiocese of Melbourne. But we did have our Catholic faith passed on to us by our parents and teachers, and our Aboriginal spirituality, which came from our land. We also had the support of three religious sisters.

When Joyce Smith returned from meeting Pope John Paul II in November 1986, she was filled with strength and confidence, and convinced that the Pope's address was an invitation to further develop our ministry.

Contact with Aboriginal Catholics from around Australia, at the gathering with the Pope at Alice Springs and at conferences in Sydney and Toowoomba in the following years, helped Joyce and Richard create their vision of a ministry of Koorie Catholics for Koorie Catholics.

In July 1987 our founders, organised a conference at Mornington to explore our needs as Aboriginal Catholics living in Melbourne. Monsignor (now Bishop) Hilton Deakin, Vicar General of the Archdiocese of Melbourne, paid a courtesy call to the gathering. He encouraged us to write a statement of our needs and vision for submission to the Archbishop.

The outcome of the conference was our agreement that we needed our own place, where, as Richard Ambrose said, 'Aboriginal people can come and feel a sense of belonging with God once more, and share our own spirituality with each other, somewhere we can go to God through our own culture'.

In December 1988, right at the end of the Bicentenary of the European Invasion of Australia, and after more than a year of meetings between representatives of the Archdiocese and the founders of the Aboriginal Catholic Ministry, the Archdiocese of Melbourne purchased a three-bedroom house for the use of the group at 493 St Georges Road, Thornbury. Although we were not consulted regarding the selection of this unfurnished house, its provision was a sign that the Archdiocese was starting to listen to our call for recognition as Aboriginal Catholics.

But our founders still had to struggle for approval to use the name Aboriginal Catholic Ministry. They wanted to be known, accepted, and welcomed in, as Aboriginal Catholics. Permission was granted in May 1989, after the Archdiocese consulted other dioceses. Our greatest disappointment was not receiving approval to conduct sacraments such as Baptism at the Ministry.

We had to raise funds to pay for all furnishings, equipment, and other expenses at 493 St Georges Road. In 1989, in response to our plea, Australian Catholic Relief provided a one-year establishment grant of $31,000 to fund a full-time co-ordinator for the Aboriginal Catholic Ministry Melbourne.

'If you stay closely united, you are like a tree standing in the middle of a bush-fire sweeping through the timber. The leaves are scorched and the tough bark is scarred and burned; but inside the tree the sap is still flowing, and under the ground the roots are still strong. Like that tree you have endured the flames, and you still have the power to be reborn. The time for this rebirth is now!'

Pope John Paul II at Alice Springs, 1986

'... we believe that we are now ready to begin our Ministry. We wish to move from being a group of Aboriginal Catholics who meet together and discuss our needs to (becoming) an Organisation that will work toward meeting the needs of all Aboriginals, whether Catholic or not.'

Draft of letter to Mons Hilton Deakin in 1987, re funding for the ACM

Aims of the Aboriginal Catholic Ministry
  • to promote the aspirations and voice of Aboriginal people in the diocese
  • to develop Aboriginal Catholic communities with local Aboriginal leadership and ministries
  • to encourage and guide the work of the Aboriginal Ministry Team
  • to liaise with church leaders and organisations on behalf of the Aboriginal community
  • to educate the wider Australian society, especially the Catholic community, to an understanding of Aboriginal people, their culture and history
  • to do research in support of these aims 

Joyce Smith was inspired by this statement which she saw displayed at the ACM Sydney in 1987

'Having these premises we were able to start reinforcing our spirituality, and encourage the community to gather to share in the Eucharist on Sundays.'

Vicki Walker

'Our struggle for recognition and our basic rights as Indigenous people would not have been unearthed in the Catholic Church in Victoria if it were not for Australian Catholic Relief showing the initiative to hear the call of Aboriginal people for reconciliation and justice.'

Application for Further Funding to Australian Catholic Relief (now Caritas Australia) from the Aboriginal Catholic Ministry Melbourne, July 1991



Spiritual Revival & Development

Aboriginal spirituality has been broken down by 200 years of colonisation. Our dispossession from our lands, the removal of children from our families, and decades of forced assimilation policies and practices, have all combined to erode Aboriginal law, languages and ceremonies. And the greatest loss of all is the loss of our land.

But in spite of all these destructive events, some of our Elders have retained their Aboriginal spirituality. Now younger Aboriginal people are learning and reclaiming their spiritual heritage.

The founders of the Aboriginal Catholic Ministry were strong people, sure of their identity both as Aborigines and as Catholics. But living in Melbourne, separated from their lands and their extended families, they battled for recognition and cultural survival. They also worried about how they could pass on to their children their Aboriginal culture and spirituality.

