It’s a powerful and positive story – Senior Australian of the Year 2017, Sister Anne Gardiner, has devoted her entire life to helping the indigenous Tiwi people on remote Bathurst Island, north of Darwin. For more than 50 years she’s worked tirelessly to improve their quality of life, never expecting anything in return.
About to turn 86 this year, you could expect Sister Anne to be a little hard-of-hearing or frail. But when we talk to her, she sounds calm and crystal clear. I’ve only just introduced myself and she asks me where I’m from. I tell her NSW and she laughs: “That’s my home state, NSW! I was born in Gundagai – Dog on the Tucker Box country!”
Sister Anne calls for a greater recognition of Australia's indigenous people (Image © Heide Smith)
Her down-to-earth, natural Aussie charm wins people over straight away. It’s easy to understand why all the indigenous Australian people of Bathurst Island have come to love and respect her.
Sister Anne was only 22 when she was given her first posting to Bathurst Island. She had graduated as a Catholic nun from the Daughters of the Sacred Heart and finished her teacher training at the Church’s centre in Sydney. I asked her how she felt when she heard she was going to a remote island, north of Darwin.
She says was excited and had no hesitation: “I was young, I was adventurous, I could do anything when I was young!”
Sister Anne admits that winning the award was something she never had on her radar. “I did not expect it. I did not work for an award. I got the Northern Territory Award and there were four or five of us in and I thought, these people have done great things.
“Then I had to go to Canberra and it was all go, go, go. And I met some beautiful people – senior citizens – their stories were magnificent. So I felt like a little fish in a big pond. We didn’t know who’d won it until the very moment when the Prime Minister announced it,” she adds.
“It was overwhelming,” she says. “I just cried and cried.”
In her acceptance speech, Sister Anne called for greater recognition of Australia's indigenous peoples in policy, saying that sadly, Australia doesn't always accommodate for cultures such as the Tiwi and she hoped this would be redressed in her lifetime.
Sister Anne has spent 50 years improving the lives of the Indigenous Tiwi people (Image © Heide Smith)
How did the people from Bathurst Island react when they heard of her win? Well, according to Sister Anne: “They said the shouting that went on that night when they saw it on TV was amazing. And then they gave me a royal welcome when I came home.”
“They met me at the airport and the old age care people were holding a banner that said: ‘Senior Australian 2017 Award, Love from the Residents & Staff’, and they all had their hand painted on it with a little message.”
Father Pat told Sister Anne he’d take her home, but of course, he took her straight to the church, which was packed to the rafters with all the local people. They sang their own version of ‘You’ve done us proud’ – a Slim Dusty song sung with their own words.
“It was very moving,” she says humbly.
Sister Anne accepting her Senior Australian of the Year Award from PM Malcolm Turnbull
When asked about retiring, Sister Anne just laughs and says: “I’m trying to get as much done as I can before God calls me.” But she does add: “I’ll work until the health gives out. The body can’t go on forever.”
On thinking about retiring, she says her inspiration to keep working helps her keep going: “I feel that whilst I have a project, whilst I have a reason to be, then I’ll keep going. But I’ve seen so many sort of give up! I know some people who are very sick at my age. But if we have been given good health, let’s keep going.”
What does she attribute her good health to? “It’s my relationship with my God,” she answers immediately. “Health wise, I’ve got all the aches and pains all of us have, but you don’t dwell on them. And you eat well, you sleep well, you enjoy life, you have a sense of humour, and you can keep going.
“Don’t take things to heart,” she warns. “When somebody’s insensitive towards you, don’t dwell on it. Don’t carry resentment. Life’s too short.”
“There are many people that are worse off than I am and they’re the ones that I’ve got to think about – not myself,” she adds.
When Sister Anne started first moved to Bathurst Island in 1954, there was no school. She taught the children in a bare room under the church for four years and in 1958, they built a school and she ran it, working as headmaster until 1997.
At this time, she felt it was important to hand the school back to the local people. She moved to Broome so they could run it the way they wanted to. She studied at the university in Broome but later, in 2001, a vacancy became available on Bathurst Island so she moved back and she’s still working there, to this day.
Sister Anne aims to keep working for as long as she can (Image © Heide Smith)
Lately, her projects include setting up a Tiwi museum so they can maintain the Tiwi language, culture and events. Other projects include a mothers’ group, Little Athletics for the children, a café – and even an op shop.
The founder of the Christian mission on Bathurst Island was Bishop Gsell and Sister Anne says she was very fortunate to be able to talk with him before she went to start her work there. She says she asked him: “What will I do?”
“And he looked down through his beard at me with the penetrating eyes he had, and he had two words – ‘Love them’ – and that’s what I’ve tried to do,” she says simply.