Salesian Fr Frank Freeman recalls the part played by members of various religious congregations in an article celebrating 50 years of the Broome Diocese in the Kimberley, northwest of Australia.
The history of the Catholic Church in the Kimberley began in the late 1800s when the spread of cattle and the growth of the pearling industry in the Kimberley region drew an influx of Europeans and Asians into the region. In the 1870s, the Bishop of Perth, Martin Griver, campaigned for a missionary foundation in the north. It was not until 1884, at the invitation of Bishop Griver, that Father Duncan McNab finally arrived in the Kimberley to serve the Catholics in the region and to establish contact with the local Aboriginal people. Keen to build on the work of his predecessor, Bishop Gibney negotiated for the establishment of an Aboriginal mission in the Dampier land area. A mission site was selected a few kilometres inland from Beagle Bay (Nyul Nyul country) which was a popular lay-up base for the pearling luggers. The Catholic Church established the Vicariate Apostolic of Kimberley in 1887. In 1890, Trappist (Cistercian) monks from Sept Fons in France founded a mission at Beagle Bay. Their activities extended into the growing metropolis of Broome in 1895. In 1901, the Pallottine Fathers from Germany took over Beagle Bay Mission with two priests and four Brothers and, in 1907, they were joined by the Sisters of St John of God from Ireland. The Sisters assisted the priests and Brothers in evangelising the coastal and desert areas of the vast Kimberley.
In 1895, a Mission Station was established in the Broome area with Trappist, Fr Nicholas Emo, in charge. The population of approximately 500 consisted of about 50 ‘white’ residents with the remainder a mix of Japanese, Chinese, Malays, Koepangers, Ambonese and Manillamen (Filipinos).
In 1897, the Parish of Broome was established. A small church and school for native children were built behind Streeter’s General Store with the help of local Manillamen. The church became known as Our Lady Queen of Peace. Unfortunately, only a short time later, the church was burned down.
In 1899, a timber and iron church was built, again with help from Filipino pearl divers; the tower and alterations were completed by April 1904.
During World War I, the German Pallottine missionaries were interned, and Fr John Creagh, a Redemptorist priest, took charge of the newly established Vicariate. Bishop Ernest Coppo, of the Salesian order, administered the Vicariate between 1922 and 1928. In 1929, Fr Otto Raible SAC took over and was consecrated Bishop in 1935.
During World War II, the German Pallottine Fathers and Brothers were interned in Melbourne. Most of the population of Broome was evacuated to Beagle Bay and the Lombadina Missions after the bombing of Broome by the Japanese air force. Bishop Raible, Vicar Apostolic of the Kimberley, resigned in August 1958. In January 1959, Fr John Jobst was appointed Vicar Apostolic of the Kimberley and, on 19 March 1959, he was consecrated Bishop. The Vicariate was raised to the status of Diocese in 1966. Bishop Jobst’s episcopate was marked by a period of building and organisation that enabled the Church to keep up with the rapid growth of the North West.
The post-war era saw extensive expansion of missionary activities, influx of religious orders and the establishment of the Kimberley Lay Missionary Association. Priests and religious Brothers and Sisters starting moving into the east Kimberley at the invitation of the Bishop, and a network of parishes and schools spread throughout. There are now nine parishes and 13 Catholic schools within the diocese.
In 1890, Trappist (Cistercian) monks from France founded a mission at Beagle Bay, while Benedictine monks from New Norcia have had a pastoral presence at Kalumburu for many years.
In 1901, the Pallottine Fathers from Germany took over Beagle Bay Mission with two priests and four brothers and, in 1907, they were joined by the Sisters of St John of God. In 1907, nine Sisters arrived in Beagle Bay Mission, led by Sr Antonio O’Brien, to minister to Aboriginal women and children. They responded to whatever works needed to be done and so commenced teaching, nursing, training of the older girls and a wide range of domestic duties. They were soon accepted in Broome by all races and classes of people.
Over the remaining years, the Sisters branched out, undertaking a number of ventures in Lombadina and Derby, then further afield to the desert community of Balgo Hills Mission and later to the La Grange Mission (now Bidyadanga Community) south of Broome. In 2007, the Sisters celebrated 100 years of ministry in the Kimberley. The missionary partnership of the Pallottines and the St John of God Sisters lasted up to recent times. Although the Pallottines are no longer present in the Kimberley, the Sisters still have a pastoral presence in Broome.
The Sisters of St Joseph of the Sacred Heart, the order founded by St Mary of the Cross MacKillop, have long worked with Aboriginal people in the Kimberley, with the Catholic Church’s presence in the area dating back to the late 1800s and the vast Parish of Broome established in 1897. Today, they work in Balgo, Kununurra, Warnum-Turkey Creek and Halls Creek.
The Christian Brothers have a presence in Broome and the De La Salle Brothers have a community in Balgo, while a Sister of Mercy and a Good Samaritan Sister work in Gibb River and Broome, respectively.
The members of various congregations have contributed a centenary of missionary work in the Kimberley. They have been a gift to the Church, a fulfilment of their own vocations and, for the most part, viewed positively by many people in the Kimberley today.
This excerpt is from an article entitled "Celebrating 50 years of diverse historical culture that is the Diocese of Broome". Read the full article by Fr Frank Freeman sdb which was first published on 2 June 2016 in The Record, a publication of the Archdiocese of Perth.