Gathering Place on Caroline Street closes
REDFERN: The Society of the Sacred Heart (RSCJ) established a house in Caroline Street in 1987 to provide a presence among Aboriginal people on The Block. Sr Marnie Kennedy and Sr Pat Ormesher began the ministry of presence there. This initiative produced a unique relationship with Redfern’s Indigenous people. Taking up the Cardijn method of “see, judge and act”, an immersion model of Catholic action, the sisters began the Gathering Place as a house of welcome. The sisters began building relationships with those living on The Block and many Aboriginal people living there. This method of embodying the gospel was keenly supported by Fr Ted Kennedy and the Redfern parishioners.
For 32 years, the house has been a place of welcome for Indigenous people and many others seeking to engage with the inner-city life and Indigenous Australians as a locus for understanding and interpreting the gospel. It has been a place where the gospel principle of learning by engaging in the local situation and reflecting on the experience could be practised.
The house in Caroline Street became a trusted place for Indigenous people to find a friendly face, to help people grieving the death of loved ones and to support them in times of sickness and vulnerability. Key to the ministry was the mutuality of the immersion model. Non-Indigenous Australians were welcome to talk, pray, mobilise and advocate with Indigenous people. This resulted in a shared experience of positive outcomes.
The house also became the centre of what was known as the street retreats. Along with a house run by the Sisters of the Blessed Sacrament (SSS) in Newtown, people came to live in the area for a time, often a week or more, becoming aware by meeting with Aboriginal people in their context, praying together, walking the streets of Redfern and the surrounding suburbs, reflecting on scripture and meeting with a spiritual director, usually one of the RSCJ or SSS sisters.
Many priests, religious, seminarians, teachers, lay people and university students undertook various forms of immersion experience and retreats centred on the RSCJ house on The Block. Aboriginal people knew there was friendly space for them to meet, pray, grieve and plan strategies to make their lives better. They were always greeted with a gospel-inspired process of empowerment, facilitated with and by the Indigenous people themselves. The model used was always a collaborative model which resisted charity and colonialist approaches in favour of working together for justice and equality and to provide for people in times of need.
Other RSCJ sisters who lived in the house were Sr Dorothy Ormesher and Sr Esmey Herscovitch. They worked alongside other religious women who also lived at the Gathering Place. Sr Mary McGowan (OLSH) was a long-time member of the community and others were there for shorter times. The ministry was always about engaging with existing Indigenous and non-Indigenous organisations, in Redfern and beyond Redfern, through building relationships with Indigenous people as neighbours and friends. Meanwhile, Fr Ted Kennedy was making St Vincent’s Catholic church a place that privileged an Indigenous presence and he was building a community that understood the unique opportunity to live the gospel in a way that was a mutual learning experience alongside Indigenous people.
The RSCJ house on The Block will be missed.
Fr Peter Maher is a friend of the ministry of the Gathering Place.