So they were heartened by the words of Pope John Paul II at Alice Springs in 1986:

... for thousands of years you have lived in this land and fashioned a culture that endures to this day. And during all this time, the Spirit of God has been with you. Your 'Dreaming', which influences your lives so strongly that,no matter what happens, you remain forever people of your culture, is your own way of touching the mystery of God's Spirit in you and in creation.

Since we gained our own place in Melbourne, the Aboriginal Catholic Ministry has organised visits to our sacred places. It has also conducted spirituality retreats and ceremonies at sites such as Lake Mungo and Lake Victoria in south-west New South Wales, Barmah on the River Murray, Gariwerd in the mountains and Lake Tyers by the sea.

These occasions provide opportunities for us to reclaim and express our spirituality in the contemporary Australian context. They also enable non-Aboriginal participants to grow in understanding our Aboriginal way, and to deepen their own spirituality. Nurrungian Thooamie are local words for 'quiet listening'. Our belief that the spirit of the land calls us to stillness provides the impetus for these times of retreat.

Because Aboriginal people of south-eastern Australia have been profoundly affected by 150 years of actual and cultural genocide, we have found it necessary to reach out to our brothers and sisters from northern Australia to reclaim and re-learn traditional ways. We have learned by watching, waiting, participating, earning respect and by promising to respect ceremony and to teach it to the young ones.

Our trips back to our sacred places are journeys that reunite us with Mother Earth. Vicki Walker believes that on these visits 'We are tying the umbilical cord again'.

Your Culture, Which shows the lasting genius and dignity of your race, must not be allowed to disappear.Do not think that your gifts are worth so little that you should no longer bother to maintain them. Share them with each other and teach them to your children. Your songs, your stories, your paintings, your dances, your languages, must never be lost.

For thousands of years this culture of yours was free to grow without interference by people from other places. You lived your lives in spiritual closeness to the land, with its animals, birds, fishes, waterholes, rivers, hills and mountains. Through your closeness to the land you touched the sacredness of man's relationship with God, for the land was the proof of a power in life greater than yourselves.'

Pope John Paul ll at Alice Springs, 1986

' a race of people fighting for recognition and cultural survival in our own country, it is vital to the future of our children that we reinforce our Aboriginality, and the one way we can achieve this is by going back to our sacred place - for us, the Mutthi Mutthi people, Lake Mungo is that place...'

Joyce Smith

' Lake Mungo is inherited culture. Inherited culture lives for Aboriginals and nature through ancestral beings and pre-existence of ritual song... all our laws, our rituals, our moral codes are here. We're not just looking at sand and stone. Everything is written there for us, same as the Ten Commandments and the tablets of stone.'

Mrs Alice Kelly, Lake Mungo : We the Mutthi Mutthi People

'To Aborigines the ground is not just something we walk upon, it is our total environment. It is the mountains, rivers, the sun, moon and stars. Every living thing within it bears the stamp of the Creator Spirit. The land and all creation then, is the Creator's primary source of communication with his people. Therefore, through the ongoing progress of creation, we still need to listen to its stories, to walk barefoot upon this Mother Earth and reconnect with its spirituality.'

Betty Pike, 'Pentecost Dreaming'

'We constantly have to prove ourselves. Prove that we have inner feelings and spirituality that has been handed down by our ancestors. Prove that the loss of our land also meant the loss of part of ourselves.'

Vicki Walker, 'I am an Aboriginal Catholic'


In his address to Indigenous Australians, Pope John Paul II encouraged us to go to God through our own culture.

The Church invites you to express the living words of Jesus in ways that speak to your Aboriginal minds and hearts. All over the world people worship God and read his word in their own language, and colour the great signs and symbols of religion with touches of their own traditions. Why should you be different from them in this regard, why should you not be allowed the happiness of being with God and each other in Aboriginal fashion?

Inculturation' is the name the Church gives to this principle of embodying the gospel in a living culture. We Indigenous Catholics speak of 'a new way based on two ways'. Aboriginal religion is the 'old way'; the Catholic faith is the 'new way'.

At the Aboriginal Catholic Ministry we incorporate Aboriginal symbols and ceremonies into liturgical celebrations. We use oil, ashes, water, fire, smoke and music. We retell stories from scripture in culturally relevant ways.

The Smoking Ceremony is one of the oldest living traditions celebrated by Aboriginal people. Our ancestors handed down to us the belief that ceremonies should begin with the smoking away of evil spirits, followed by the reception of good spirits. Many Liturgies prepared by the Aboriginal Catholic Ministry begin with a Smoking Ceremony.

An Aboriginal Catechist prepares children for the sacraments. Mrs Margaret McKinley, a Yorta woman, undertook a training program to become the first Catechist for the Aboriginal Catholic Ministry. Her sacramental programs incorporate Aboriginal symbols, and the gospel stories are retold using familiar Aboriginal characters and behaviours. Some of Margaret McKinley's adaptations of is sacramental programs have been adopted by the Catholic Education Office Melbourne and offered as possible inclusions in Religious Education programs in schools in the diocese.

