On Monday we paid a visit to Beagle Bay. After doing our business during the morning, we managed to take a moment to visit the Sacred Heart Church.
Beagle Bay is an Aboriginal Mission, started by the Catholic Church in the 1890s and run by them until handover to a local community council in the 1970s. The mission history means many residents, particularly older ones, are still devout Catholics and nothing symbolises this devotion more than the Sacred Heart Church, the town's main tourist attraction, built during the First World War.
From the outside it's pretty but not all that special - a whitewashed little chapel in rendered brick. However, the inside is truly remarkable as you can see from the photos. Whole pearl shells are inlaid into the window frames, and the altar, stations of the cross and other fittings are intricately ornamented with pearl shell fragments. The care and effort that's gone into these, not to mention the value of the pearl shells, speaks of a deep love. It is a love for God and the church expressed in the idiom of a saltwater people.
Yet this love has its dark side. While we've been up here some of the older people have told us stories about their mission days. Some of the mission residents were stolen children, living in dormitories and overseen - often harshly - by nuns. Children educated in the Catholic schools (as in the schools on other missions) were forbidden from speaking their own language either in school or in their residence. Even now not everyone is happy with the church's way of handling cultural issues such as prohibitions on images and names of dead people. The policy of the mission for decades, in line with that of the whole government, was to promote assimilation, to prepare Aboriginal people for a European lifestyle, for incorporation onto Western culture.
To some extent it worked, although not completely. Many of the people we've met here are highly sophisticated in their understanding of Western political and social processes, well educated in the European way, highly literate. Yet their culture is far from dead. Despite the historical restrictions they still speak their own language and maintain their traditional law and family systems, although the older people worry that the next generation may not carry these on.
So what place does the church have in the hearts of these people? Saviour or oppressor? For many it is wholly the latter and they have abandoned the church. Yet for others, it continues to provide a spiritual base for their lives, a counterpoint to traditional law. Forty years after they took control of their own affairs, the church is still maintained in beautiful order.
Perhaps it can be explained in terms of the picture that forms part of the Stations of the Cross, where Jesus lies in his mother's arms, bleeding. Jesus does not triumph and lord it over his Aboriginal devotees, like the priests and nuns sometimes did. If they have suffered, he has suffered more, cast out from his father's country, suffering and dying in his mother's arms, with the hope of the resurrection still to come.