Who we are

Missionaries of the Sacred Heart, an Australian community, in a worldwide religious congregation.

Ministry Mission

Jesus loved with a human heart: with him we proclaim his love to the world.

Peace, Justice, Creation

We work to discover through advocacy, healing and reconciliation, God's presence in our world.


We are to be on earth the heart of God. God has no other heart but ours.




Fr Tan Nguyen MSC

This is the transcript of the Compass program, broadcast April 6th 2014. It can still be watched on ABC I-view or on the Compass website, Past Programs. It is a fine documentary and a positive picture of the relationship between the Tiwi people and the church, starting with Bishop Gsell MSC, with 2014 and Tan Nguyen MSC


The extraordinary 100 year old story of the relationship between the Catholic Church and Tiwi Islanders ...

For thousands of years the Tiwi believed they were the only people on Earth until the arrival of white settlers. Then, in 1911 a lone priest came ashore to establish a mission on Bathurst Island, 80 km north of Darwin. Father Francis Xavier Gsell evangelised by example, helping build a school and church. A turbulent century of change followed but despite many challenges the relationship between the church and the Tiwi has survived. Today, Father Tan is the priest in charge. How a Vietnamese born refugee came to be ministering to the Tiwi, is a story just as extraordinary as that of the first Catholic missionary who arrived over a 100 years ago ... Compass tells their remarkable stories.


Geraldine Doogue
Hello and thanks for joining me for the enduring and very Australian story of a church and a people.

Set on the Tiwi Islands in Australia's remote north, it's a story that began more than a century ago with the arrival of the first missionary. And it continues to this day in a way that's possibly unique in the world.

Geraldine Doogue , Narration

It's 6.30am and dawn has barely broken as Father Tan Van Nguyen prepares to celebrate mass.

It's a service he conducts several times a week, no matter how many, or few, turn up.

As the interior suggests - this is no ordinary church.

Father Tan is the priest in charge of the Tiwi Islands, near Darwin in Australia's remote north.

This community of 2 500 people has a rich and proud past, and a unique relationship with the Catholic Church.

Father Tan Nguyen, Missionaries of the Sacred Heart
We are lucky in a sense that the church encourage to combine our culture and the Catholic faith, how that blend together. And it works quite well.

This is Jesus. Behold the Lamb of God. Behold Him who takes away the sins of the world. Blessed are those who are called to the supper of the Lamb. The Lord be with you.

How Father Tan - a Vietnamese born refugee -came to be ministering to the Tiwi, is a story just as extraordinary as that of the first Catholic missionary who arrived here more than 100 years ago ...

Archive Footage from Islands of Australia "The Only People 1973)
"Cut off from the mainland of Australia for some twenty to thirty thousand years they became isolated from the mainland to a point where they call themselves the Tiwi, meaning the only people"

The Tiwi Islands lie 80 kilometres north of Darwin in the Arafura Sea, off Australia's northern coastline.

Melville is the largest island, but Bathurst – The smaller and more populated – is where the first Catholic mission was established more than a century ago.

Father Francis Xavier Gsell was born in Alsace on the French-German border, and as a young man, joined the Missionaries of the Sacred Heart.

After postings in Papua New Guinea and Darwin, Gsell set his sights on Bathurst Island, - arriving in 1911.

Anne Gardiner, Retired Nun, Bathurst Island
And he was noticed by two elderly Aboriginal men and they wondered what this strange man was who was walking up and down with a book, reading a book which he was saying his prayers. And they watched him, they watched him build a house. And then they started to make contact with him.

Gsell had little support or money and lived, in those early days, somewhat 'nervously', but was apparently 'sincere, kind and determined'.

He learnt the Tiwi language, and provided medical care.

Anne Gardiner
Many people damn the missionaries for coming in and just baptising people, but he did not start that way. He started fixing up their ailments and making sure that he got to understand them.