The founders of the Aboriginal Catholic Ministry had a deep love of scripture. Their desire to be nourished by the Word made the group ready to take up 'Lumko', a method of reflection on scripture which relates it to our culture and everyday lives. Lumko was developed in South Africa by small basic Christian communities. There are no appointed leaders in Lumko: leadership comes from within the group.

Recently members of the Aboriginal Catholic Ministry have instituted 'Thooamie Nights' at the Ministry. 'Thooamie is a word for 'listening' in the local Wurundjeri language. These evenings begin with a prayer, followed by the reading of a gospel story. After a period of quiet listening the group reflects on God's word, leading to an adaptation and retelling of the scriptural passage in an Aboriginal way. We are working towards preparing a collection of retellings of God's word for the Australian Church.

The Aboriginal Catholic Ministry also offers 'Thooamie Retreats', which are times of reflection based on Aboriginal spirituality as well as opportunities to learn about the history of the local people. They are held either in the mountains of Gariwerd or by the Murray River at Barmah. Adaptation John 14:1-6

'The Wise one said to his brothers and sisters: Do not let your hearts be troubled. Trust in the Creator Spirit and trust in me. There are many places for our people in the Dreaming. If this were not true I would have told you. Many of your Ancestors have made these places and I will make one too. When I have made this place, we will call you back. Your Ancestors will be there and I will be there too. One of the brothers said to the Wise One: I have been away from my mother's country for a long time, I am not sure of my place in the Dreaming. The Wise One said to him: Your Ancestors are your Dreaming. They have always watched over you. And I am your Dreaming too. Come with me and I will show you the way to your Sacred Dreaming Place.'

Adapted by the Aboriginal Catholic Ministry Melbourne

'You have always believed that your traditions (far older than the Bible) are also filled with God's Spirit. 'Father, you gave us the dreaming...' But you can also easily recognise your own lives in the Bible stories. We heard today some memories of the early Church, of how they kept faithful to the teachings of their great elders who had died - the twelve Apostles - how they lived and prayed as one family, shared their food and possessions as each one needed them, and sat down together to break the bread. That all sounds so much like the way of life familiar to you, both now and in past times.'

Bishop Ray Benjamin's homily at the Aboriginal Mass on the Yarra, 18 April 1993

'Every authentic culture is, in fact, in its own way the bearer of universal values established by God...' This conviction springs from the Bible itself, which, right from the book of Genesis, adopts a universal stance

(Gen 1:27-28),

maintains it subsequently in the blessing promised to all peoples through Abraham and his offspring

(Gen 12:3; 18:18)

and confirms it definitively in extending to 'all nations' the proclamation of the Christian gospel

(Matt 28:18-20; Rom 4:16-17; Eph 3:6).

'The first stage of inculturation consists of translating the inspired Scripture into another language... A translation, of course, is always more than a simple transcription of the original text. The passage from one language to another necessarily involves a change of cultural context: concepts are not identical and symbols have a different meaning, for they come up against other traditions of thought and other ways of life.'

Pontifical Biblical Commission, The interpretation of the Bible in the Church

Justice Matters

... 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.

For us at the Aboriginal Catholic Ministry, this is perhaps the most important statement that Pope John Paul II made in 1986 to Indigenous peoples and to the whole Church of Australia.

Our contributions to the Church in Victoria in the past ten years include our symbols and rituals, education on the true history of this country, dialogue on issues of concern, and initiatives in the areas of justice and reconciliation.

At times, the wider Church has responded warmly to our contributions, while on other occasions the response to our initiatives has been less accepting.

In April 1993, the Aboriginal Catholic Ministry hosted a National Aboriginal Mass on the Yarra River at the World Trade Centre, Melbourne. The Mass commemorated the twentieth anniversary of the first National Aboriginal Mass in Australia and provided the opening liturgy of the National Liturgical Convention, 'New Song in an Ancient Land '. The 1993 Mass demonstrated the development since 1973 of Aboriginal Catholic leadership, and of a national Aboriginal liturgical movement. Bishop Ray Benjamin of Townsville said in his homily at the Mass on the Yarra in 1993:

Today's Mass gives a special invitation to the Catholic Church and to the Aboriginal and Islander People - let us survive and grow together. We all have long and colourful stories to keep. We can't let those beautiful treasures come to an end. Let us challenge each other to really live what we believe, to mean what we say.

Sadly, our joy at the Church's acceptance of our ceremonies and symbols at this Aboriginal Eucharist was diminished by the failure of St Patrick's Cathedral authorities to accept our gift of a Message Stick, which is a sacred symbol prepared especially for that liturgy. Each Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Catholic community around Australia who sent members to Melbourne for the Mass on the Yarra had also designed a special symbol to be painted onto a Message Stick to be carried in the procession during the Mass. The custom of the Message Stick has been shared from tribe to tribe for generations as a sign of communication.

