Statement from Archbishop Anthony Fisher OP

Last year’s Voice referendum left many people asking, what next for indigenous affairs in Australia. 

The result was a reminder that there is still so much to be done to reduce the gaps in life opportunities and outcomes for indigenous Australians, and to ensure that they find their voice and place and can make their contributions to the life of the Church and that these are gratefully received. 

Over the coming months, the Catholic Weekly in collaboration with Aboriginal Catholic Ministry will profile some of our indigenous brothers and sisters and the work they do across the archdiocese. 

In this first article, we read about the wonderful Aunty Elsie. I hope that her story, and the ones to follow, will help us deepen our appreciation and respect for our Aboriginal Catholic community, and the contribution they make to the life of the Church in Sydney and beyond. 

I reaffirm the commitment of the Archdiocese of Sydney to walk with and listen to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples, and pray that by knowing each other better, we will be able to do this with greater awareness, respect, love, and joy.

Aunty Elsie Heiss is a strong Wiradjuri woman and a highly respected Aboriginal Elder. Aunty Elsie is a founding member of the Reconciliation Church at La Perouse and worked at the church  from 1998 until retiring in 2012. 

Selected to go to Rome by Cardinal Clancy at 61 years of age she was recognised for her contributions to the life of the Church and the community with Papal honours. In 2010 Aunty Elsie Heiss was awarded an honorary Doctorate of Arts from the University of Notre Dame, Sydney. The university established the Aunty Elsie Indigenous Support Scholarship and she was made a Dame Commander of the Order of St Gregory the Great in 2018 for her work. 

In Aunty Elsie’s words: 

“We Aboriginal people know the great spirit has always been with us. In my early days growing up on Wiradjuri lands, my spiritual connection to mother earth was strong, and so was my involvement with my kinship and extended families. Spirituality is the basis of our connection to land, identity, culture and kinship. It is difficult to explain spirituality in just words as it comes from within us and is the very fibre that weaves our existence on this earth. Embracing Catholicism and spirituality in my life has been easy for me. My father and mother were both Catholic and spiritual people. The passing down of stories strengthens our heritage and history. We Aboriginal people take pride in holding on to our beliefs and stories. It connects us to mother earth and to each other”

The Sydney office of the Aboriginal Catholic Ministry (ACM) began in Erskineville in early 1989 with Frank Fletcher MSC. Aboriginal Catholics felt a strong need to start a ministry in the Sydney Archdiocese, to enable them to participate and contribute fully in our Catholic Church. Aboriginal Catholics wanted the Church to be more culturally inclusive so Aboriginal  people would come and feel comfortable. 

In 1998 with the help of Fr Pat Hurley, who was at St Andrew’s parish Malabar, the Ministry was expanded when it was given the sole use of the church and office, at 11 Yarra Bay Road, Phillip Bay (La Perouse). The church which was then known as Our Lady of Good Counsel was permitted by Cardinal Clancy to be renamed The Reconciliation Church. 

In 1999 the first mass was celebrated in the newly named Reconciliation Church. Five candidates prepared for their First Holy Communion and received the sacrament.

Over the years the Aboriginal Catholic Ministry and The Reconciliation Church have welcomed many Aboriginal people into the church through Baptism and other sacraments, held functions for community groups and monthly masses. The Reconciliation Church welcomes Aboriginal, Torres Strait Islander and non-Aboriginal people and takes great pride in finding common ground and walking together in reconciliation.