Sister Anne Gardiner actually met Bishop Gsell, as he became, in Sydney 60 years ago, on her way to her new posting on the Tiwi Islands.

Anne Gardiner
He was a physically big man. He had a very strong voice. He had a very white beard and he had penetrating eyes.

And I asked him what will I do? I'm going to Bathurst Island. And he looked down through his beard and looked deep into me and said two words, 'Love them'.

Gsell's effort to introduce Christianity to the Tiwi people is documented in Bathurst Island's museum.

Anne Gardiner
It hasn't been a difficult process because they are very spiritual people. They have their own spirits. So therefore they understand that the Great Creator also is a spiritual person.

And then you look around and they take what symbols they have and what meaning for their symbol and then, if we feel, yes, that fits in, that's how we put it into Christianity.

What we're looking at here is the creation story and their creation person was a woman, a female. And when you read it in English it's very much like the Genesis story.

Father Gsell evangelised by example, helping build a store, school and a church.

With 18 months food gardens were planted and living quarters erected.

Soon the church sent reinforcements -
priests and nuns.

Anne Gardiner
They lived the life with them. They weren't above them, they worked with them and I think that's the very important thing when you're with indigenous people.

That you become part of them and don't expect them to become part of us.

Unlike some missionaries, Father Gsell left many sacred traditions alone.

Among them the Pukumani burial ceremony.

The Tiwi are famous for their sacred poles
used in traditional funeral rituals.

Today they stand alongside Christian crosses, evidence of the coming together of the two belief systems.

Marius Puruntatameri, Pirlangimpi Community Melville Island
We believe that when people die their spirit goes to their traditional land. But it doesn't go immediately.

It goes after the Pukumani ceremony is performed. That's one of the reasons why a Pukumani ceremony is performed, to move the spirit of the person from one place to his country.

But one traditional practice Gsell wouldn't ignore.It involved young girls and much older men. And in 1921 he devised a unique method of circumventing it, in keeping with tribal law.

Barbara Tippolay, Sister Handmaidens of Our Lord
In the old days the young girls were promised to old men and when the missionaries came Bishop Gsell stopped it in a way by buying them or paying the old people tobacco and axes in order to get a girl to go to school. And then to give her the freedom to choose who she wants.

Over time the Tiwi would bring their daughters to Gsell for the Sisters to teach and care for.

He was called "The Bishop with 150 Wives" which became the title of his autobiography published in the 1950s .

After morning mass, Father Tan's day starts in earnest ... Working alongside Father Tan is Patrick, a trainee priest, soon to be ordained.

Today they're calling on people too sick or infirm to go to church. Most older Tiwi islanders would have attended Mass as children.

Father Tan
The Lord be with you. Today Jesus reminds us to bring Healing and Grace into our world. And ask for healing and grace on you, eh, and God to bless you. Let us pray. Our father who art in heaven ...

He come. Talk to me, pray over me. Make me good.

Patrick Mara, Missionaries of the Sacred Heart
Part of this is like a healing ministry. A gentle touch, holding their hand. It brings comfort to people. It just brings a sense of peace and tranquility, and, yes, a passing on of gentleness of spirit.

Father Tan
May the Lord Jesus Christ who went about doing good work, healing the sick, grant that you have good health and be enriched by His Blessing.

Father Tan
In my training for priesthood I was attracted to people who are on fringe of society. So I've been working with homeless for six years in Sydney and with that I started to learn more about the human strength and weaknesses.

God bless you

God bless you, Father. Thank you for coming

Father Tan
And that reflected for me what my journey is about, how I discover God.

Father Tan's own life journey had a difficult start. He was born in Vietnam and grew up during the war.

Archive Footage
The villagers are frightened. They have no way of knowing they are not the target.

Afterwards, he was among the tens of thousands of refugees who fled to Australia, arriving when he was just a boy.

