A Century of Effort: contributions to the study of Aboriginal ethnology and linguistics by Pallottine missionaries in North-West Western Australia.
Peter Bindon, PO Box 557, Yass NSW. 26 January 2001
Members of the Society of the Catholic Apostolate have made and continue to make significant contributions to anthropological and linguistic understanding of indigenous Australians in the Kimberley region of Western Australia. From his perspective as a linguist at the Kimberley Resources Language Centre, McGregor observes that towards the end of 1988, it was only in Catholic run schools that bi-lingual teaching in Aboriginal languages as well as English were being undertaken. Part of the reason for this is that it was the case that only in denominational schools were the resources for linguistic studies available. In north-western Australia, most of those resources were the product of Pallottine effort. In some moments, I will talk about specific achievements by a number of individuals, but firstly, it is instructive and perhaps helps to explain the zeal with which these individuals tackled their particular enterprises, if we refer to the example provided by the founder of their Society.
Saint Vincent Pallotti was born in Rome in 1795. He was ordained as a priest in 1818 at a time when in Rome there was a lack of direction among many institutions, they were tired and approaching exhaustion. There is no doubt that people's energies were dissipated in individual action to the neglect of social cohesion and regularised organisation. The young priest Vincent saw in this atmosphere the necessity to "revive faith and rekindle charity". He also experienced some recurrent dreams around the theme of gaining for Christ all non-Catholics. To accomplish this feat he inaugurated a revolutionary programme, which united the laity with the apostolate of the clergy. The organisation that he founded in 1835, and which incidentally foreshadowed the establishment of Catholic Action, was the Society of the Catholic Apostolate. In achieving his unswerving aims, Saint Vincent demonstrated that he was determined, single-minded and tireless. As we will see, these characteristics seem applicable to his followers in their Australian Mission.
One would expect that an organisation that promised to fulfil so many of the challenges faced by the Catholic Church during the mid-nineteenth century would have been welcomed with open arms by the hierarchy in Rome, but this was not the case. To be fair, Rome was in some turmoil. It was that period immediately after the return of Pius VII from his imprisonment in France just before Napoleon's demise, and Catholicism did not flourish in Latin countries during the nineteenth century amid chaotic social conditions. In Rome amongst the Church hierarchy, some of the objections to Vincent's vision were simple pettiness regarding the name that he had chosen for his Society, which was considered too universal. As we shall see, it was not for a number of years that his original name of the Society was approved. There were many other setbacks for the fledgling Society before it emerged from its Roman winter in about 1869. Then called the Pious Society of Missions, the group developed strongly spreading to the United States of America in 1884, some South American states in 1886 and Germany in about 1891 when a house, committed to missionary activity in Cameroon in Africa was established in Limburg.
Only about ten years later in 1901 Father Klugelmann, at Limburg, a German house of the Society at that time supporting missions in Africa, contacted Father George Walter, recently returned from service in Cameroon regarding a new mission to Australia. Father Walter, accompanied by three other Society members arrived in Western Australia to manifest Pallotti's dream of "reviving faith and rekindling charity" at Beagle Bay and Disaster Bay on the north-west coast. If the natal years of the Society had been difficult, the gestation and birth of the Australian Mission were to be horrific. It was somewhat ironic that an early visitor to the new mission, and someone who later provided encouragement for the anthropological studies being made there, was Daisy Bates, who was never to see her own major work on Western Australian Aborigines in print. Isolation and remoteness from resources, a lack of recognition of the importance of this work, an ambivalent Government, insufficient funding to be able to publish without sponsorship and in one case the lack of suitable type-faces in Australia have dogged the Pallottines even as they followed Daisy Bates.
Although the history of an institution may be defined as a record of the accumulated actions and endeavours of a collection of individuals who united in one or another way, histories of institutions rarely focus on the deeds of individuals themselves. The early history of the Australian Pallottine Mission is well recorded in Durack's book, The Rock and the Sand, and their more recent work by Brigida Nailon in Nothing is wasted in the household of God. As these are adequate records of the institutions, it is not my intention here to discuss the missions themselves but rather to set out the academic and scientific achievements of the Pallottine missionaries themselves.
Despite the somewhat inauspicious beginnings and enormous difficulties that had to be overcome by this Missionary Society in their new Australian venture, they made important contributions to the anthropology of indigenous Australians in two different ways.
