The Northern Territory is an area of Australia where the Sisters of Charity have not had a permanent presence in the past. However, as with a number of our Sisters’ current ministries, the efforts of Sister Leone Wittmack rsc show that the spirit of Mary Aikenhead is very much alive.
Her ministry in the Northern Territory certainly reflects the latest Chapter Statement as it allows the Sisters of Charity of Australia to live the joy of the Gospel with all its challenges, going out to the margins of Australia in some of the remotest areas of the country to walk in partnership with the people there and offering much-needed services.
Currently General Manager for Mission and Culture for CatholicCare in the Northern Territory, Sr Leone has had a long and distinguished career in health in Australia.
Trained at St Vincent’s in Toowoomba, she has worked in Rwanda, Cambodia,Timor Leste, and Papua New Guinea, and was the National Director of Mission at St Vincent’s Health Australia for nine years.
In 2013, she was named Executive Director of Catholic Religious Australia. During this time she went on a journey of spiritual renewal which saw her walking the pilgrims’s way, el camino de Santiago to Campostela. “It was a wonderful experience. Fantastic. I walked 800 kilometres through Spain and it allowed me take a good look at myself and I had to ask myself why I was getting blisters. It was all the stones – literal and figurative – in my shoes. By the end of the pilgrimage the blisters had gone and so were the stones.
“I had just come back from that experience, and saw an ad for this mission role in CatholicCare NT. I applied, and was fortunate enough to be offered it.”
In February 2015, Sr Leone began her ministry with CatholicCare NT, a not-for-profit organisation providing counselling and other support services and programs to individuals, couples, families, children groups, schools, and agencies across the Northern Territory. These services include the provision of safe houses in some of the remote communities. Funding for these services is provided by both the Australian and Northern Territory governments. CatholicCare NT is a ministry of the Diocese of Darwin which covers 1.35 million square kms.
Sr Leone’s role at CatholicCare NT is General Manager for Mission and Culture, and while she is a member of the executive team, this allows her to work closely with staff, travelling to all areas where CatholicCare NT conducts its services.
“My immediate impression of Darwin and the Northern Territory? It was bit of a learning curve. It’s clearly not like working for a health service with 16,000 staff and lots of resources. This is such a vast area, which ranges from the Tiwi islands in the north to the APY (Anangu Pitjantjatjara Yankunytjatjara) lands in the south. And there are not many people to cover the area.”
The main offices of CatholicCare are located in Darwin, Palmerston, Katherine, Tennant Creek and Alice Springs. From these centres services extend to Wadeye (Port Keats), Nauiyu (Daly River), Bathurst and Melville Islands, Santa Teresa, Titjikala, Finke, Maningrida (West Arnhem Land) and Jabiru.
Despite the scale of the NT and the limited resources of CatholicCare NT, Sr Leone was grateful to have landed her role. “I had always wanted to work in the NT, and I had also had the urge to go back overseas and work in a developing country. As an Australian, it is a terrible thing to have to admit, but working up here with some of the most disadvantaged people is not much different to working in a developing country. Unfortunately,you don’t have to leave Australia!”
Working in the Northern Territory is very different to working in our other States and there was a lot to take into account. “One of my first learnings was that I had to be flexible enough to use my knowledge and experience in a way which serves and supports the people here. To do this I also took a lot of advice from our Aboriginal staff who are our cultural educators and I continue to work very closely with them.”
Understanding difference in theory is one thing. Living that understanding is another. “It is really important that all of our new staff are inducted in cultural awareness for the area of the NT in which they are working. To do this our Cultural Educators have developed a cultural awareness program. This team of cultural educators come from all the areas where CatholicCare NT provides its services so they are able to provide the correct information to our new staff. There are at least 40 different cultural and language groups in the NT, so one size doesn’t fit all. This was highlighted this year during NAIDOC Week when the theme was ‘Our Language Matters.’ It is the richness of all these cultural differences that I love so much.”
When she started, 30 per cent of staff were from Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander heritage. That is a figure CatholicCare NT is actively working to improve so that the number reaches 40 per cent in the next couple of years. Various practical steps have been taken to help realise that goal.
“We developed a reconciliation action plan launched 2016; an Aboriginal man is now on the executive. He is responsible for our workforce development strategy with a particular focus on our Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander staff, and in the last couple of months we have employed an Aboriginal woman as our Regional manager for our programs in the top end.