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Tuesday, 15 May 2012 12:12

A gentle presence in Woorabinda

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Before coming to Woorabinda, the Missionary Franciscan Sister spent 28 years nursing in rural villages in the West Sepik in Papua New Guinea.

When she returned to Australia, the Bishop of Rockhampton Brian Heenan was looking for someone to replace the Mercy Sisters who were leaving Woorabinda after 23 years of unstinting service.  During a Sabbatical period, Cecilia says she became more and more aware of the pastoral needs of marginalised people and was being drawn to live with them.

In 2003, after an invitation from the Woorabinda community to minister among them and a lengthy discernment by Cecilia and all the Sisters, she moved to the ex-Government reserve about 176 km south-west from Rockhampton.
Nine years later she is still living in the largely indigenous community where she has a ministry of ‘gentle presence’’.

“It is simply being there for everyone; to stand with them and encourage them and to offer spiritual support and inner healing, which is such a need given the traumas of the past and continuing trauma of racism, injustice, domestic abuse etc,” says Cecilia.

Woorabinda was set up in 1926 as a government reserve for Aboriginal people forced to move from their land at Taroom 260 kilometres away to make way for a dam, which was never built.

The current population, which fluctuates from 800 to 1200, comprises over 24 different clans, some of whom were traditional enemies. Cecilia says this has led to a history of disunity and a lack of community leaders acceptable to everyone.

The community has a health centre, high school, primary school, post office, small grocery store, fast-food store and town council. There are three churches – AIM, Anglican and Catholic which all work well together.

Cecilia says the use of language and traditional customs were forbidden during the reservation years and most of the culture has been lost with the passing of the few remaining Elders.

“There is only a smattering of language here and there, just isolated words. The loss of land, language and culture, plus the lack of meaningful employment, also brought a loss of pride and identity leading to alcohol and other substance abuse which in turn led to domestic violence and some dysfunctional families.”

For Sister Cecilia one of the blessings of a life of celibacy is the freedom to live among the marginalised and be totally there for them.

She says the challenge is not to come with a ‘Messiah’ complex and think you have all the solutions to the problems the community faces,  but to encourage and support or enable the community to find their own solutions in a culturally acceptable way to all.

“The blessings are definitely our relationship with the people and their acceptance of us which has grown over the years ... and it has happened because we stayed on,” she says.

“After my first year, the children asked: ‘Are you leaving us now?’. By the fourth year they stopped asking. There is little feedback in ministry of this kind so even small positive happenings are often a source of great joy, like the children coming over after school and saying with such trust, ‘You love us, don’t you Sister?’, or the joyful encounter with Woorabinda people when we meet up unexpectedly in Rockhampton and are embraced as one of their own.”

Amid the current political climate where Indigenous communities in the Northern Territory are facing 10 more years of ‘Intervention-like’ policies, Sister Cecilia says treating everyone in communities like children disempowers and humiliates them.

“It only leads to more anger and resentment in a people who have already endured generations of racism, trauma and loss. We cannot undo what has happened in the past but with good will we can learn from the mistakes.”

“I would encourage politicians to spend time getting to know the ‘grassroots’ people in each community, to listen to their hopes and dreams, and to find out what they perceive to be their greatest difficulties, as each community has a unique set of circumstances and different needs,” she says.

For Woorabinda, Cecilia hopes that enough young people will become well-educated and return to the community to share their knowledge and skills.

“I hope that they will provide good leadership to help the people take pride in themselves, and encourage them to use their many talents to move forward without the need for Government ‘handouts’’ or over-dependence on outsiders.

“I also hope that domestic violence will be replaced with mutual respect and traditional gentleness. I pray that they will be able to return to their spiritual heritage enhanced and fulfilled by the revelation of Jesus as God’s love for all of us.”

 

Charlie Iffley with Sr Cecilia Prest, Woorabinda 2012 Good friends: Sister Cecilia is pictured with Charlie Iffley, an inpatient at the nursing home of the Health Centre who came to live there after suffering a stroke many years ago. Charlie died in his sleep on April 29. For Sister Cecilia, Charlie was one of the joys of her ministry at Woorabinda. 

She says: “We had a good understanding despite his inability to speak. We used to pray together, he would hold my hand and raise it high with his good arm saying the few words he could speak, “I love You! I love You! I love You!” ...and it wasn’t me he was speaking to.

"He certainly leaves a big empty space in the nursing home.  Everyone misses him... which goes to show how important presence can be!"