What does Redfern mean to me?

I have an image of an arc floating on a vast sea with sails set to the horizon. There are people on board from diverse cultures and backgrounds, rescued from a sunken vessel. This image slowly emerged during my 10 years as a parishioner of St Vincent’s Catholic Church in Redfern, Sydney.

Today, from my home in New Zealand that image remains a powerful symbol of hope as I live and work among mostly young people who are starving for the real bread – a church that can taste the sacred intoxicating wine of creation in which we are immersed instead of being participants in its destruction. A church that shares the bread of sorrows that sustains us in a world torn apart by war and by destruction in its many guises.

In 1979 Ted Kennedy PP of Redfern and beloved of the Aboriginal community invited the Blessed Sacramental Sisters to Redfern to open a house of contemplation close to the streets. It was late November when Maureen Flood, Betty McMenamin and I arrived at 43 Forbes Street, Newtown.

I was 41 years old and had been a Blessed Sacramental Sister for 13 years – 5 of which was spent in strict enclosure in our house in Melbourne. When I first arrived at St Vincent’s Church I was struck by a bare simplicity that marked the liturgical reforms of Vatican II. The main altar was towards the middle of the church against the side wall – more like a table with the seating arranged around it. An elderly nun, still fully habited played the organ every Sunday at the 10 o’clock Mass.

The interior walls with its peeling paint was like the skin of a primeval creature shedding itself as it burst with new life. The random broken windows of shattered stained glass bore witness to the suffering and frustration of a people marginalised and betrayed by the Australian Church in which they had no voice.

I had never seen Aboriginal people inside a Catholic Church before. Not only were they welcome here but they were central to every celebration I attended. Their presence was in keeping with Ted’s theology that places “the poor” at the heart of the kingdom and consequently at the head of the Church. The Eucharist took on a depth I hadn’t experienced before. It was as if they tore apart a cultural veil that obscured the Eucharist and revealed the living broken body and blood of the risen Christ through their cries of grief, outbursts of anger and frustration and even humour as they walked in and out of the Church during the Mass. The word of God often took on new depths when someone spontaneously stood up and said “Father Ted I have something to say”.

One of two such moments that had a profound effect on my life came after the 10 o’clock Mass one Sunday morning. A young Aboriginal woman stood up before the congregation and called her daughter to come and stand beside her. She put her arms around her and said “My 16 year old daughter is pregnant. Would you please welcome this new life into our community”. We all clapped as tears rolled down my face. I had a lost a child to adoption 24 years earlier in a cultural climate of shame, secrecy and denial coupled with a clinical brutality that had the blessing of the Church. Now I was seeing for the first time what the attitude of the Church could be when the most marginalised and rejected people hold a place of reverence and “authority” at the centre of the Church.

The other moment was also in the Redfern Church when a young, strong Aboriginal leader Lilla Watson told the congregation “If you have come to help us you are wasting your time, but if you have come because your freedom is bound up with ours, let us work together”.

I found my son 13 years ago. In that time I have lived through a range of extreme emotions from ecstatic joy of reunion to a bottomless grief put on hold for 25 years. The release of grief unleashed an outrage over the injustice and brutality of the adoption experience and the impact it has had on the lives of hundreds of thousands of families around Australia and New Zealand and of course many countries around the world.

During these times of pain, I have often drawn on the wisdom of Lilla Watson – that our freedom is in rejecting the judgments and definitions of who we are by a Church that has not as yet experienced the privilege of being set free; that has not as yet joined the rejected and marginalised people – the very ones Jesus choose as his friends and disciples and who were integral to the foundation of the early Church.

In this time of the breaking down and disintegration of lifeless structures and our growing awareness of the integrity and sacred depths of all creation, I see St Vincent’s Church in Redfern as a beacon of hope in a sea of darkness signalling towards the dawn.

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