Agnes Palmer, an Aranda woman from Alice Springs, brought a Message Stick down to a gathering at Kilmore of three hundred people from every state and territory. She transposed the symbols onto it and carried it at the Mass.

The Message Stick was on display during the Convention. After the Convention, the Indigenous people gathered again at Kilmore and talked about an appropriate place where the Message Stick could be preserved. They chose the most sacred place they could think of in Melbourne, St Patrick's Cathedral. A letter was sent to the Archbishop, advising him of the gift; the Dean of St Patrick's replied, refusing the gift, explaining that the Cathedral could not accept a symbol from every ethnic group that used the Cathedral.

This explanation for the refusal indicates to us a failure to recognise Aborigines and Torres Strait Islanders as Indigenous peoples and prior owners of Australia.

The Dean suggested depositing the ceremonial Message Stick in the archives of the Diocesan Historical Commission. We have retained it at the Aboriginal Catholic Ministry at Thornbury. It was to be a cultural contribution to the Australian Church from Aboriginal Catholics all around the country. We wanted it placed where it could be shared by all in appreciation of our culture.

Justice Based on Truth - this handbill was circulated in 1994

The Archdiocese of Melbourne informed the Aboriginal Catholic Ministry that November 2, Feast of All Souls Day, was not an appropriate day to commemorate the Koorie people who died in the early years of Victoria's colonisation. The letter advising this decision stated that 'All Souls Day is a day on which we pray for all deceased persons, especially those who ate not otherwise prayed for and... it would be wrong to intrude on this day.'

National Scene

The dreams and visions of the Aboriginal Catholic Ministry Melbourne are also the dreams and visions of the National Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Catholic Council (NATSICC). The national movement of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Catholics is a recent event. The reasons for this lie within the history of the Church's encounter with Indigenous Australians. In northern Australia, the Church established missions in tribal communities which were usually segregated from other Australians. In contrast, the experience of most Aboriginal Catholics in the southern states was in parish churches and schools, where assimilation was the expectation.

Two events acted as catalysts to facilitate the formation of a nationwide organisation of Indigenous Catholics.

The first was the Eucharistic Congress in Melbourne in 1973. For the first time representatives, of Aboriginal Catholics from all over Australia came together at a conference at Werribee to discuss their concerns and aspirations. The establishment of the Aboriginal and Islander Catholic Council (AICC) was an outcome of this gathering. The AICC survived only in Queensland, but in the next twenty years Aboriginal Catholic Ministries were established in many dioceses around Australia.

The climax of the Conference was an Aboriginal liturgy attended by 30,000 people outdoors at the Sidney Myer Music Bowl. The liturgy was an attempt to express the Eucharist in the cultural and thought patterns of Aboriginal peoples.

The second event was when an Advisory Committee of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples from across Australia organised the welcome for Pope John Paul II in Alice Springs in 1986. The experiences of this group, and of the Indigenous Catholics from around Australia who gathered at the showgrounds to meet the Pope, convinced delegates on the Advisory Committee of the need for a nationwide organisation of Aboriginal Catholics.

The Aboriginal Catholic Ministry Melbourne was involved in the formation of NATSICC from the first planning conference in 1989. Representatives from Victoria were elected to a Working Party to look at the need for a National Aboriginal Catholic organisation which would meet with the Australian Bishops and advise them on Aboriginal issues. Melbourne members attended meetings around Australia over the next three years.

The Aboriginal Catholic Ministry hosted a conference of the Working Party in Melbourne in 1990. The following year we organised the Second National Conference of NATSICC in Adelaide. This was a crucial and difficult meeting, given the different histories of the Aboriginal apostolate in the various states. This meeting eventually approved in principle the draft constitution of NATSICC. Vicki Walker, Co-ordinator of the Aboriginal Catholic Ministry, was elected to the Executive Committee. She is currently the secretary of NATSICC.

In April 1992 the Bishops Conference officially recognised and welcomed the formation of NATSICC as the national representative and consultative body on issues concerning Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people to the Australian Catholic Church.

The Aboriginal Catholic Ministry Melbourne made a significant contribution to the development of NATSICC as a strong organisation that advocates on Aboriginal issues and concerns, as well as caring for and nurturing Aboriginal ways within the Church.

We share the same dreams and visions of developing an Aboriginal theology, an Australian theology.

'We recommend that the priests of every parish should encourage their parishioners (from the pulpit) to accept Aborigines.

We ask that all Catholic clergy and religious be better educated on Aboriginal affairs.

We also recommend that the Church set up a national Catholic council for Aboriginal Affairs to provide training programmes for priests and missionary workers to learn about the Aborigines with whom they are going to work.

This Council could also serve as an information bureau for those people who may wish to work with Aborigines, e.g. doctors, nurses and teachers etc.'