Father Tan, Missionaries of the Sacred Heart
And we as a family left Vietnam on a boat at the end of 1980 and been picked up by the German oil tanker on our fifth day at sea.

I think it did change me because when I reflect back on my life I'm thinking what god planned for my life and all that in the past have some influence on that.

In 1936 Father Gsell left the Tiwi islands, to become Bishop of Darwin.

By then some 450 Islanders had been baptised. And building had begun on Bathurst Island's iconic wooden church.

Despite its isolation, the Mission would play a memorable role in World War Two.

In 1942 Japanese warplanes flew over Bathurst Island, strafing the church ... The mission radioed Darwin about the fleet of enemy bombers heading its way.

But the warning went unheeded. By day's end hundreds were dead.
Darwin, its harbour, warships and airfields were all destroyed, in the first and worst ever attack on Australian soil.

The Tiwi have immortalized the devastating attack in a ceremonial dance – The Bombing of Darwin dance.

The Catholic Church here played its part in another modern day tragedy. In 1940 a mission was built on Melville Island for so-called 'half-caste' children.

Barbara Tippolay, Sister Handmaidens of Our Lord
That was the government policy, putting all – I don't like to say the word - the half-caste people together in a different place. Why? I don't know. They must have thought it was the best thing for the children. But they broke up a lot of families.

The youngsters were taken from aboriginal families from all over Australia, to live on the mission at Garden Point.

Barbara Tippolay
Yes I was one of them. But I found my family afterwards.

Sister Barbara was taken from her family on Bathurst Island.

Barbara Tippolay
For me I was here with my people. We had school and everything but the people were here. That Stolen Generation, it's very painful because not knowing their families and being taken away.

Sister Barbara, a Tiwi Islander, has been a missionary nun for over 50 years.

Barbara Tippolay
Well, I don't see any conflict being a Religious and a Tiwi. I think it's wonderful.

Freely you have chosen to take another to become a Religious and have that deep, that faith of my ancestors is still there and it makes it more rich when the Christianity is blended in together.

I don't think you can separate the two. You're one person.

By war's end, a newcomer had arrived on Bathurst Island ... one who'd help make the Tiwi famous.

Brother John Pye, a shy and unassuming school teacher, introduced the young men to Aussie Rules football ... to stop them spear fighting.

Archive Footage, Brother John Pye
They're made for it. Nobody can go in after the ball like they can. They're so sprightly; they get in every grand final and every big occasion in Darwin.

The Tiwi Islanders have produced many AFL heroes. David Kantilla was the first player to go South.

Later, Michael Long who captained Essendon. And Maurice Rioli who kicked 80 goals for Richmond in the 1980s.

The post-war years saw the Mission flourish.

More houses were built. They grew peanuts, established a forestry and logging business, and a sawmill.

The women excelled in dressmaking, winning prizes at the Darwin Show.

The islanders grew their own fruit and vegetables, and were virtually self-sufficient.

It was around this time that Sister Anne arrived.

A nun and teacher, she was just 22.

Anne Gardiner, Retired Nun
When I first came I got off a plane on the 23 November 1953 and I was met by four sisters and all these beautiful children.

And the school was underneath the old church and a dirt floor, long benches, that was all we had. And I taught there from '53 til '57 when the first schoolrooms were built.

Eustace Tipiloura
We used to have a slate and the chalk. That's where we started.

Eustace in fact wouldn't be here today if it weren't for the Mission.

Eustace Tipiloura
I'm a twin, the twin they used to kill one. I was the only bloke, they were going to kill me. Thanks for the nuns they said no you can't do that or we'll have to, so they did

Anne Gardiner
This is the women's section, shoe department as you can see...

The classroom that Sister Ann first taught in
is today an Op Shop.

Anne Gardiner
Sheets, towels, etc here. And then you come to the children's across there and the Men's department is up here.

Get this sheet. Buy it for my family.

Anne Gardiner
Now it has become something for the Tiwi people because the clothing is very expensive for them to buy.

