RUSH AID TO HEARTBREAK MISSION
Catholic Herald Reporter AMISSION appeal so desperate that it has been backed by the whole Australian Hierarchy is now being flung on the doorstep of every Catholic Australian in a countrywide appeal by all the Catholic newspapers.
Behind the appeal lies the heartbreaking story of a group of heroic people who are striving to build a living church in the dead heart of a continent: The builders of the Northern Territory Mission.
This is the story of a small hand of men and women, priests and religious and laity, under a :courageous bishop, Mgr. John P. O'Loughlin, M.S.C., whose work to establish the Church is one of the most frustrating and materially unrewarding tasks in the world.
It is the story of those who have endured climatic conditions that test the stamina of even the strongest, those who have often been reduced to eating strange native foods, battled against ignorance and superstition and even the witchcraft of medicine men ".
The Northern Territories can be placed in two parts, " The Centre •' and the "Top End ". The Centre has Alice Springs as its " capital " (church and state). At the " Top End " Darwin is Episcopal HQ and the Home of the Administrator.
The " Top End " has periodic floods, the most recent of which washed away all the edible fish from the upper reaches of the rivers.
"The Centre " has almost perpetual drought. The present " Dry spell" (it is disputed whether it has lasted seven or 11 years) has, for example, killed every beast in the Santa Teresa Mission, 40 miles Irons Alice Springs.
But in all parts of the Territory troubles come in two kinds: Spiritual and material. They concern full-blooded aborigines (many still tribalised and mainly found on reserves), full-blooded whites, and every shade in between. The apostolate is equally complex.
When the Missionaries of the Sacred Heart first went among the aborigines they were nomadic foodgatherers without clothes, houses or flocks. Now they are largely village dwellers but the mission has to be responsible for food, clothing, housing. There is no fresh meat.
To feed the hungry native Australian people, to clothe the naked. nurse the sick (including hundreds of lepers), to educate the thousands of young black Australians and provide a decent future for them, to bring the sacraments to 6,000 people scattered over a vast wilderness—this is the challenge which faces Bishop O'Loughlin, his 33 priests, 56 religious sisters and 15 religious brothers and a small but growing group of lay missionaries.
And it is this desperate picture that he has presented to the other Australian Bishops.
Two years ago a similar appeal for poverty-hit Kimberley Mission in the far North West brought an amazing burst of generosity when nearly £70,000 was subscribed in a few weeks. And the mission was saved. Aborigine settlements were reconstructed and decent living quarters provided for the missionaries.
The 19th century closed without a single missionary in the North Territories. There had been a Jesuit mission on Daly River—until the great rains of 1898 came and they were finally driven out.
But the Holy See tried again and in 1906 the territory was entrusted to the Missionaries of the Sacred Heart. Their leader, a young priest from Alsace, Mgr. Xavier Gzell. who died in 1949, became one of
the greatest missionaries of all time.
From 1906 to 1949 he ruled the Church in the Northern Territories and the progress made in little more than 40 years in the face of almost unsurmountable obstacles is counted largely as a personal triumph for the first bishop of Darwin.
The natives surrounding the city in those days were little more than the dregs of humanity. Lazy, dirty, they would sell their wives for the price of a drink. To help them Bishop Gzell negotiated for Bathurst Island, a native reserve to which they were moved.
But most of the problems remained, notably the rigid and harsh tribal laws. And it was in Bathurst, the first of the Bishops great works, that his troubles really began.
• A child of 10 was sentenced to ceremonial slaying because she had refused to marry a dirty old savage to whom she had been promised before birth. She ran to the Bishop. And he was never closer to death than when he stood by her side threatened by tribesmen, their spears aimed at his chest. " Give up the girl, or die," he was warned.
But the bishop had other ideas. He uttered the magic words: " Flour, sugar, tobacco, calico and tomahawk." The trade goods were placed at the feet of the bishop who indicated that he had no wife and offered to buy the girl for the goods. They were accepted with whoops of delight and little Martina became the first of what were to be the bishop's " 150 wives" Indeed many " brides " were pushed into the protection of the mission while the tribesmen followed slowly to make his bargain. Bathurst Island was merely the starting point. To-day the centre of ecclesiastical affairs is at Darwin and the new volunteer-built cathedral is nearly finished. But there is still a long road to travel to responsible citizenship. It cannot be travelled alone. The natives need the support of the missions and the missions are now appealing to the outside world.
Australians will remember the man who even in this century faced the barbed spears; they will not let down his successor Bishop O'l.oughlin.