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Tuesday, 02 August 2016 10:05

Fr Jan serving the people of Nhulunbuy in Arnhem Land

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Fr Jan Szweda svdAfter seeing the need of the people Nhulunbuy in isolated East Arnhem Land, Northern Territory, Father Jan Szweda svd offered to move in as Parish Priest and he’s loving it.

For the people of Nhulunbuy in isolated East Arnhem Land, Northern Territory, a regular Catholic priest has been hard to come by in recent times, but after providing priestly supply services there, and seeing the need of the people, Fr Jan Szweda SVD offered to move in as Parish Priest, and despite the challenges, he’s loving it.

Bishop Eugene Hurley appointed Fr Jan as Parish Priest of Nhulunbuy and Groote Eylandt earlier this year and since then, Fr Jan has been doing his best to build a parish community – not an easy task in a largely transient mining population.

Nhulunbuy is located on the Gove Peninsula at the tip of the Arafura Sea and the Gulf of Carpentaria. It is 1,100 km to Darwin by road or one hour and 10 minutes by plane.
“It’s a pretty isolated place,” Fr Jan says.

Home to the Yolngu people of eastern Arnhem Land, the township of Nhulunbuy was established in the 1960s to service a bauxite mine there, and later, a refinery.

“The infrastructure and most of the housing was built by (mining company) Rio Tinto,” Fr Jan says. “The church and the presbytery were also built by Rio Tinto.

“For many years the place was thriving, with at least two airlines flying in, and cheap fares, but when they closed the refinery in July 2014 most of the employees lost their jobs and had to move out, so the population dived from about 6000 to 2,500 and life became much more expensive.

“There’s been a big change in the whole life of the town and of course, the parish was affected by it too.”

Fr Jan says Nhulunbuy is a township made up of people from all over the country and the world, as well as various denominations. The nearest indigenous community of Yirrkala, is comprised largely of Baptist Christians, due to earlier missionary efforts there.

There was a resident Catholic priest in Nhulunbuy from the time the church was built in 1974 until 2013, but when the parish priest died, there was nobody to replace him for about two years.

“In 2013, I flew there for one weekend on supply and I liked it. I could see the people there were begging for a priest and I came away thinking that if there was a possibility for me to go there full-time, I would do it.”

640px-Map of Nhulunbuy and the Gove PeninsulaSince his arrival, Fr Jan has come to know the place and, to as best he can, it’s ever-changing population of people.

“The mine doesn’t employ too many people any more. They have big machines now. And a lot of the workers are fly-in, fly-out workers. It’s the same on Groote Eylandt, where they mine Manganese,” he says.

“It’s mostly young people, families with children. Their wages are good, but they’re not intending to stay there long.

“But the community has gone through a difficult time in the past few years. They’ve lost a lot of businesses, and the facilities and social life have been cut down significantly.

“For me, one of the great challenges is to build up the parish community in such a transient population.

“It’s a completely new challenge for me, because in PNG there were big crowds everywhere. But here, I’m in a situation where we average about 400-500 people over the Sunday Masses. The turnover of people is very high and it’s hard to build community or even to sustain things like a choir.”

But, Fr Jan says despite the small and transient population, the people of Nhulunbuy and Groote Eylandt are grateful to have a resident priest again.

“The people are few, but they are committed and they appreciate that a priest is there,” he says. “They make an effort to make me feel at home and the people are very friendly – the whole town is friendly and people are very open.”

Before being appointed to Nhulunbuy, Fr Jan, who is Polish, was a missionary in Alice Springs. He also spent 31 years as a missionary in PNG, two years in the Philippines and one year in American Samoa.

This was first published on 28 July 2016 at In The Word, the monthly e-newsletter of The Society of the Divine Word Australian Province.