SINGING - We are going, we are going, we are going for freedom...

The 1967 Referendum saw big changes for Australia's indigenous people.

Segregation was discouraged. As was discrimination. Assimilation and integration actively promoted.

SINGING - Yes, yes, yes for freedom...

The Mission's role was changing.

Archive footage - A Big Country "The First Territorians" 1969
Generally speaking we're educating the aboriginal people to our way of life, to our society with a view to them becoming part of us completely without any sort of training and so forth.

Priest, Archive footage - A Big Country "The First Territorians" 1969
And, as missionaries, of course, we do this mainly through religion and bringing to them through our religion the basic way of living as we know it in our modern civilisation.

There was a feeling of optimism for the future as this documentary of the time attests.

Archive footage – Islands of Australia "The Only People" 1973
Since then they have worked together with the mission fathers improving their village in many ways. Modern vehicles, tools and materials have become available. This meant an increase in jobs for them. Everybody works.

The mission was thriving: It had a priest, three brothers, 5 sisters and 3 lay missionaries

But times were changing. It was the era of Land Rights and self-determination.

Anne Gardiner
And when they asked for self-determination, yes. The people here they said we'll give it a go, go alone. But leave the sisters in the school, in the clinic.

So we felt that we were invited to stay. And so that's why we stayed. Had we been told to go we would have gone.

In 1975, 15 Tiwi Islanders joined an aboriginal pilgrimage to Rome to meet the Pope.

Three years later in 1978 ownership of the islands was handed back to the Tiwi to manage their own communities.

Federal money poured in. But, over the next decade or so, drinking, unemployment and welfare dependency began creating problems.

Then a bombshell struck at the heart of the mission itself.

Reporter , Archive footage – The 7:30 Report
For more than 80 years the church has been a powerful force on Bathurst Island.

Although details are sketchy it's alleged that around 50 children between eight and fourteen years of age have been sexually abused.

A former Christian Brothers school principal is now being investigated by police.

The Tiwi's difficulties climaxed in a devastating suicide epidemic of young men and boys which peaked in 2005.

Reporter, News Archive Footage
The deaths of 5 young Tiwis last year has led to a great deal of soul searching ...

Alcohol, drug abuse and gambling were blamed ... there were also calls for the church to pull out of the schools.

Teacher in Class
Remember this one?

The Tiwi voted to keep the church on and today the primary school is an integral part of the community.

Ian Marmont, Principal
If you get one of these it means you have been doing really good things all term. So you should be very proud of yourself because we are all very proud of you.

I think it's the greatest gift we can give the children is to give them a good education.

... a tee-shirt, a cap ..
I think it's absolutely vital. That's what we try and stress to the children. Come to school every day.

Get a good education and it gives you lots of options as to what you do with your life and where you go in your life.

Father Tan and Sister Anne are both regular visitors and active helpers at the school...

Anne Gardiner
I try to support them in every way that I can. I support them in their religious instruction.

Whenever I am invited I go to the school. I'm always around where children are to listen to their stories.

Anne Gardiner
The Catholic Church is here because the Catholic Church is not a building. The Catholic Church is people.

Tiwi People
Sing evening Mass.

For more than 100 years the Catholic Mission has journeyed with the Tiwi.

Together they've adapted to challenging times and to each other ...

Today Father Tan has a new goal, to conduct mass in Tiwi and English.

Father Tan
And for the last few years I'm learning Tiwi and also I've been part of a Mass we sing in Tiwi and celebrate in Tiwi in the Mass.

Anne Gardiner
The church is alive and well here. And there's a great relationship between Tiwi and the Religious who've worked here.

And their love, their support and above all their forgiveness for any of our stupidities is something that we cherish.

Marius Puruntatameri
There's a lot of energy in having both the religious, the Christianity and our Tiwi spirituality.

We just come to accept both. They both go hand in hand. It's wonderful.