Sis­ter Anne Gar­diner is there for ev­ery­one on the Tiwi Is­lands

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Sis­ter Anne Gar­diner loves her footy – no mat­ter that she’s the only Syd­ney Swans sup­porter in a com­mu­nity of 1800, most of them diehard Essendon and Hawthorn fans. It’s a predica­ment not lost on the Tiwi Is­landers, es­pe­cially when the Swans are hav­ing a bad run.

“I had a great big flag out the front

of my place and it got ripped one night dur­ing a cyclone,” says the 86-year-old re­tired teacher. “And they all joked around town, ‘She’s too proud, she

doesn’t have a big flag when her team’s

los­ing.’ I sent a mes­sage back: ‘Not too proud. The cyclone blew it down.’”

Out the front of Sr Anne’s mod­est home over­look­ing the turquoise Ap­s­ley Strait, which sep­a­rates Bathurst and Melville is­lands, there should, by rights,

also be a sleek lux­ury car. Audi of­fered

her the use of a ve­hi­cle dur­ing her ten­ure as 2017 Se­nior Aus­tralian of the Year, an hon­our be­stowed upon her in Jan­uary for her tire­less work with the Tiwi peo­ple she has lived among for more than 50 years.

“The car com­pany was very nice but I said, ‘You don’t know Bathurst Is­land roads,’” she re­counts with­out need­ing to qual­ify just how out of place a lux­ury ve­hi­cle would be on the rust-coloured dirt roads that turn to mud dur­ing the wet sea­son. In­stead, Sr Anne grate­fully ac­cepted a top-of-the-range Heart­way Monarch Royale mo­bil­ity scooter, the only ob­vi­ous con­ces­sion she has made to her age. She drives a Suzuki Jimny Sierra when she needs to travel be­yond Wur­ru­miyanga, the largest com­mu­nity on Bathurst Is­land, 80 kilo­me­tres north of Dar­win, and she lives in­de­pen­dently in the two-storey besser-block house she once shared with five other nuns. “Now, it’s just me,” she says mat­ter-of-factly.

How a young woman from Gunda­gai in south­ern NSW joined the Daugh­ters of Our Lady of the Sa­cred Heart or­der and ended up de­vot­ing her life to the Tiwi peo­ple can be traced back to an old pho­to­graph. While a teenage Anne was at board­ing school in Al­bury, NSW, two nuns vis­ited from the Syd­ney con­gre­ga­tion that she would later join, to talk to stu­dents about their fu­tures. “They gave us a pic­ture of sis­ters from their or­der in a ca­noe,” she re­mem­bers. “There was a prayer on the back and, of course, we weren’t in­ter­ested then but when I was close to leav­ing school, I looked at that pic­ture and thought, ‘Jeez, I’d like to do some­thing with my life and com­mit it to God.’”

A copy of the black-and-white photo is part of the col­lec­tion at the Patak­i­jiyali Mu­seum, founded by Sr Anne in the

mid-’80s and just a short walk from her home. In the photo, six straight-backed nuns sit in a dugout ca­noe, all but their faces con­cealed by the same white habit that an earnest Sr Anne wore when she ar­rived on the Tiwi Is­lands to teach in 1953. How did she cope with the heat? “You just did,” she says. The habit is long gone, re­placed by com­fort­able san­dals, a print skirt and a ca­sual col­lared shirt.

In the early 1950s, the In­dige­nous com­mu­nity lived in hump­ies on the beach along the Ap­s­ley Strait be­fore the mis­sion built homes away from the water’s edge. Now Bathurst Is­land’s many fa­cil­i­ties in­clude pri­mary and high schools, a health cen­tre, air­port, gov­ern­ment of­fices, three arts or­gan­i­sa­tions and the mu­seum. Housed in a for­mer mis­sion build­ing, the mu­seum de­picts the Cre­ation story and cul­ture of the Tiwi Is­lands, and cel­e­brates the suc­cess of top Tiwi AFL play­ers such as Essendon great Michael Long and 1960s South Ade­laide star David Kan­tilla, de­scribed by Sr Anne as “the great­est of all”.

The Patak­i­jiyali Mu­seum be­gan as Sr Anne’s dream to pre­serve the rich cul­ture of the Tiwi Is­lands and has be­come a sym­bol of self-de­ter­mi­na­tion. In March, she handed over the run­ning of the mu­seum to lo­cals Fiona Keri­naiua and Maggie Ke­lan­tu­mama, though she

isn’t com­pletely fin­ished with her work

there. “I’ve got two more things to do be­fore God calls,” she jokes. “As we speak, there’s a wall be­ing made for the small

of­fice and we want to have a dis­play about

the spir­its of the Tiwi. I don’t have any fund­ing but I’m talk­ing to some builders. They’ve asked me what my wish list is – they asked the wrong ques­tion,” she says, an imp­ish grin and raised eye­brow hint­ing at her well-known dogged­ness.

“Anne’s got a bub­bly per­son­al­ity but she’s also very de­ter­mined,” says John Naden, who over­sees Ngaruwana­jirri Inc., a co­op­er­a­tive of Tiwi artists in Wur­ru­miyanga. “She knows what she wants and she’ll get vis­i­tors or politi­cians in a cor­ner and speak her mind.”

As well as ed­u­cat­ing gen­er­a­tions of is­landers, Sr Anne helped to es­tab­lish com­mu­nity clubs, from moth­ers’ groups to Lit­tle Ath­let­ics. “She’s tire­less,” says Naden, “though we all know that at some point she’ll have to slow down. It can be tough with the weather and she’s here on her own. But the nuns in [the Syd­ney sub­urb of] Kens­ing­ton know she would be a big loss to the com­mu­nity if they called her back and she’d also miss the com­mu­nity. There are no Ti­wis who are her age and the Tiwi re­spect age. She can still solve prob­lems and peo­ple talk to her – white and black.”

Dar­win-based Cathy McGin­ness, who taught on Bathurst Is­land when Sr Anne was the prin­ci­pal of Mur­rupur­tiyanuwu Catholic Pri­mary School, de­scribes her friend as the “coun­sel­lor gen­eral”. “You’ll

find most peo­ple go to Anne for sup­port,”

she says. “She has time for every­body.”

Upon be­ing no­ti­fied that she was a Se­nior Aus­tralian of the Year fi­nal­ist,

Sr Anne was asked to pre­pare a speech (the win­ner isn’t told be­fore the prime

min­is­ter’s of­fi­cial an­nounce­ment at

Par­lia­ment House in Can­berra on the eve of Aus­tralia Day). In turn, Sr Anne asked the or­gan­is­ers if she could wear

the Tiwi flag if she won. And she did.

As she gave her im­pas­sioned speech,

wip­ing away tears, the dis­tinc­tive flag

was draped over her left shoul­der.

Sr Anne read­ily ac­knowl­edges that she owes the ac­co­lade to the Tiwi com­mu­nity. “I’ve made a com­mit­ment in my life not to change peo­ple but to work with them and to raise their dig­nity,” she tells me. “I love the Tiwi peo­ple and they love me.”

Tiwi and Catholic sym­bols unite at Sis­ter Anne Gar­diner’s Bathurst Is­land church

Sr Anne bar­racks for the un­der­dog; with Patak­i­jiyali Mu­seum staff (from left) Fiona Keri­naiua, Maggie Ke­lan­tu­mama and Joanita Tip­i­loura

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