First was the direct contribution to linguistic understanding and anthropological study contributed by Society members themselves. It is instructive to look at the amount of material amassed by Pallottines working in the Kimberley against what was collected by government agencies or interested individuals. Secondly, the mission establishments in remote areas of Australia provided a base or in some case a centre that facilitated the work of other researchers. Some of these were German nationals who must have found the familiar atmosphere of the missions run by their compatriots a pleasant haven from the rigours of remote Australia, while others, not of that nationality also found the missions a useful place where they could conduct research. Gathering the dispersed populations of indigenous Australians from a wide area and concentrating them in communities, such as accomplished by the missions at Beagle Bay, LaGrange and Balgo certainly facilitated the research of anthropologists not attached to religious organisations. Helmut C. Petri, Gisela Odermann, Ronald. M. Berndt and Catherine. H. Berndt are amongst those who benefited directly from Pallottine missionary activity in north-west Australia. Professor Klaatsch, who worked for three weeks at Beagle Bay, had unfavourable views of many of the missions that he had visited in Australia but changed his generalised view after visiting the young establishment. His favourable opinion of Beagle Bay was reported in German and Australian newspapers.
The first of the Pallottine fathers to undertake systematic collections of anthropological information was the energetic German Father Rensmann who arrived in 1903. He had a great interest in Aboriginal matters and immediately began preparing a dictionary of Njul Njul, one of the languages of the Dampierland Peninsula. He also managed to translate a few pieces of liturgy and some prayers into this language. Sadly, about a year after his arrival, he drowned in a waterhole near the mission within sight of people who were unaware that he could not swim. Rensmann extended the earlier work of a Trappist priest Father Alphonse Tachon who, before 1900, had also collected Njul Njul language and prepared a few translations to assist in conversions.
Father Bischoffs arrived at the mission in 1905 with similar interests in the language and culture of the Aboriginal people, although some may consider that he was too empathic when he dressed in little except paint and danced in a welcoming corroboree for a newly arrived party of nuns. He had a scientific interest in the language and published in the journal Anthropos as well as preparing some unpublished linguistic manuscripts. Regrettably, the First World War interrupted his work. It seems he was a little outspoken when the struggling German mission was visited by Australian wartime authorities and Father Bischoffs was dispatched for internment in Liverpool near Sydney. This brought to a close the important anthropological work that he had begun with such fervour. He eventually transferred to South Africa and died there in 1958.
In 1930, a priest arrived, who was to be the anthropological jewel in the tiara of the Pallottine missions. Father Ernest Ailred Worms was to be a member of the Society for 49 years and a priest for 43 of them. He was appointed parish priest of Broome in 1931. His anthropological interest in Aboriginal people and his compassion for their plight in the remote parts of Australia never waned during these long years of service. Durack recounts a story of how a wandering resident heard Aboriginal chants coming from a ceremonial ground near Broome and moved closer to observe. As he noticed there were a number of Catholic Aborigines present and participating, he contemplated reporting their names to the new parish priest. Glancing around he saw that very person squatting in the outer circle of elders busily taking notes!
Father Ernest Worms of Borchum, in the diocese of Muenster was born in 1891. He entered the Society in 1912, but his divinity studies were interrupted when he was called up for military service during the First World War in which he was seriously wounded. He won the Kaiser's Iron Cross during this tragic conflict. Returning to the seminary after hostilities concluded he continued his studies being ordained in 1920. His courses had included some linguistics and studies in ethnology (the branch of anthropology dealing with the various groups of humanity, their origins, distinctive characteristics, customs and distribution). These lectures were presented by Dr. Herman Nekes, about whom we will hear more. On Worms' appointment as parish priest of Broome after 10 years in German speaking missions, he was dismayed to find that that all study of Aboriginal language and customs had ceased with the departure of Father Bischoffs. This situation was the result of economic and other concerns of survival, but now that some prosperity was being enjoyed, he recommenced anthropological studies amongst the local Aboriginal people eventually extending his studies to peoples originating in the desert south of Gregory Salt Lake. He did not have an easy time of this. Some of his fellow missionaries thought his activities were a waste of time, but the scientist in Father Worms made a different interpretation. He saw that the Aboriginal capacity for balancing different faiths on different shoulders was an illustration of their extreme spirituality. He felt that this characteristic could be a stepping stone from which the missionaries could build a people strong in Christian faith. I will speak further about Society members who managed to use the vernacular in religious celebrations to enhance both understanding and enjoyment of liturgy.