Workshop report of the Catholic Aboriginal Conference at Werribee in 1973The aims of NATSICC are to:

  • advise and inform the Australian Bishops on affairs that affect Aboriginal and Torres Strait islander people
  • be an avenue for Aboriginal people to voice their views and concerns to the Bishops
  • promote and celebrate the Catholic identity of Aboriginal people and help them to feel at home in the Catholic Church
  • encourage, assist and develop Aboriginal leadership within the community and the Church
  • educate the community, especially Catholics, to understand Aboriginal culture and history
  • support the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people in their needs and aspirations, and encourage other to support them in their struggle for justice
  • be a national network supporting all aspects of the needs of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people
'The Conference will be an historic and important one because we Aboriginal Catholics from throughout Australia are establishing our national organisation within the national structure of the Catholic Church in Australia.By doing this we hope to have an Aboriginal voice and input into the Australian Bishops' Conference, Australian Catholic Relief, St Vincent de Paul and Catholic Education.'

Extract from letter of thanks to the Sisters of St Joseph for providing $3,500 to enable Aboriginal Catholic Ministry delegates to attend the National Conference in Adelaide in 1991 that approved the establishment of the National Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Catholic Council


'Partnership' is the word we use to describe our relationship with non-Indigenous co-workers and support groups.

From the very early years, when our founders' group was developing into the Aboriginal Catholic Ministry, there were religious women men who provided support for the Aboriginal leaders. Sr Andrea Watt RSM, Sr Agnes Murphy RSM, Sr Joan Hamilton RSJ, Br Jim Cummins CFC and Fr Tom Nicholas SJ recognised that our group needed to be self­determining. Their role was to be facilitators and co-workers.

Danny Kelly recalls that 'Joan the Bone' (Sr Joan Hamilton) always encouraged us Aboriginal people to do things; she'd say, 'you've got to do this'. She didn't step in. She stepped back and pushed us forward.'

In 1992 'Binnap Partners' was formed to support, be in solidarity with, and act under the direction of members of the Aboriginal Catholic Ministry. It was modeled on the Kuri-Ngai Partners, a white support group for the New South Wales Aboriginal and Islander Catholic Council.

Sr Marg Hill IBVM, a member of Binnap Partners, Joyce Smith and Vicki Walker of the Aboriginal Catholic Ministry, have created a series of workshops which aim to inform non-Koories about the history of Koorie people in Victoria. Since 1992 over 1,500 priests, nuns, brothers, teachers and students have attended the 'Binnap Seed Workshops' at the Ministry.

In the early days of the Aboriginal Catholic Ministry the Catholic Education Office, Melbourne, invited us to work in partnership with their staff in professional development activities for their personnel. We act as consultants and provide input to professional development activities and curriculum development at both the planning and delivery stages. Many of the schools who have participated in initial Catholic Education Office in-service activities continue to develop their understandings through specific programs or projects in conjunction with the Ministry.

This partnership aims at improving the participation rates of Koorie students in Catholic schools. It also aims to ensure that Catholic schools are aware of and open to the special contribution Koorie people can make to Catholic Education.

In 1991, the Victorian campuses of Australian Catholic University began a process aimed at re-establishing educational links with Aboriginal communities. There had been an active program at Christ Campus in the late 1970's and 1980's but this had lapsed.

The Ministry responded positively to the University's requests for guidance and support in the education of its staff. The partnership began with a meeting which explored issues of concern to Koorie peoples and the University's commitment to Aboriginal education. Members of the Ministry became foundation members of the University's Koorie Education Consultative Group, with Vicki Walker also being appointed to the University's National Aboriginal Committee.

In the early 1990's, Fr Geoff Baron, Co-ordinator of the Northcote Deanery, approached the Aboriginal Catholic Ministry about involvement with the deanery. A deanery is like a family of parishes in the Archdiocese, and the Aboriginal Catholic Ministry is perceived as a member of the family. The then Archbishop of Melbourne, Sir Frank Little, had just formally established the deaneries 'to foster more effective pastoral care by means of common action'.

Right from the start the Ministry has participated in deanery activities, and has been involved in the process of discovering how each of the seven parishes and the Ministry can more effectively minister to each other and to the wider community.

Dr Kevin Burke of Australian Catholic University speaks for many members of the support groups and partners of the Ministry when he says 'Aboriginal Catholic Ministry stands as a gatekeeper between two cultures, facilitating access and bringing together pilgrims following different paths.'

BINNAP Partners

The Binnap Partners symbol of two hands clasped around a leaf of the Manna Gum.

'Binnap' is a word the Wurundjeri people gave to the Manna Gum which produces sugary pellets of sap on twigs where insects have bored holes. These pellets fall to the ground and were enjoyed by Koories and early Victorian colonists. As the Binnap tree nurtured both black and white people, the Aboriginal Catholic Ministry and out partner group chose it to symbolise the Possibility of sharing and being nurtured by the same source.

