Gamilaroi Elder Aunty Fay Green OAM was awarded an Honorary Doctorate by Australian Catholic University (ACU) in Sydney on May 9 for her life-long commitment to education in the New South Wales community of Walgett and the establishment of the Aboriginal language program at St Joseph’s Primary, Walgett.
Aunty Fay was nominated for the award by the inter-congregational group of the Sisters of Mercy of Australia and Papua New Guinea, the Christian Brothers, the Sisters of St Joseph and the Sisters of the Good Samaritan. The establishment of this partnership in 2011 has enabled continued support for Aboriginal communities in places where individual religious congregations had previously ministered.
Under the guidance of Josephite Sister Mary Quinlan, the focus of this ministry has been on holding listening sessions where the religious listen to the faith and spirituality stories of the Aboriginal women, their pain as experienced in church, their cry for healing and their desire to move forward with hope.
Good Samaritan Sister Clare Condon said during the group’s time in Walgett, the religious came to realise what an incredible contribution Aunty Fay Green had, and continues to make to the education of young people in the Walgett region, especially through St Joseph’s Catholic Primary School.
“She has been a champion of transmitting culture to the young and maintaining their traditional language,” Clare said. “The ACU ceremony was a powerful symbol of the determination of one incredibly committed woman who never gave up on her endeavour to seek quality education for all.”
Josephite Sisters Mary-Ellen Griffin and Mary Quinlan, who have worked closely with Aunty Fay, say she is a wonderful listener and a woman of great faith.
“She is the most unassuming person you could meet, but she is the person who would reconcile the whole community,” Mary-Ellen said.
“She is patient, understanding, tolerant, forgiving, loving and inclusive of everybody,” said Mary. “And her qualities have been refined in the fire of suffering as she has suffered a lot in her life as Aboriginal people have and do.”
Present to see Aunty Fay receive ACU’s highest honour were her very proud three sons, daughter, two granddaughters and a niece, as well as ACU education graduands.
Giving the occasional address, Aunty Fay told her story of growing up as one of nine children in the 1940s and 50s on the Gingie Mission near Walgett. Key memories of that time were the old people being punished for speaking their language and how much she loved school. She said the day the mission manager told her at 14 she was too old to keep going to school was the saddest day of her life.
These memories stayed with her when she was sent to work as a maid for a family on a sheep station, when she moved around the country for work with her shearer and fencing hand husband Harry, and when they returned to Walgett to establish a home for their family of four children – first a humpy on the edge of town and eventually a house in town.
Initially a cleaner, when she got a job as a bus driver with the Walgett Save the Children Pre-School, Aunty Fay re-connected with education, driving out to the mission and to the homes of the Aboriginal children to make sure they attended. She also became an assistant at the pre-school and volunteered at St Joseph’s Primary. In the early 1990s she was appointed St Joseph’s Aboriginal Liaison Officer, a position she sees as the most important role in her working life.
“In this role, I have comforted and supported both our Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal students,” Aunty Fay said. “I have welcomed and supported school principals and staff members in maintaining a real connection with the local community, in particular through encouraging Aboriginal parents to be part of the conversation in localising the curriculum.”
In this role, Aunty Fay invited community members to a number of consultations that led to the establishment of the Yuwaalaraay Language Program at St Joseph’s School, which was developed with the support of the then principal Brother John Wright and language teacher Brother John Giacon (both Christian Brothers), the local Aboriginal community and the Diocese of Armidale Catholic Schools Office. With Aunty Fay’s help the program has been extended to other schools in Walgett, as well as the introduction of cultural excursions and performances.
“The day our language was officially introduced into the education system was the happiest day because for so long people did not want to know about our language and culture,” Aunty Fay said. “Now, all children, Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal at St Joseph’s learn, speak and sing in our language.”
She said the recognition of language and culture has enormous benefits for young Aboriginal people, particularly building self-esteem.
“The use of language in the school shows an appreciation for our culture, valuing and respecting us as people with a living culture. The acknowledgement and recognition of our culture is appreciated by our elders and community and helps to build good relationships. When people show an interest in learning and wanting to know, my people are more giving.”
In concluding her address, Aunty Fay invited listeners to walk with Aboriginal people as friends so that the children continue to grow strong and proud in their Aboriginal identity.