“It is not to our credit as a Christian nation that we have failed to accept genuine Australian natives into our community with equality of rights …”

Bishop Edward Doody, in Moree, 1956

Enriching, complementary Catholic life

The vision of a Bishop in the 1950s is producing ripe fruit at the St Pius X Mission, in Moree.

by Fr Paul McCabe

Undoubtedly, the most influential Bishop in aboriginal affairs in the Armidale diocese was Bishop Edward Doody.

He was the fifth bishop of the diocese, and during the 20 years of his episcopate, from 1948 to 1968, he transformed the local church’s concern for the Aboriginal people. His initiative, persistence and determination in supporting the development of Aboriginal people had an effect not only in our diocese, but also in the churches of south eastern Australia, and reached even to the level of the State Government.

When he arrived in the diocese, he found that Aboriginal children were excluded from Catholic schools. His first move, therefore, was to desegregate all the Catholic schools in the diocese.

Then, he directed his energies to the two main population centres of Aboriginal people, Armidale and Moree.  In both of these centres there was serious racial injustice and tension.

In 1954, he established St Pius X Mission, and appointed Fr Dick Shanahan as its director. In June 1955, the Moree Municipal Council enforced a policy of excluding all Aborigines from council premises and town baths. An Aboriginal couple were barred from hiring the town hall for a wedding reception. The issue was taken up in the metropolitan newspapers, and became a national topic of conversation.

Fr Shanahan condemned the Council’s policy, and announced that Bishop Doody would deliver an address condemning racial prejudice when next he visited Moree. [Remember this was nine years before Charlie Perkins led the Freedom Riders to Moree in February, 1965.]

On March 15, 1956, the Bishop opened St Pius X Mission: “It is not to our credit as a Christian nation that we have failed to accept genuine Australian natives into our community with equality of rights; that they should be deprived of certain civic privileges which we normally regard as part of our cherished freedom... No white Australian is denied citizenship on the grounds which are held sufficient to exclude Aborigines.”

The first funeral from the new chapel of St Pius X was that of Selina Munro, mother of Lyall Munro snr, on May 10, 1956.

The first chapel building was burnt down after an electrical accident, but it was quickly replaced, and when he came to bless and open the new complex in 1959, Bishop Doody returned to his plea that all Aborigines should enjoy equal rights and opportunities with the white community. His arguments were based on the Catholic social teaching of Popes Leo XIII, Pius XI and Pius XII.

In 1963, Fr Bernie Melville, the successor to Fr Shanahan as director of Pius X, wrote an article in the national magazine, Catholic Missions, drawing attention to the Moree mission, and to the problems of fringe dwellers, repeated in many country towns. He strongly urged that more be done for this ‘mission on our doorstep’.

In 1965, John Curran took time out from writing such poetry as “Murder on the Bore Drain”, and suggested to Bishop Doody that he ask the Daughters of Charity to come to Moree. In due course, they came, and established a pre-school and clinic at Pius X. Local doctors, including John Campion, John Egan and Bill Hunter, served the mission with great generosity. Bishop Doody saw the initiative as “the starting point of complete social integration of the coloured and white peoples”.  In 1968, Bishop Doody died.

In 1967, the State Government Crawford Report on Aboriginal Welfare singled out the Pius X pre-school and clinic for particular praise. This was repeated in 1969/70 when official government reports identified the clinic as having been a major factor in the eradication of malnutrition and many childhood diseases. In 1971, substantial government subsidies allowed the expansion of the work to include new child care and recreation facilities.

In 1984, the Daughters of Charity, who had planned for some years to relinquish responsibility, handed over the St Pius X Mission to the ownership and management of the Aboriginal Community who elected a Management Committee. In 1987, this became the Pius X Corporation, comprised entirely of Aboriginal people, which undertook to run the thriving pre-school -- which is now called KIAH, a beautiful place -- and the health clinic.

The clinic has grown into a very large operation, providing socially appropriate, universally accessible, first level health care, not only to the 19 per cent of the Moree population who happen to be Aboriginal, but to anyone who wishes to avail themselves of the service.

Dr Michael Campion flies in every week from Sydney to conduct gynaecological consultations and surgery, and recently an ophthalmology unit was established. Counselling and clinical psychological services are provided also.

The Aboriginal Catholic community decided to retain the St Pius X Chapel as part of its religious activity, and, in 1989, established the Catholic Chapel committee which has undertaken pastoral care of Moree Aboriginal people since. The committee is led by Eileen Cain, who, with several other women, has undertaken pastoral studies through Nungalinya College, Darwin.

The St Pius X Chapel has become a significant spiritual centre, a sacred, Aboriginal Catholic place.

The paintings by Ellen Draper are arguably some of the most important Aboriginal Christian art in Australia. The liturgies which are conducted at St Pius X, especially the Mass, liturgies of the Word and Communion, baptisms and  funerals are an example of what Pope John Paul appealed for in his Alice Springs message: “The time for rebirth is now”.

A vibrant Aboriginal Catholic culture has been developed, not in competition nor in opposition, but as an enriching complement to the life of the Moree parish of St Francis Xavier of which it is an integral part.

The artwork (pictured) is by Ellen Draper and hangs on the sanctuary wall in the St Pius X Aboriginal Chapel, Moree, forming a triptych: Crucifixion, Resurrection and Pentecost.

Fr Paul McCabe was ordained in Rome in 1966. He has worked for most of the past 40 years as a priest in the Armidale diocese, except for several years when he was the last rector of St Patrick's Seminary, Manly. His contact with Aboriginal people has included eight years in Walgett and eight years in Moree.

(Editor’s note: This article was submitted in response to an invitation for “examples of successful progressive indigenous lifestyles which can be pointed up as beacons for others to follow - referably schemes controlled and advanced by the people themselves” from last week’s from the editor, Reinvigorating the dreamThe invitation remains open.)





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