Father Worms' ethnological studies led him to follow the ancient Aboriginal routes of cultural exchange that proceed from the Indian Ocean inland up the Fitzroy River to the reservoir of Aboriginal religious practice in the interior deserts. Durack asserts that:
He also found opportunities to explore the rock galleries flanking the riverine gorges of the north Kimberley in which are painted huge representations of heroic ancestral figures that have interested every individual who has ever seen them, and some who have only heard of them. Despite the inane claims of some authors, these Wandjina figures, whose heads are surrounded by radiant headdresses, are not depictions of extra-terrestrials. They depict entities from the creative formative period of Aboriginal Dreaming who had and have far greater influence over the spiritual practices of Australian Aboriginal people than any pop culturist could imagine. One should not imagine that Father Worms neglected either his parishioners or his ecclesiastical responsibilities whilst thus engaged. Perhaps he had some time during his travels to dream as did the founder of his spiritual path Saint Vincent, because we shall see that he had aspirations for expanding mission influence in remote parts of the Kimberley where the Christian message had not yet reached.
When Bishop Raible opened this Pallottine College in Kew in 1938, he appointed Fr. Worms as the first Rector. Professor Father Nekes also transferred to Kew so that their scientific collaboration could continue. One result of their linguistic studies is a work including twenty-six languages that was eventually published on microfilm. In 1948, Father Worms returned to the Kimberley where he worked until 1957 before being called to the theological college at Manly in Sydney as Rector. Using a grant from the Wenner-Gren Foundation for Anthropological Work based in New York he made a nine month expedition to Central and Western Australia in 1960 to verify some of his earlier observations. In 1961 he was made a member of the Institute of Aboriginal and Torres Straits Islander Studies, indicating that he was well respected by fellow academics, one of whom, N. B. Tindale, dedicated a major work to his memory with the following words.
A further acknowledgement of Worms' contribution came when he was one of the select group invited to the Conference on Aboriginal Studies in May 1961 during which he was elected as a member of the Linguistic Advisory Panel. This conference saw the foundation of what was to become the Australian Institute of Aboriginal Studies, and later the Australian Institute of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Studies has evolved into the premier institution researching and publishing on Aboriginal and Torres Straits themes. Sadly, in the third issue of the fledgling Institute's Newsletter, an Obituary to father Worms appears. He died of cancer in St. Vincent's Hospital, Sydney, on August 13th, 1963 at the age of 72, but even during the last year of his life he contributed to a many volumed work under the title: Die Religionen der Menschheit.
Father Worm's mentor and later his collaborator, the Pallottine Father Herman Nekes, was a native of Essen where he was born in 1875. He was ordained in 1899 gaining a Doctorate in Theology in 1900. The following year he went to a mission in Jaunde near Cameroon working on languages there until 1909. For the next 6 years, he was lecturer in West African languages at the Seminary for Oriental Languages in Berlin. From 1916, he lectured at the philosophical and theological academy of the Pallottine Province of Limburg on missiology, ethnology and linguistics. Concurrently he edited two of the mission publications of the province. It was during 1918 at Limburg that Father Worms came under his influence. Nekes became so interested in the work of his former student in the Kimberley that in 1935 when he was 60 years of age, he came out to Australia to join him at Beagle Bay to work on linguistic and ethnological studies in Aboriginal culture. They at once began their combined study of tribal languages, which they believed held the key to the mystery of Aboriginal origins. Fr. Nekes worked on this monumental task in Dampierland while Fr. Worms gathered information far and wide. Prior to World War 2, Fr. Nekes expanded the research into Nyul Nyul undertaken by his predecessors and prepared versions of the basic prayers in that language. Father Nekes also extended his investigations to include studies of Bard at Lombadina, the Yawuru of Broome and the coastal Karajarri at LaGrange. Father Nekes died in Kew in 1948.
We have reviewed contributions made by Pallottine Fathers for the first half of the Twentieth Century and have arrived at the time of the second global war of that period. Never short of over-reactive nationalism in times of conflict, the Australian authorities again rounded up all the non-naturalised missionaries of the Kimberley for internment during World War 2. Happily, after a brief period of imprisonment, common sense came to the fore. Except for the three most recent arrivals at the Kimberley missions, who were sent to Melbourne to serve in parishes there, the German missionaries from North-West Australia were released and allowed to return to their respective establishments remaining circumspect in their correspondence and public attitudes until peace again reigned.
