Goodbye my friend

by   Sr Anne Gardiner

Fr John McGrath, M.S.C. was a much beloved priest and friend to the Tiwi people of Bathurst Island, not far from Darwin. This account of their "grandfather's" final return amongst his people has been written by Sr Anne Gardiner, a Missionary Daughter of Our Lady of the Sacred Heart.


THE burial ceremonies of the Tiwi people of Melville and Bathurst Islands, based on thePukamuni of the mythical man Purukupali, are by far, the most important events in their ceremonial life.

"These ceremonies, which allow, the Tiwi full expression for their grief, provide at the same time, a complete cultural outlet for their philosophical beliefs, their music, their art, their dancing. No-one, watching these primitive rituals, could fail to be impressed by the obvious pleasure experienced by both the participants and the onlookers." Thus wrote Charles Pearcy Mountford years ago in his study of the Tiwi. (1954)

I begin my tribute to this humble M.S.C. giant, by introducing my readers to the fact that the "Pukamuni" ceremony, the death ceremony, is by far the most important event in their present life as it was in the past.

To work with these people one has to be filled with three gifts:

  1. Love of God and neighbour.
  2. A great sense of justice.
  3. A never failing sense of humour'

And Father John McGrath M.S.C. held all three.

Born in Parkes, the twin son of John and Mary McGrath, he was the 11th child in a family of fourteen.

Upon deciding to become a missionary at an early age he wrote to the then superior at The Sacred Heart Monastery, Kensington, N.S.W. He used to smile as he related the fact that his letter wasn't answered for almost a year, a challenge, to see if he would apply again.

And apply he did. In 1927 he was sent, as a priest, to Bathurst Island, where he worked untiringly until April 1948. Thus he became known as the "Apostle of the Tiwis".


Because of his great love of God and sense of justice to his fellow human travellers he set about learning the language so as to be better able to help these people. He was the man who radioed Darwin about the Japanese flying into Darwin in 1942, a warning that went unheeded. He was the man who stayed with his flock during those turbulent war years.

But it is not McGrath, the forgotten, war-time personage, that I wish to pay this tribute to, but McGrath, priest of God, friend of the Tiwis of North Australia.

News of his death reached us early on the morning of l4th September. The Tiwis, realising that he was an old man knew that this day must come. But when it did come a silence fell upon the town. Their friend, their spiritual Father, who because he had loved much, and because he was so spiritually sensitive had slipped away without a final "nimpungi", goodbye, early one morning in 1948. Tiwis knew they must bring him back for a fitting farewell.

Graciously both His Lordship Bishop O'Loughlin and Sacred Heart Fathers' Provincial Superior Father Frank Quirk gave permission for his body to be burried with the people he loved.

The next two days were spent in story-telling of the memories they held so dear. Huge crowds of women frequented the school yard to arrange appropriate hymns for the Requiem Mass. As is their usual custom, nothing sacred or profane ever comes to a conclusion without argument. And arguments we had, always friendly, yet each wanting her own way in selection of hymns, burial-site etc.

By Saturday, burial day, all was in readiness. The yard was beautifully prepared to receive the body. All vehicles headed for the airport. As the plane flew over their fine sense of humour came out in Faith of Our Fathers lustily sung. I say sense of humour for they chuckled "when he taught us that hymn our fathers were pagans."

Escorting the earthly remains were Bishop O'Loughlin, Fathers Malcolm Fyfe, Tony Bolt, Martin Wilson, Brother Gerry Bourke, Alan White, Sisters Laurencia, Anastasia and Marietta. The body was received and blessed by Father John Savage amid the crying of the older Tiwi people.

The procession to the township could only be described as prayerful. For the vibrancy of the Tiwi people make them a very boisterous race. But today their friend was coming home and deep reverence was shown.

All had been arranged. The sons of the older people carried the coffin. The "girls" (now middle-aged women) whom Father McGrath had stayed with in the bush during the war years sat around his coffin. His "altar boys" sat on the other side. Every man, woman child and dog was present at the Requiem. As the Bishop and Priests entered the tent, "Requiem Aeternam" was taken up.


The Bishop chose Matthew's account of "Whatsoever you do to the least of my brethren you do to me". It made one realize just how well Father McGrath loved his God and because of this love his keen sense of justice came out in all his dealings with his people. His third great gift "his sense of humour", must surely have reached its heavenly triumph when at the time for the Offertory Dance and Procession we had quite a discussion on how it should be done. Meanwhile the Bishop graciously awaited their decision.

As the Mass ended Father John Savage, M.S.C., announced that there was a tape - Fr McGrath's own message to the Tiwi people for June 11th 1982, 71st Anniversary of Bishop Gsell's arrival. If you have been caught up in a surging crowd, perhaps walked the Sydney Harbour Bridge on its 50th Anniversary, you may appreciate something if the crowd that pressed forward in a prayerful silence to hear the feeble, yet powerful voice of their Father giving them his final message. Robust men, the youth of today, those grown old, pressed forward in an alarming silence as they listened to him. Nimpungi yiloti kapi Heaven: "Good-bye until we meet forever in Heaven".

And then peak-hour traffic to the final resting place. Here again the reverence due to such a friend was truly given. No mechanical monster such as a front end loader was to be used to fill this final resting place. No! Each son of the older women took his turn to shovel the red soil of Nguiu on to their "grandfather". I say grandfather for relationships are a very strong binding force on Bathurst Island. The grand-daughters made their own song of grateful farewell to this man.

My own memories of this humble giant are many. My last one is that on 26th April this year, the day I returned to work here, he, an old man. of eighty-nine celebrated Mass at 6 a.m. for me and gave me his priestly blessing.

"Nimpungi Mantini yiloti". Goodbye my friend until we meet in Heaven.