St. John of God Sisters Receive Award

The award-winning Broome Heritage Centre of the Sisters of St John of God has opened more doors for greater civic engagement in the region and encouraged them in their work of healing those memories that are steeped in the painful history of the Stolen Generation.

 The State Heritage Award received by the Sisters of St John of God early this year for the Broome Heritage Centre has given them opportunities for greater civic engagement in Western Australia. More significantly, the recognition has helped the congregation clarify their goals on the healing of memories that are steeped in the painful history of the Stolen Generation.

“The award appears to have given us a stronger position in the broader community and it recognised that Church groups such as ours have significant stories to share,” said Sister Pat Rhatigan, the Broome Heritage Centre’s Curator and Researcher. “It served as a public and professional welcome into the Western Australian museum and heritage scene.”

Last April, the State Heritage Award was given to the Broome Heritage Centre, a unique ministry of the Sisters which they established to help heal those from the Stolen Generation.

The award was an affirmation of more than 100 years of service of the Sisters of St John of God since they set foot in the Kimberley in 1907 to minister to Aboriginal women and children. The Heritage Centre they established in the early 1990s is a community-based project showcasing the social history of the Kimberley through a hundred years of photographs.

It all began when the sisters set up a simple exhibition of photos which caused an outpouring of memories and stories from the local community. Sr Joan Mansfield was encouraged to learn more about the preservation and collection of historical records. She then shared her skills with local helpers in setting up and processing materials for a community archive. And, as only an archivist would say with profound appreciation, the rest is history.

New opportunities

Following the award, more visitors have flocked to the Broome Heritage Centre, keen to research their family histories. Collaborative projects have also poured in, such as the ongoing exhibition of memorabilia on the 1968 inaugural production of Mary’s Durack’s play "Ship of Dreams" at the reopened Broome Civic Centre. “We felt that this invitation came through our higher profile due to the award,” said Sr Pat.

“We also recently received a visit from the Chief Executive Officer of the Western Australian Museum, Mr Alec Coles,” said Sr Pat. “He was very keen for local heritage expressions such as ours to be recognised as part of the total Western Australian scene.”

The Sisters will also become a regular addition to the Broome Diocese’s publication. “We were also invited by the Bishop to contribute a regular half page article that would cover heritage centre matters,” said Sr Pat. “Our first introductory article will be in the December issue of the Kimberly Community Profile.”

Yet the most exciting project will happen in February 2013 when Centre volunteers will receive their first professional training workshop through a partnership with the Western Australia Museum. “This is quite a step forward for us and a positive confirmation for our local volunteers,” said Sr Pat.

Sharing more stories

The Stolen Generation maintains a strong grip on the Australian psyche. The trauma of the policy of forced removal of Indigenous children during the early 1900s will continue to haunt many generations. The Sisters of St John of God, with over a century’s work among Aboriginal communities, especially during this painful period of Australian history, understand this only too well.

The Sisters have seen the need to tell the stories about this period that consider the context in which these actions were taken in accordance with official government policy in the early 1900s. The good work of missions, religious men and women and the Church during this difficult period are generally understated and often viewed negatively.

“We’ve had a number of secondary school groups visiting and these young people appear to have a negative impression of what the Church did on Aboriginal missions,” said Sr Pat.

“We believe that the picture needs to be presented in a balanced way. We have a responsibility to acknowledge things that were probably not the best actions, but they need to be understood in the context of that time.”

“We need to ensure that accurate knowledge of the past is available to the present and future generations,” she explained. “If this is not done, then people tend to fill in the blanks with myths that soon become accepted as accurate.”

Yet ensuring the integrity of social history that is passed on to generations requires more funding, skills and the contribution of local Indigenous voices. “We need to develop in-depth education modules centred on main themes, from which threads or wheel spokes are drawn.”

One important theme is the social and emotional impact of Hansen’s disease on the Kimberley from the 1930s through to the 1980s. “When we were setting up the exhibition, the people in the community were keen for the story of the Derby Leprosarium (presently known as Bungarun) to be told,” said Sr Pat. “The Sisters of St John of God were at the forefront of the work. They were with the people all the time and the facts need to be presented.”

“The Kimberley story of this disease needs to be shared, not only for those seeking genealogical information but also to provide medical information, such as the different types of leprosy, available drug treatments through the years, medical research to assist deformities and so on,” she explained.

“We want to develop educational materials on the medical aspect, social dimension, government laws of the day, etc. and make them suitable for the use of middle and upper primary, as well as lower and upper secondary schools.”

“And that’s part of reconciliation. Reconciliation is about understanding.”

Read more about the Broome Heritage Centre and the Sisters of St John of God.

Read the story by Abigail Skipper published in the August edition of the Kimberly Community Profile on the Sisters of St John of God receiving the State Heritage Award.

(Photo of Sr Pat Rhatigan accepting the State Heritage Award used with permission from the Kimberly Community Profile)

By Giselle Lapitan


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