Sunday, 3 June 2018

Kimberley "Good Liyan" for Melbourne Principals

"..It's hard not to come away.....with anything but admiration for these strong, spirited, dedicated women who made a home in the remote region and were embraced by the community there." The ABC online review of the documentary Sisters, Pearls, and Mission Girls is referring to the Irish and Australian Sisters of St John of God who sailed from Perth in 1907 to the remote Kimberley coast in the far North West of Australia and founded the Beagle Bay Mission.

This year marks the Centenary Celebrations of the Sacred Heart Church also known as the Mother of Pearl Church in Beagle Bay. The artwork of the church is unique to the Kimberley region represented by mother of pearl inlays, Aboriginal designs, Christian symbols and European mosaic techniques.

Mother of pearl inlays in the altar, Sacred Heart Church, Beagle Bay
Today, there are only two Sisters of St John of God. Twenty principals from the South Eastern Principal's Network of the Catholic Archdiocese of Melbourne, were fortunate to learn about education in the Kimberley from one very humble woman born in the Kimberley area, Sister Pat Rhatigan AO SSJG.

Our travels took us from Broome to Cape Leveque (image from

Before we met Sister Pat, at the Sisters of St John of God Heritage Centre in Broome, we were welcomed by Erica Bernard with a smoking ceremony. Erica is the Community Liaison Officer for the Broome Catholic Office. Erica explained that the smoking ceremony, gifted to her by her elders, cleansed the way, to keep us safe during our stay. Erica asked us to open our hearts, eyes and ears as we felt the smoke make our whole being stronger and provide us with "good liyan" (for the Yawuru people "liyan" represents emotional strength, dignity, pride and well being).
Erica Bernard, Community Liaison Officer for the Broome Catholic Education Office welcomes us with open arms on behalf  of elders.

The inspiring woman, who helped us to understand the "good liyan" was Sister Pat. Sister Pat's first words to us were that she had a good news story to share. However, we came to realise, that the dedicated work of this very modest nun was a good news story in itself. Sister Pat's invaluable personal contribution during the past sixty years as a Sister of St John of God cannot be overlooked.

Sister Pat was recognised as Western Australian Senior of the Year in 2007 and received the Order of Australia in 2008. This award recognised Sister Pat's educational endeavours with Aboriginal people by ensuring the history, culture and religion of the Aboriginal people were part of mainstream studies. Among many initiatives, Sister Pat facilitated the opening of several Catholic schools, ensured Aboriginal Teaching Assistants received suitable training, established the Broome Campus of the Notre Dame University and the Broome Catholic Education Office. Today, Sister Pat, a passionate educator, curator and researcher, shares the rich history of the Kimberley region. Sister Pat coordinates staff and volunteers to support locals and visitors to reconnect with their family history through the 60,000 photos in the archives and gallery open to the public as part of the permanent Relationships Exhibition at the Heritage Centre.

May 2018 Newsletter, Sisters of St John of God Heritage Centre
During our stay in Broome, we visited several of the Catholic schools in the Kimberley. While visiting the schools, we met with passionate teachers and leaders all wishing to ensure that the children experience rich, diverse and personalised learning opportunities amidst the challenges of climate, culture, distance, isolation and limited resources. 

At some of the schools, we coincidently crossed paths with the school photographer taking the annual class photos. We saw the smiling faces of children standing in rows beside dedicated members of staff. Having seen the faded images of the sisters from the past standing beside the children in the Relationships Exhibition, one could sense the remarkable transition over the years from the early missionaries, to the religious to the lay persons of today. Through passages of time, passionate practitioners meet the needs of the communities across the remote Kimberley region. Our respect for the present day staff of the schools in the Kimberley region is comparable to the work of the pioneers and the sisters who went before them. 

As leaders of Catholic schools today, we have a responsibility to carry on the work of our forebears to ensure Catholic education remains a beacon of excellence within our schools. We have challenges unique to our individual school communities but as Sister Pat reminds us, we need to work with our challenges and with each other to overcome problems in new ways.
"We need big dreamers, leaders, movers and shakers" and  " We need to respond to the needs of the people of the time" (Sister Pat Rhatigan, 2018).

Just as Sister Pat forged ahead to ensure educational equality for the Aboriginal people of the Kimberley and supported the healing and acknowledgement of past wrongs, we too can contribute. We can encourage and prepare staff to venture to the Kimberley and other remote areas of Australia to support the continuation of this educational mission. Closer to home, we can work to enhance the life and protect the rights of every child and person who is created in the image and likeness of God within our schools today.
Erica and Sister Pat at the campfire used for the Land, Fire and Water Closing Prayer

"Light of the world ! Salt of the earth !
Be for the world the face of love!
Be for the earth the reflection of his light !"

Pope John Paul II (taken from the Closing Prayer led by Erica Bernard).

Special thanks to Richard Hodgson and his wife Sue who planned and coordinated this remarkable principal conference as an opportunity for Melbourne Principals to truly experience the Kimberley "good liyan".

Here is a video reflection from the trip.

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