June 2011

Ministry in remote communities recognised

When Good Samaritan Sister Anna Warlow discovered in June she was receiving a Medal of the Order of Australia (OAM) for her commitment to the community, she felt shocked and a little uncomfortable.

BY Stephanie Thomas

Anna is one of 376 Australians to be recognised in this year’s Queen’s Birthday honours list. She received the award for her service to the Catholic Church and to St Paul’s Community House of Welcome, a community outreach initiative that provides care and support for Indigenous, rural and mining families in the remote Western Australian town of Three Springs, south of Geraldton.

Now, having adjusted to the idea a bit more, Anna feels happy to receive the award, but she is at pains to explain that it is not for herself.

“There have been so many people involved in all my work,” she says. “I’m terribly grateful to all the people who are part of it and they are the ones who should be acknowledged… I receive [the award] on their behalf and in gratitude to my Good Samaritan Sisters.”

Anna pays tribute to Loreto Sister, Ellen Moran, who lives with her at the House of Welcome. Together they received the 2010 Australia Day Community Group Award for “their outstanding work”.

She praises the many Good Samaritan oblates and associates from Wollongong and Canberra, the teachers from schools where she has worked over the years, and the members of various religious congregations who have supported her ministry at Three Springs. She says many have spent time in the community as volunteers or helped through fundraising efforts.

“The steps we’ve taken [here] have been a credit to them… They’ve been fantastic. I can’t speak highly enough of them,” she says.

Anna also acknowledges her Good Samaritan Sisters in Geraldton and Mount Magnet (her closest geographical Good Sam communities about 200 and 400 kilometres away, respectively!), the local Aboriginal elders, and the many regional community service organisations, especially Centacare Family Services. She says she couldn’t do her ministry without their support and collaboration.

After many years of ministry in primary school teaching, teacher training and adult faith education, Anna arrived in Three Springs in late 2004 to engage in full-time ministry. However, before this, she had visited regularly for a few weeks at a time.

Outreach to rural and outback communities has formed a significant part of Anna’s ministries. As an educator of teachers in Catholic schools in the Parramatta and Wollongong dioceses, she and her colleagues also provided support to communities in the vast Wilcannia-Forbes Diocese. Based in Sydney they would often travel outback for six to eight weeks at a time.

While St Paul’s House of Welcome is a parish initiative, Anna says it is broader than the Catholic Church and engages all kinds of people. In a remote rural area, where isolation, few services and the burdens of drought have taken their toll, it has played an important support role.

The House of Welcome offers a community garden, a choir, a food bank in partnership with the WA government, weekly gatherings, monthly and annual events, and a link with regional social services.

A few years ago, while the community was suffering heavily from an eight-year drought (there were several suicides), Anna (who also happens to be the older sister of opera singer Anthony Warlow) and a former colleague and musician from Wollongong, Jen Charadia, began a community choir. Modelled on the ABC’s “Choir of Hard Knocks”, Anna believes it was a great community builder and gave people a great sense of pride.

She explains: “I was supposed to be over here trying to build up the Church. Well there’s no way you can build up the Church unless you build up the people.

“[The choir was established] to build a community and to give the people a sense of pride and build their self esteem. And I think that’s what it did.”

Like the “Choir of Hard Knocks”, the “St Paul’s House of Welcome Choir” also produced a CD.

An aspect of Anna’s ministry that she feels passionate about is the support of women in remote and rural communities. Working collaboratively with the Josephite Rural Network, Anna brings women together for a range of activities. She says some Aboriginal women have been joining this group too.

“We give [these women] the opportunity for personal development and spiritual renewal and faith education and just good care for themselves because they live in very isolated places,” she explains.

“It’s a very key element of what we do over here and it’s grown. It wasn’t on the agenda when I first came.”

If you would like to republish this article, please contact the editor.