The Sydney office of the Aboriginal Catholic Ministry (ACM) began in Erskineville in early 1989 with Frank Fletcher MSC. The Aboriginal Catholics felt a strong need to start a ministry in the Sydney Archdiocese, to enable them to participate and contribute fully in the Catholic Church.
By the end of 1989, an official committee was formed with Father Frank. In the first year of the ACM, Aunty Elsie Heiss worked as a volunteer and then, with the support of Bishop Ingham, became a paid employee. The ACM continued its work and grew in strength.
In 1998, with the help of Father Pat Hurley at St. Andrew’s parish Malabar, after some difficult negotiations, The Ministry was given the use of the Church and office at La Perouse, which was then known as Our Lady of Good Counsel. Cardinal Clancy gave permission for the church to be renamed The Reconciliation Church.
The building was originally a school house, church/hall for the poor. In the Great Depression, there were many Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal families taking refuge together in the area. 'Happy Valley', Hill 60 and Frog Hollow were all camps in La Perouse and Yarra Bay. Originally, the sisters of Our Lady of the Sacred Heart at Botany had been travelling to La Perouse to give religion lessons in the open, with great difficulty. In 1936, the Catholic Womens’ Association (C.W.A.) became involved. Mrs. Crossley, a C.W.A. member, heard of the need for religious instruction for the children in the area and was soon supported by other members.
The President of the C.W.A., Miss Kate Egan, was alarmed by the appalling conditions under which the women and children were living. She used much of her own wealth in an attempt to relieve the desperate situation people were in.
A Catholic school house was seemingly unimaginable in these desperate times, however the C.W.A. obtained two blocks of crown land for a lease of 14 years. In 1938, a small, single roomed weatherboard building, with an iron roof, was built at 9 Yarra Road, Yarra Bay. The C.W.A. took full responsibility for the expense of the building and maintenance. A second building at 11 Yarra Road (which is the current church building) was completed in July 1939.
Archbishop Gilroy opened on 17th August. In October 1939 approval was given for a Missionary Priest, an MSC to say mass on the 2nd and 4th Sundays of each month. The second building had been constructed entirely at the expense of Miss Kate Egan, B.M. M.B.E. Mrs. Crossley, Mrs. Thornton and their families were also thanked for their contribution to the teaching and welfare of children in the area.
In 1940 a Catholic school was opened, which was desperately needed, because there were 63 Catholic children of school age living in the area and not receiving an education. These children could not travel to school on the tram, because they didn’t have the proper clothing, shoes or money.
The school operating at Yarra Bay was commenced through the desire of the C.W.A. to provide a meeting room for recreation, counselling and prayer for the very underprivileged. The sisters of Our Lady of the Sacred Heart began teaching at the school and in 1953 the Sisters of Mercy from Gunnedah, now residing at Malabar, took over the teaching at the school.
The Catholic Women’s Association consisted of a band of kind, compassionate ladies who were deeply committed to assisting the underprivileged and disadvantaged groups in the community. They embraced welfare work willingly. Their activities included: hostel for women and girls, Darlinghurst; Charity branch Sewing Guild; Hospital work; Sacred Heart blind Committee; entertainment for adult deaf and dumb; orphanage entertainment; prison visiting; children’s court daily attendance; welfare work; Catholic stewardesses. In a period of economic downturn numerous women and children knew that help of some kind was available as close as the nearest C.W.A.
In 1999 the first mass was celebrated in the newly named Reconciliation Church and there were five Candidates prepared for their First Holy Communion. Over the years the Aboriginal Catholic Ministry and Reconciliation Church has welcomed many Aboriginal people into the church through Baptism and other sacraments, held functions for community groups and monthly masses. The Reconciliation Church welcomes Aboriginal, Torres Strait Islander and non-Aboriginal people and we take great pride in building the unity between Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal peoples and working for a stronger reconciliation. Aunty Elsie Heiss worked at The Reconciliation Church from 1998 until retiring in 2012.
Photo: Aunty Gloria Martin making her First Holy Communion at the original Church. Aunty Gloria is a respected Aboriginal Elder in the La Perouse community and an active parishioner of The Reconciliation Church.
When I read the gospels, I read them as an Aboriginal...So it is not difficult to realize that Christ is with us always…the same yesterday, today and forever. We do not find it strange when he says He is the life, that we can and must live with His life, that in this life of His we are one. In some way he lives in us and is us, so that what we do for each other we do for Him.
Australia's first Aboriginal Catholic Deacon, Boniface Perdjert, Port Keats