Binnap Partners - Statement of Purpose

  • to support the aims and objectives of the Aboriginal Catholic Ministry Melbourne
  • to develop among its members an awareness of Aboriginal issues
  • to take this awareness to the wider community
  • to assist the operation of the ACMM by raising funds that will allow the Ministry to extend its pastoral care to the Aboriginal Community and to call the wider Church Community to a response in justice

It is hoped that this Partner Group, by being in solidarity with and operating under the direction of the members of the ACMM, may assist in the growth of the Ministry.

'The establishment of the Partner Group has not been achieved with total ease. Entering a different cultural setting calls for the art of listening instead of doing; of accepting instead of prescribing; and self-conversion instead of converting... The dynamics of the Ministry are such that the Aboriginal people, with their own ways of ritualising, celebrating and organising, are the dominant players and offer their 'difference' for all to share. For non-Indigenous people, used to being the 'dominant' cultural force, the lessons are not always easy!'

Carol Griffiths, Binnap Partner

'In the spirit of partnership and because it is a strongly held value of' personnel in both the Catholic Education Office and the Aboriginal Catholic Ministry, we undertake joint projects where ever possible. The collaboration that is evident between our organisations has been seen as a model of reconciliation for others involved in Catholic Education.'

Kathy Johnston, Catholic Education Office, Melbourne

'Hearing the stories of Koorie people who were forcibly removed from home and family was a moving and humbling experience: moving because of the personal hurt and cruel separation experienced by so many, and humbling because those who were ill-treated have retained their personal dignity and integrity.'

Dr Kevin Burke, Australian Catholic University

'Two memorable occasions for members of the Northcote Deanery were the Deanery Sunday Masses celebrated with Smoking Ceremony and music at the Aborigines Advancement League in Thornbury, followed by lunch.'

Fr Geoff Baron, Co-ordinator, Northcote Deanery

Ecumenism: Coming Together

The Aboriginal Catholic Ministry's commitment to reclaiming and developing an Aboriginal spirituality and to deepening our Christian faith extends beyond our membership of the Catholic Church. We are also involved in ecumenical ventures and organisations at the local, state and national level.

In 1992 the Aboriginal Catholic Ministry developed a vision of a ceremonial place in Melbourne for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Christians of all denominations. When premises owned by the Uniting Church in Thornbury became vacant in 1992, the Aboriginal Catholic Ministry made a submission to the Uniting Church to acquire the property for use as a centre where Aboriginal Christians can feel at ease expressing our spirituality and celebrating our ceremonies. We worked with Vince Ross of the Uniting Aboriginal and Islander Christian Congress to establish a place of spiritual healing; a place where Aboriginal and Christian spiritual traditions grow together.

The Uniting Church accepted our submission and handed over the property to the Uniting Aboriginal and Islander Christian Congress. In 1994 Minajalku Aboriginal Corporation became the first ecumenical Aboriginal group to be incorporated in Australia.

The committee responsible for the project commissioned Georgina Williams (Aboriginal representative of the Anglican Church) to find an Aboriginal word that expresses the spirit of ecumenism. She proposed the name 'Minajalku', a local Aboriginal word which means ' coming together'.

Minajalku Centre is used for regular worship, fellowship, cultural and educational activities, memorial services and other community ceremonies.

The first Victorian Interchurch Aboriginal and Islander Conference was held at Lake Tyers in GippsIand in 1992. We joined with Koorie members of other denominations to worship together and share our concerns as Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Christians.

Koorie people are minorities within the Christian Churches in southeastern Australia. Coming together at Lake Tyers with people from other denominations helped to strengthen our Aboriginal spirituality. We learned from the experiences of Koories in other Christian traditions, and enhanced our identity within our own denomination.

The Conference prepared a statement by Victoria's Aboriginal Christians for 1993, the Year of the World's Indigenous Peoples. We challenged Christian Churches to support Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders. We particularly asked the Churches to be aware of how they have oppressed many Aborgines and Torres Strait Islanders, and to examine the systems that allow this oppression to continue.

Aboriginal Catholic Ministry members are also involved in state and national Councils of Churches. Vicki Walker is a member of the Victorian Council of Churches' Commission on Living Faiths and Community Relations, and was a member of the Catholic delegation at the inauguration of the National Council of Churches of Australia.

Two members of the Aboriginal Catholic Ministry are enrolled in studies in theology at Nungalinya College in Darwin. Nungalinya is a national network for the Anglican, Uniting, Catholic and Lutheran Churches. Its goal is to train Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people for church leadership and Christian ministry.

'We ask that within all Churches there be significant movement towards the introduction of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Liturgy as part of their services.

Also there should be something of an Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander perspective in all Churches, in a prominent place e.g. altar, vestments, paintings, carvings, flag...

Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people have a unique contribution to offer the Churches. All Churches have to be open to this New Partnership, as we build the future together.'

