Archived News Item

First anniversary for Christmas Island ministry

The first anniversary of the Institute’s involvement in pastoral ministry with asylum seekers in detention on Christmas Island has coincided with the horrific deaths of asylum seekers who tried to land on the Island by boat yesterday (December 15) during weather that has been described as cyclonic.

“The ironically named Christmas Island is now remembered for the tragic loss of many individuals – 28 at this stage – desperate for a fair chance in life,” said Institute Vice President, Caroline Ryan RSM.

“Let us pray for them and for all who seek asylum in our free and prosperous country, that they will experience God’s mercy and peace.”

In December 2009 the Institute of Sisters of Mercy of Australia formed a partnership with Jesuit Refugee Service Australia to provide pastoral services for the many asylum seekers living in detention on Christmas Island.

“This ministry was developed in response to a call from delegates at the Institute’s Mercy Justice Conference in November 2009,” said Caroline.

“In light of increased numbers of asylum seekers in detention on Christmas Island, together with the Institute’s focus on the needs of asylum seekers and refugees, it was deemed a very urgent and important ministry initiative.

“With the tragic events of this week, the need for a pastoral and compassionate response to people seeking asylum in our land continues to be vital,” she said.

Joan Kelleher RSM (Perth) has been the main full-time pastoral worker in this collaborative venture, but other Sisters of Mercy – Maureen Lohrey (Melbourne), Lizzie Finnerty (Melbourne) and Carmel Setford (Ballarat East) – have also participated in pastoral placements on Christmas Island.

Working collaboratively with Jesuit Refugee Service and supported by the Australian Government’s Department of Immigration and Citizenship, Joan and the other sisters have been a pastoral presence among the many asylum seekers living at the Island’s detention centres. They have also provided support to detention centre staff and members of the broader local community.

Some reflections on the Christmas Island experience

“I know that prolonged detention of asylum seekers inflicts grievous suffering and often leads to mental health issues for many innocent people. The [financial] cost of processing people on Christmas Island is enormous.”  (Joan Kelleher RSM)

“I could write a book on stories I’ve been told – terrible stories – and I know they are true. [The asylum seekers] way to get to freedom and a life is unbelievable. You’d have to have nerve and courage beyond anything to attempt what these people have attempted. I’ve got only the utmost admiration for them.” (Maureen Lohrey RSM)

“When visiting the asylum seekers each day, our conversations would often begin with a question about the English language or Australia but very quickly they would move to their own stories. I stand in awe at the trust these people put in a stranger. I think they felt safe and secure talking to me knowing I was not attached to those in charge of the detention centre or from Immigration. When listening to them I wondered how anyone could endure so much suffering.” (Lizzie Finnerty RSM)

"The experience for me on Christmas Island was quite life-giving. Initially it was difficult to walk into the huge compound of the detention centre and be confronted with so many men but once they became accustomed to seeing me, there was an acceptance and welcome. There were few who could speak English yet when anyone needed to communicate they seemed to find a friend who had some English and was willing to act as interpreter. It seemed important to reassure them that there were Australians who wanted to welcome them. The only consolation I could offer to those who were very depressed and anxious about either their families they had left behind or their fear at the possibility of not getting a visa, was to tell them that I had many friends that were praying for them. They seemed to find this very consoling. It also reminded me that I was not there alone, that my whole congregation and many others were supporting me with their prayers. For me it was truly a Mercy mission." (Carmel Setford RSM)