August 2014

Supporting isolated communities in WA’s wheatbelt

Debra Vermeer recently caught up with the Good Sam Rural Outreach Team, a “faith-filled” and “committed” band of women who are supporting small, isolated communities in Western Australia’s Wheatbelt Region.

BY Debra Vermeer

When Good Samaritan Sister, Anna Warlow, looks at how the Rural Outreach Team in Western Australia’s Geraldton Diocese has evolved since she first arrived 12 years ago, she says it makes her “feel as though the Spirit has been at work”.

That evolution has seen the ministry expand to include a small team of faith-filled, committed women from the local area who have stepped up to the challenge of helping to lead not only the liturgical life of these small, isolated communities in the wheatbelt of mid-western WA, but also provide retreats and gatherings for spiritual nourishment.

“The ministry has really evolved, into what I would call community engagement,” says Anna.

“When I first came out here, it was to train small communities to be self-sufficient liturgically.

“Now, that has, and has not, happened, because some of those little groups weren’t really comfortable without having a priest of any description.

“But even when a priest does come, he might come once a month, and that ‘Mass day’ is somewhat disconnected to the rest of the pastoral life of their community.

“So what I try to do is gather the people, and now they’ve been trained to do this on their own, because I can’t do the whole lot any more. I used to, but I can’t now.

“But they can do it on their own and I’ll go out maybe once every six weeks, and it’s wonderful. They’ve got their own sense of energy really. They are happy to prepare for the Sunday Liturgy of the Word and Communion by themselves. It’s still a challenge, but it is happening.”

The Good Samaritan Rural Outreach ministry is totally funded by volunteers, largely through the support of groups in Canberra and Wollongong who raise funds to keep the outreach team afloat.

Anna says collaboration is also crucial in rural and remote ministry for sharing of resources and for spiritual support. She has worked closely with Good Samaritan Sister, Val Deakin, who is the Aboriginal Liaison officer for Geraldton Diocese, as well as Loreto Sister, Ellen Moran, and members of the Josephite Rural Network. That collaboration also now involves committed local lay people.

Elaine Wally and Kathy Beeck have been commissioned to be a part of the Good Sams’ Rural Outreach Team after each found themselves drawn to the ministry in different ways.

Anna first met Elaine at the House of Welcome, a ministry for Indigenous people at Three Springs, where Anna, whose background is in teaching, teacher education and adult faith education, has been based.

“Elaine, who’s a Yamatji elder out here, was one of the first Aboriginal people to walk through the door of the House of Welcome, and she hasn’t looked back,” Anna says.

“She has become a woman of great faith who has become, and been commissioned as, a liturgical leader for the general community. But specifically, when we gather with the Aboriginal people, she’s the one who gathers them, she’s the one who introduces everything, she is the leader of the Word and Communion. She’s been a great strength for me.”

Elaine says her relationship with Anna has been a part of her journey back to faith. Baptised a Catholic, she raised five children on her own after her relationship with their father ended in the 1970s. She later married and fostered two children with her husband. When her husband died she was bereft.

“I was a bit lost I suppose you’d say. I tried the Jehovah’s Witnesses, but it wasn’t what I wanted,” she says. “There was something missing. So I came up to Three Springs to live with my sister and we shared a house with my brother.”

Elaine’s sister invited her to go to Mass with her, but, feeling that religion had not helped her previously, she resisted the idea for some time, before finally giving in and going.

“So I went, and I liked it, and I said ‘oh well, I’ll go again’. And that’s how I got to know Sister Anna and Sister Ellen and they were wonderful people.”

Before long, Elaine felt she wanted to give something back to this new community which had given her so much.

“Sister Anna gave so much help to me and my family, and I thought we need to pay back what we’ve received. So I started helping them with little things.”

From that beginning grew a range of outreach activities, including the creation of a community garden for the Indigenous and wider community; preparing, supporting and leading rituals in Three Springs; and the hosting of retreats in Perth for older women.

Having been commissioned for partnership in ministry with Anna, Elaine now assists Anna in all aspects of the rural outreach ministry and says she loves everything about it.

“I love talking about Jesus and learning about him, and listening to the other ladies about their lives and how they see Jesus and the Father. And I’ve found that every time I think I do know them (Jesus and the Father), you turn a corner and there’s another little mystery and you have to turn the page over to learn a little bit more.

“The women out there are so desperate to know, and they really want to learn, and they are so appreciative of us going and talking to them.”

The other person on the Good Sam Rural Outreach Team is Kathy Beeck, an Irishwoman, who after coming to Australia decades ago, and meeting her shearer husband, ended up living in the tiny town of Morawa, about 370 kilometres north of Perth.

Kathy, a retired nurse, has always been involved in Church life and was commissioned some years ago to lead the liturgy at Morawa. Recently, she felt she had the energy and desire to be doing something more, but didn’t know quite what.

“I mentioned it to Sister Anna and she asked me if I would join her team. I talked about it with my husband and he said to do whatever makes me happy, so I said yes,” she says.

“The meetings we have with the women out here are wonderful. We share the Gospel and hear each other’s stories. The women are really happy for something a bit different. They really do like to come, because it’s about getting together and sharing, and living out here can be very isolating.”

The gatherings are almost always ecumenical, with priests and pastors from all Christian communities in short supply out in rural communities.

“In Morawa we have four churches, each with a maximum of 10 people on a Sunday. And so you begin to think, what are we all doing sitting here on our own?” Kathy says.

The team also holds regular retreats for older rural women in Perth, called “Growing Old with God Gracefully”, which include sharing of the Gospel as well as personal stories, singing, film and time for reflection.

“We have seen and heard such amazing stories,” Kathy says. “Some of these women have carried guilt, anger, or some other thing with them their whole lives and somehow these retreats help set them free.

“In fact, being involved in this has really set me free to a large degree. It’s engaged me in reading a lot of spiritual books and I get a lot of input from them and from the other women. I feel as though my life is full.

“Sometimes, I think all of us deny the gifts we’ve been given. We don’t really open them.

“So the way I look at it is that you should use the life you’ve got while you’ve got the strength and when you haven’t got the strength anymore, you can’t do it.

“But while I can do it, I’m very happy to do it.”

Anna says that one of the many fruits of the collaboration of the Rural Outreach Team is that Kathy and Elaine are now preparing to become Good Samaritan Oblates, following an invitation from the Oblate Director, Good Samaritan Sister Veronica Griffiths, who spent time with them during one of the women’s retreats.

“Veronica just thought they were extraordinary women,” says Anna. “They’ve got the Good Samaritan spirit, that’s for sure, and so now they will become Good Sam Oblates.

“It’s the first time that’s happened out here in this area. We’ll have the ceremony out here, probably in the Church in Morawa, so the local people can see and it will be a witness to them that these women are prepared to stand up and be counted.

“That’s been a great outcome. It has taken 12 years, but I see it as a really positive thing that’s come from our collaboration.”

The Rural Outreach Team will also expand next year, when Donna Cooper, a woman from the little township of Bencubbin comes on board to share her “extraordinary leadership qualities”.

“When I look back over the last 12 years and I see where we are now, with this team up and going well and expanding, and now the oblate program as well, it does make me feel as if the Spirit has been at work,” Anna says.

“And it means that we can begin to look at doing things a bit differently in the future, with these women taking the reins and me moving about and supporting it all in a different way, perhaps not always being present 24 hours. There’s an energy now among the people to keep it all going and to keep connected and that’s really great.”

Debra Vermeer

Debra Vermeer is a freelance journalist working in both Catholic and mainstream media.

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