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Teachings of Tiwi people help inspire local students


She describes herself as “just a little nun from the back blocks” but Sr Anne Gardiner FDNSC AM had some worldly advice for local students from the Our Lady of the Sacred Heart community this month.

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The 2017 Senior Australian of the Year was in Adelaide to celebrate the feast of the Sacred Heart on Friday June 8 at Masses attended by students from St Martin’s, St Brigid’s and St Gabriel’s schools, and then addressed an assembly of students at OLSH College in Enfield.

Sr Anne, who taught generations of Tiwi children on Bathurst Island, said during her visit to Adelaide she encountered “delightful children who made me feel young again”. She added it was wonderful to see the work of the Daughters of Our Lady of the Sacred Heart, who started teaching in Kilburn in 1947 – and also noted how cold it was coming so far south!

Her message to the OLSH students was simple: “Get away from the negativity on closing the gap and start building bridges.

“No matter what your colour or religion, we all have a God-given right to be here. We need to start respecting each other,” she said.

Having lived most of her life on Bathurst Island, located 80km north of Darwin, Sr Anne, 87, said it had taken her many years to learn the ways of the local Tiwi Aboriginal people.

“When I went to the Tiwi Islands I thought I knew it all and they would do it my way.

“It took me many years to know I didn’t know what I didn’t know. In a way they taught me.

“In their culture and their relationships it is the ‘who’ that is the most important, not the why, where and what,” she explained.

As Senior Australian of the Year, Sr Anne said the past 12 months had been busy attending numerous events at which she met some “beautiful people”.

However, she admitted that the announcement of her as the recipient of the Australia Day honour in Canberra came as a complete shock, and she “dissolved into tears”.

“I’m just a nun from the back blocks… but the award was good for the Church and good for women,” she said.

One of the highlights of receiving the title was being invited by the Holy See to be the guest speaker at International Women’s Day celebrations in Rome in March. There she spoke passionately about supporting indigenous women in the remote Australian island community.

Coming to the Tiwi Islands as a fresh-faced 22-year-old, Sr Anne was principal of the local school for many years. Now retired, she has spent a lot of her time working with the Tiwi people, especially the women, to ensure their culture and language is documented and preserved for future generations.

One of her achievements was helping to establish the Patakijyali Museum, which is now run by two local Tiwi women. This cultural museum houses a treasure trove of stories, photos and interactive displays explaining the Tiwi dreamtime and spirituality, the mission years and the islands’ sporting heritage – particularly in Aussie Rules football.

Sr Anne said following her visit to Adelaide she was looking forward to returning to her home – and the warmer weather – in the Tiwi Islands, and continuing to live there as long as possible, health permitting.



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