By the end of World War 2, two of Father Worm's wishes had manifested. A mission had been established at LaGrange Bay about 200 kilometres south of Broome and after several false starts, another at Balgo Hills on the tablelands 270 kilometres into the desert south of Halls Creek. Pallottine Fathers at both of these localities continued the anthropological and linguistic work of their predecessors in the Kimberley Mission.
Father Kevin McKelson was born in Melbourne in 1926. Apparently, his father was a Union man in the hatter's trade and supported Trades Hall, so Kevin's social conscience developed at an early age. He grew up in Brunswick and later studied at Kew before completing his studies in Rome. Back in Australia, he was involved in teaching young priests at the centre in Sydney before going to Broome in July 1954, where he was treasurer of the diocese and Vicar General until about 1970 under Bishop Jobst. In about 1961 he went to LaGrange, now Bidyadanga, where he remained for some 30 years. Always interested in languages Father McKelson studied the Kimberley language groups, in particular the five languages spoken at La Grange Mission - Nyangumarta, Karajarri, Yulpadja, Juwaliny and Mangala. Among his extensive manuscripts and publications, one can find a Topical Vocabulary in Northern Nyangumarta for use by teachers and other persons interested in the language. He would have like to be permitted to teach these languages but Government policies aimed at sterilising Aboriginal cultural endeavours would not permit this step until recently. Now that this policy has been reversed, there are considerable resources in these languages gathered by Fr. McKelson as resource material.
I came to know Fr. McKelson in the last years that he was in La Grange and discovered a man of enormous compassion and humanity. In fact, just the kind of person that one would wish to see as a Missionary. He has now moved back into Broome becoming involved with Notre Dame University as Chaplain and a teacher of Divinity. In July 2000, he celebrated 50 years of priesthood in services in Broome Melbourne and LaGrange.
Later, a very gifted man, Father Anthony Rex Peile arrived in the Kimberley. He was born in 1931 in East Malvern, Victoria. In May 1949 at the age of 19, this man, already conversant with Latin, Greek, German and French joined the Society. He undertook his philosophical studies at Kew, before the Society sent him to Vallendar, Germany to complete his four years of theological training. Father Peile was ordained on 22 July 1956 at Vallendar along with some priests from the North German province. To acquire the tools to be an effective missionary among Australian Aboriginal people he did incidental linguistic studies in Brisbane and studied general anthropology through the University of California. He moved to Balgo, now Wirrimanu in 1973 where he remained for most of his life. He died in January 1989 and was mourned in traditional style by his Aboriginal friends in Balgo who also ritually "swept" his house in Balgo with tree branches.
Fr. Peile undertook linguistic research at Balgo and began amassing information supplied by local Kukatja people on health and well-being, uses of medicinal plants and the language relevant to these topics used by the Kukatja people. This enterprise became his passion and his life's work. On another occasion here, I have referred to how Father Peile strove to transmit his research findings to health workers to help them understand the cultural imperatives and patterns of thought of Aboriginal people concerning health and sickness, with the aim of delivering appropriate medical assistance. Regrettably, he had difficulty finding acknowledgment and acceptance for this work during his lifetime. Eventually, some of this work has been published earning him the respect of many. In 1993, the Luurnpa Catholic School at Wirrimanu (Balgo Hills) published a Kukatja to English Dictionary based on Father Peile's extensive word lists that were edited by Hilaire Valiquette. Peile's works in Kukatja include some Scripture texts, sermons and the Catholic Mass that will be a boon to both clergy and laity in that community. It seems that his Bishop's criticism that Anthony was not producing Kukatja material relevant to the converted may have been misplaced.
There were other Pallottine missionaries who contributed to a general understanding of Aboriginal spirituality and who recognized the value of the vernacular in pastoral practice. I remember witnessing a mass at Balgo at Pentecost when the Aboriginal ritual celebrating the first coming of fire into their culture was incorporated into the celebration of the Mass. The biblical tongues of flame, symbolic of the bestowal of linguistic capabilities on the Apostles during the sermon preached on that particular day, was later the subject of considerable discussion among Aboriginal people. I assume that this inclusion of indigenous example resulted from the understandings of Father Hevern and Father Peile who were at Balgo at the time. According to notes supplied by Father McKelson, Father Werner Kriener now retired, but for many years the pastor of Halls Creek parish, also became adept at implementing the directives on liturgy made by the Vatican 2 Council regarding the participation of the people in the liturgy.