Extract from Statement of Statewide Ecumenical Christian Conference, October 1992

Our God, Creator Spirit,
We have heard your call to Christian people in the voices of Koorie Christians, and in the voices of Australian Aborigines over the years.
We confess that we live on stolen land...
We realise that our living standards are maintained at the of the original inhabitants of our land...
We mourn the injustice at the centre of our society...
We are ashamed of historical silence and inaction in the face of these facts.
We are frustrated that our efforts at change easily become paternalistic and shallow.
But we acknowledge that the grace of the indigenous people of this land is a pointer to your grace...
So, Our God, Creator Spirit
Hear our cry, forgive our trespasses, open our eyes, empower, humble and enable us for acts of restitution, reconciliation and redemption.


Lenten prayer prepared by the Collingwood Interchurch Coalition in response to the Statement of the 1992 Statewide Ecumenical Conference

Outreach to Country Victoria

The Australian census of 1991 recorded 3,219 Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Catholics in Victoria, with about 1,500 living outside Melbourne. The Aboriginal Catholic Ministry provides outreach services to people living in the three Victorian country dioceses of Ballarat, Sandhurst ( Bendigo ) and Sale.

In July 1989 the Aboriginal Catholic Ministry organised a conference of Aboriginal Catholics at Robinvale in northern Victoria. About twenty people attended. This was a modest start to the Ministry's outreach to country Victoria, but as the record in our Minutes states: 'It was a beginning'.

The next year we made a successful application to Australian Catholic Relief (now Caritas Australia ) for funding to employ an Aboriginal Outreach Worker to travel throughout Victoria. Alan Marsden was appointed in 1991, followed by Douglas Smith in 1992. Since that time the Outreach Worker's position has been funded by the Archdiocese of Melbourne and the bishops of the three country dioceses.

The Outreach Worker makes regular field trips to each Victorian country diocese, usually accompanied by Father Ed Ryan CSSR or Father Michael Gilbert CSSR They visit the bishop, priests, Catholic Education Office, Catholic schools and Koorie Catholics in each diocese. Sometimes a family may be the only Koorie Catholic family in their town. The Outreach Worker's visit can help break down their sense of isolation and alienation.

Housing, education, health, youth and social justice issues are among the concerns of Aboriginal people in these areas. The removal of children is a matter of continuing distress for many families. The visit of the Outreach Worker and one of the priests from the Aboriginal Catholic Ministry provides an opportunity for Koorie Catholic families to talk about these concerns and to ask 'How does the Church feel about these things?' As Douglas Smith is a member of the National Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Catholic Council, he also provides a channel of communication between the national organisation and Aboriginal Catholic people in rural areas.

In the country dioceses the Outreach Worker arranges workshops on Aboriginal culture, pre-contact and. contact history, and Social Justice Forums on contemporary issues such as Native Title. He offers Aboriginal contributions to liturgies and guides families in prayer with the use of a rosary kit.

The bishops in the country dioceses are very supportive of the outreach work of the Aboriginal Catholic Ministry, as are the Catholic Education Offices and many of the parish priests. Koorie people welcome and encourage our efforts.

Bringing Aboriginal Catholic people from around Victoria together at state and national conferences is very rewarding for all concerned. Koorie Catholics in country areas don't have many opportunities to get together because they are a minority group widely dispersed. Helping them come together and talk about spiritual matters, environmental issues, families and futures, is a positive contribution that the Aboriginal Catholic Ministry and the national organisation make to Aboriginal people in country areas and to the wider church.

From its earliest years the Aboriginal Catholic Ministry Melbourne has dreamed of having an Aboriginal Catholic Ministry in each Victorian country diocese. But any move towards establishing such ministries needs to come from the Koorie people themselves. This is the way our group was established in Melbourne, and it is the only way to produce a vital group that continues to grow strong in their faith and their identity as Aboriginal Catholics. In the meantime, we at the Aboriginal Catholic Ministry Melbourne, through our Outreach Worker, can share our vitality and commitment with Koorie Catholics throughout Victoria.

Douglas Smith's visits to country/southern New South Wales, February - September 1996:

6 February Bairnsdale

15 February Ballarat

22 March Bairnsdale

13 April Ballarat

23 April Swan Hill

9 May Ballarat

18 May Barmah

23 May Sale

30-31 May Barmah

3 June Bendigo

7 June Ballarat

14-16 June Lake Condah20 June Bendigo

28-30 June Halls Gap

30 July Bendigo

20-23 August Bendigo


Camp Jungai (Eildon)





28-30 August Portland



Buronga (NSW)


Balranald (NSW)

Swan Hill

4-6 September Warragul



Lakes Entrance

Lake Tyers


12 September Ballarat

The Wider Koorie Community

The Aboriginal Catholic Ministry Melbourne is located on Wurundjeri land. We emphasise this important fact at all our ceremonies, functions and workshops. In keeping with the protocol of Aboriginal culture, Elders or other members of the Wurundieri clan are invited to welcome visitors to the Church in Melbourne. They also welcome guests at major functions organised by the Aboriginal Catholic Ministry.

