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Indigenous woman reflects on Cross and Icon pilgrimage

Nicola Bates is a Paakantji woman from Wilcannia where she is an Aboriginal teacher assistant at St Therese’s Community School. There she shares in the work of education and community support with Mercy Sisters Margaret McGrath and Florence Kinsela. Wilcannia is preparing to receive the World Youth Day Cross and Icon in early November. Nicola and another teacher, Clare Compton, recently joined the pilgrimage of the Cross and Icon through the heart of the continent, from Darwin to Port Augusta. Her story tells of encounter and transformation.

STORY by Nicola Bates

I really wanted to go to see what it was like to meet the people of the top end of Australia and the land up that way. At first I was very scared and homesick. As we got further and further along the lines and into everything I started getting used to the activities and the people I hadn’t met before.

On the plane from Adelaide on the way up to Darwin I met one of the Aboriginal ladies that talked about child sexual abuse on the Insight programme that I had watched. She came from down Sydney way.

When we arrived in Darwin it was very very hot and humid. We went out to Nungalinya College. I saw a possum in the street and the mangos on the trees were really big. The next morning me and Miss Clare went to the Museum in Darwin. Right outside the museum is a beach. I was frightened of the crocodiles so didn’t have a swim. That night we went to the Cathedral for Mass for the handing over of the cross, icon and message stick to the Diocese of Darwin.

The next day we got on the Ghan at 9am. An old Aboriginal lady asked if she could sit next to me. She asked me where I was from and I said “Wilcannia”. “Do you know Isabel Bennette?” she said. I said “that is my nana’s sister.” She cried and grabbed me and kissed me and said, “I grew up with her in the Tiwi Islands when she was taken away from her family.” Her name was Marjorie. She made me feel so welcome and I was no longer scared.

Image (left): Nicola with Marjorie from the Tiwi Islands

Our first stop was in Katherine and we took the cross, icon and message stick to the park right next to the river. I met some of the elders in Katherine. They are lucky as they still speak in their own language.

On the way to the next stop which was Tennant Creek there was bushfires where the Aboriginal people were burning off the land. Some say it was from the snakes and others said it was so we wouldn’t get sick as we travelled through their land. I actually saw an Aboriginal man by the train tracks starting a fire. Some people were scared but to me it looked very pretty.

We arrived in Alice Springs about 11:30am the next morning. Lots of people were there to meet us. We took the cross, icon and message stick to the biggest church in Alice Springs. We had a Mass and passed the message stick on to the Aboriginal elders. Everybody was going up kissing the cross and touching the icon. I got to meet some of the elders as well. We had two nights in a home stay. The people I stayed with were very rich and wanted us to stay up and talk all night but we were very tired. They owned the lounge chair that John Paul II sat on when he was in Alice Springs in 1986. They were really nice and were like our parents wanting to do our washing and pack our lunches. They had travelled all over the world.

We visited Santa Teresa Community just out of Alice Springs for the day. We walked the cross, icon and message stick right around their town to the church. We took it in turns to carry them as they were so heavy especially the icon. Lots of people mostly Aboriginal were there. It was a privilege to see inside their church of all the paintings of their sacred sites. Everybody was tired at the end of the day at each place we went too.

Image (right): Nicola with Clare Compton, a fellow teacher also on the Pilgrimage

The next stop was Uluru. We watched the sunset over Uluru and the media and anyone else with cameras were not allowed to take photos of the cross and icon in front of Uluru. I met Uncle Bob Randall who is an elder of Uluru and he is the narrator in the film Kanyani. We watched that film that night.

Uluru to Woomera was the longest stretch in the bus as we crossed the border into SA. We stopped at the underground church in Cooper Pedy for a Mass followed by lunch and finally arrived in Woomera. It was hot and tiny like Wilcannia. Then we went out to the cemetery in Woomera and prayed because they had lost so many little babies that were only 1 hour old right up to ten years old because of the radiation with the bombs they used to let off about 4 hours out of town. Then we went to the detention centre where they used to keep the refugees. Some little kids were being abused by staff. Other people were sewing their lips together because they were on a hunger strike because they were sick of being locked up because they thought Australia was a good country. It was really sad to see all of the little people’s graves and to see the detention centre.

Port Augusta was our last stop to hand the cross over to the Port Pire Diocese.

The trip made me stop being mild and opened up so much for me. The land was beautiful and the memories of the people will be with me forever. Thanks to all who made it possible for me to have this wonderful opportunity and experience.

From: Sister Nance Cale RSM (Local Communications Facilitator, Wilcannia-Forbes)