August 2012

The allure of the outback

The Australian outback has an alluring quality that attracts many people to it. While most tend to make the trek for a visit, there are others for whom the outback has an enduring appeal. Good Samaritan Sister Gerri Boylan fits into this latter category.

BY Stephanie Thomas

The Australian outback has an alluring quality that attracts many people to it. While most tend to make the trek for a visit, there are others for whom the outback has an enduring appeal. Good Samaritan Sister Gerri Boylan fits into this latter category.

After some 30 years of ministry as a Good Samaritan Sister, mostly in urban and rural areas of Australia’s eastern states, in primary education, parish pastoral work and creative arts ministry with schools, Gerri had a 12-month sabbatical overseas.

On her return to Australia toward the end of 1999, “ready for anything”, she heard that a parish pastoral ministry role in the Western Australian outback was vacant.

Based in Mt Magnet (about 560 kilometres north of Perth and 350 kilometres east of Geraldton), living and working with two other Good Samaritan Sisters, the role would involve pastoral outreach to Mt Magnet and the nearby parishes of Cue and Meekatharra – all small, remote communities with a high concentration of mining and pastoral activities.

“I got so excited when I saw the job advertised,” says Gerri.

Having never worked in WA before – “I never in my wildest dreams ever thought of coming to WA” – what was it that motivated Gerri’s keen interest in such an isolated area?

“I just felt really drawn to the place,” she explains. For her, it was the allure of the outback landscape – the red earth and rocks, and the vast blue sky.

Before making any decisions, Gerri spent two weeks in Mt Magnet and surrounds “to get a feel for the country and the isolation”. When she returned to the east, her initial excitement about outback ministry hadn’t waned, and soon after, her decision was made; she would relocate to the West.

“All of that [image] faded pretty quickly when I got here,” admits Gerri. “It was tough. Very, very, very tough.”

In the first half of the year she had recurring bouts of sickness as she adapted to the realities of outback life, especially the harsh climate – “the long hot summer” – and the isolation.

“It was so different from anything I’d ever done,” says Gerri.

Then, in June 2000, Gerri was one of three Good Samaritan Sisters involved in a car accident in WA. Both Gerri and Carmel Posa were seriously injured, while Helen Lombard, a former leader of the Good Samaritan Sisters, was tragically killed.

Gerri had about seven months off work, returning to the east to recover.

“It was very traumatic. And when I came back at the end of January 2001, physically I was healed, but I did not know that I wasn’t healed emotionally. I had post traumatic stress, but I did not know that until it had all gone,” she explains.

“That was very difficult, that year. But then I got better and better.”

Now, 12 years on, Gerri, age 66, is the only Good Samaritan Sister ministering in Mt Magnet, Cue and Meekatharra. With no resident priest – a priest travels from Geraldton once a month to celebrate Eucharist – she is also the only official Catholic Church leader in these three remote communities.

Her role is demanding but fulfilling. Gerri says it’s the people – a diverse group that includes pastoralists, Aboriginal people and “Visa 457 people” (skilled migrant workers) – who inspire her to continue in this ministry.

“The people are just so wonderful, so honest and down to earth, and everybody lives such a simple life. I like that,” she explains.

As Pastoral Administrator and Leader, Gerri works closely with the parish communities, supporting parents and children in their faith development, as well as celebrating funerals, baptisms and Liturgies of the Word with Communion.

“I think that a lot of my work is accompanying people,” she says.

“I am involved in all these people’s stories and accompanying them, but I am cared for too by many of these people.”

Gerri spends a lot of time on the road making pastoral visits to families on the many sheep and cattle stations. It’s something she loves. It has also given her an insight into the plight of the pastoralists who have endured a very long drought. Gerri admires their determination, courage and hope. She says the image of the wealthy pastoralist is not accurate for these people. Most men and women on the stations often have jobs elsewhere to supplement their income.

“These pastoralists, they keep hoping… They love the land. They don’t want to leave it, but they keep hoping for better years, that it’ll rain. They keep hanging in there, and all of that makes them stronger people,” she says.

Gerri believes the outback “makes you strong”. “It really strengthens any weakness that you’ve got,” she explains.

“The other thing it does is expose weaknesses. I’ve learnt so much about myself since I’ve come here and also about others, about human nature.”

Gerri’s role is not limited to religious matters only. She plays an active part in the broader community, attending the monthly shire interagency meetings and assisting at the town’s ‘op shop’. She is also chairperson of the Mt Magnet school council and a member of the women’s craft group.

“Gerri is a part of the fabric and essence of our community – one who brings care, hope, friendship, love and laughter into the lives of those who live and visit here,” says long-time Mt Magnet parishioner and pastoralist, Karen Morrissey.

“In a role which requires great strength and courage, where reward isn’t always tangible, Gerri has maintained a strong presence – the face of Christ in our community.”

For Gerri, small country towns like Mt Magnet, while not without their problems, tend to have a stronger community spirit than larger towns or cities. It’s a quality often observed by visitors to the town, including those who attend the weekly parish liturgy.

“This is tourist season over here between May and September. All these ‘grey nomads’ come from all over Australia and they come to church a lot of them,” says Gerri.

“They can’t get over the closeness of this little community and there’s this sense of belonging and they just love it. They say, ‘we go to this church or that church and we never feel this sense of community’.”

Despite the attractiveness of this strong community spirit, Gerri says people who come to live and work in towns like Mt Magnet, Cue and Meekatharra tend not to stay beyond a few years.

“I often think of all the minerals under the ground here in WA – full of minerals. And from the surface, unless you flew over, you wouldn’t know,” reflects Gerri.

“I think that’s what it’s like [here]. Mt Magnet and other places have a lot of riches that are hidden from a spectator or an onlooker, but not hidden when you become one of the community.”

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