The work of the Ministry in the Archdiocese of Melbourne and in outreach to country Victoria extends to the lands of other Victorian and southern New South Wales clans, including the Gunditjmara, Pangerang and Krauatungalung clans.

Building up the Koorie community's trust of Christian Churches and organisations is an important part of our work. Because of the history of Christian missions, especially their role in suppressing Aboriginal ceremonies and spirituality, many Aboriginal people are wary of any person or organisation connected with a Christian Church.

Our outreach to all Indigenous peoples includes offering them the opportunity to express their Aboriginality through ceremonies.

Ceremony has been embedded in the daily lives of Aboriginal people. Here in south-eastern Australia that connection with ceremony was almost wiped out as a result of dispossession, removal of children from their families and forced assimilation. Ceremonial places were destroyed. Now the Aboriginal Catholic Ministry is reviving the traditions of our Old People and offering to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples a way that ceremony can become part of their lives again. We do this through preparing funerals, memorial services and other ceremonies.

In 1994, the Aboriginal Catholic Ministry co-operated with the Barkantji people of south-eastern New South Wales and the Sisters of Charity Aboriginal Awareness project to prepare a National Memorial Service to commemorate more than 10,000 ancestors buried at Lake Victoria, New South Wales. The vast burial site had been uncovered during the drainage of the lake which is part of a large irrigation and water supply system. The discovery of the site also focused attention on a nearby massacre site that has been part of the oral history of the Barkantji people for generations. Official reports state that thirty people were murdered there in the 1840s, although the tradition in the Koorie community is that many more people were slaughtered in the Rufus River massacre.

The liturgy for the Memorial Service was prepared by the Aboriginal Catholic Ministry. Attended by more than five hundred people of different races and religious affiliations, the Memorial Service was a healing and reconciling ritual for the living and an appropriate ceremonial farewelling and laying to rest of the spirits of the dead.

The Aboriginal Catholic Ministry also supports other Koorie agencies. We attend the meetings, celebrations and annual general meetings of most Koorie agencies in Victoria.

In 1991 and 1992 we provided the base for the planning of NAIDOC (National Aboriginal and Islander Day of Commemoration) activities in Victoria, under the direction of Peter Rotumah, Claire Garisu and the NAIDOC committee. We offered our secretarial facilities and services to promote NAIDOC in the state. On behalf of the Koorie community we lobby Catholic Church authorities for support on issues such as Native Title, cuts to funds for ATSIC (Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Commission), developments on Hindmarsh Island, and the Stolen Generation.

Invisible No More!

Pope John Paul II's address to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples in 1986 concluded with these words:

Dear Aboriginal People: the hour has come for you to take on new courage and new hope. You are called to remember the past, to be faithful to your worthy traditions, and to adapt your living culture whenever this is required by your own needs and those of your fellow man. Above all you are called to open your hearts ever more to the consoling, purifying and uplifting message of Jesus Christ, the Son of God, who died so that we might all have life, and have it to the full.

We Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Catholics gained new courage and hope from the Holy Father's words. We also have the strength that has been passed on to us by our Old People. They have struggled against assimilation and worked hard for us to be accepted as we are.

Now, ten years after the Pope's address to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples:

  • the Aboriginal Catholic Ministry Melbourne is an active ministry to Koories and non-Koories
  • it was founded by Aboriginal people and is the first official ministry to Aborigines of the Archdiocese of Melbourne
  • its strength comes from our birthright as Indigenous people and from our commitment to our Catholic faith
  • it provides a place where our people can worship and celebrate our faith and identity together
  • it resources the wider Church on Aboriginal issues
  • it works for a just and true reconciliation between Indigenous peoples and other Australians
  • as Indigenous peoples, its members are the keepers of the oldest living cultures in the world

But, despite the message of Pope John Paul II and all our efforts, we find that here in south-eastern Australia we are still seen as not being, real' Aboriginal Catholics. We are still invisible to those people who believe that there is one 'authentic' Aboriginal spirituality, who has not heard the Pope's message that we are entitled to adapt our living culture whenever this is required by our needs and the needs of others.

We still struggle for the right to use our symbols; to worship and celebrate the ceremonies of the Church in Aboriginal ways.

We commit ourselves to continuing this struggle to be Invisible No More!


'One of our concerns is to create a truly Australian liturgy. We need to do this because Australians are not Europeans. The Australian Church needs its own traditions.

We seem to be falling over backwards to bring in other people's traditions. We should have something of our own. I'm sure it could be done without offending anybody.

We have Polish Madonna's. Why can't we have our own?

Betty Pike, Aboriginal Catholic Ministry