Santa Teresa community keeps the faith in isolation during pandemic

Easter’s theme of entering the tomb and keeping vigil until Christ’s resurrection on the third day has never been so relevant for Christians confined to their homes during the current coronavirus pandemic. The ferocious spread of COVID-19 means that no matter how geographically remote a community is, only self-imposed isolation will safeguard against the contagion.

This has been the case for the Eastern Arrernte People at Santa Teresa (Ltyentye Apurte), a remote Aboriginal Catholic community about 80 kilometres south east of Alice Springs, which is home to about 600 people. With Arrernte People among those most vulnerable to contagious infection, the Santa Teresa community has been in lockdown since March 18. 

In a video update posted to the Santa Teresa Facebook page, Good Samaritan Sister Liz Wiemers reports on the necessary adjustments that have occurred inside this Indigenous community that prides itself on sharing culture, language and art with its guests.

“Only essential services are coming in, and we can’t leave,” Liz says. “It’s really affected all of the ladies, all the families here, as well as all those people who were looking to come here and be immersed in the culture and our day visitors.” Twenty in-bound immersion groups and numerous day visitors have been cancelled due to the lockdown.

Sr Liz says self-imposed isolation means closing the community’s spirituality centre, a vital hub for Arrernte women to gather, share and create the art objects that have made them justifiably famous as expressions of their Catholic faith and, in the Arrernte language, “Ngkarte” or God.

“The spirituality centre had to be closed but the women themselves are still so keen that they’re working at home on their art,” Liz says. She sits in the centre that is normally crowded with day visitors but is now empty, its shelves filled with brightly patterned hand-coloured silk scarves, and its walls hung with exuberant paintings and small crosses.

The crosses are the Arrernte women’s response to their Christian faith and cultural beliefs. Each is unique, hand painted in bright dot designs and colours. “The women have been making these crosses since the spirituality centre opened more than 10 years ago,” Liz says. “They have exceeded all expectations – 30,000 crosses have been painted in that time. It’s a project that is possible because Santa Teresa Parish provides the power, water and the venue, and the women do the rest.”

The hand-made crosses have been carried to all corners of the world by visiting tourists and pilgrims. Sr Liz says the donations and sales of art and religious objects is a much-needed form of income that has been interrupted by the lockdown. “We are always grateful for donations into this community as it helps us to improve the environment here,” she says. “The virus has impacted on us significantly as we have no visitors, so I ask you to keep the women and their families in your prayers … the last thing that we want is for the coronavirus to get into this community. “

Throughout Holy Week, people in the community gathered nightly for Gospel singing and family prayer. On the eve of Easter Sunday, the parish priest Fr Elmer and Sr Liz filled containers of water, which were blessed to be Easter Water. People came throughout the day and the weekend to take home bottles for use during the Family Prayer recited in the home on Easter Sunday.

The reflection prepared by Sr Liz spoke intimately to the people during these unsettling times: “Some of us wonder if we will ever come out of the ‘tomb’ of COVID-19 and its preventable measures. Yet, we can use these days as a way to challenge perceptions in acts of kindness, compassion and care for one another.”

This is the faith that pervades the Arrernte Women and their families in Santa Teresa, now working in their homes on artworks that celebrate Christ’s resurrection as the triumph of life over death.

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