Recent History between the Group and the Church

A 70 years of St Mary’s Celebration [1] was held in July 2016 which included dignitaries, past residents and staff and stolen generations.

The (then and current) Bishop of the Northern Territory Greg Anderson dedicated a plaque on the chapel in memory of those who lived as children at St Mary’s.

It reads:

TO HONOUR AND COMMEMORATE THE LIVES OF THE CHILDREN WHO LIVED AT ST MARY’S HOSTEL FROM 1946 ONWARDS “Let the little children come to me, and do not hinder them, for the kingdom of heaven belongs to such as these (Matt 19:14).

The St Mary’s Stolen Generation Group feared the site was to be sold at that time and presented a public petition to the gathering that included:

Many of us have lost our families, access to our lands, our culture, our languages and a place we call home… St Mary’s would be an ideal place for us, the children of St Mary’s, to have as our retirement village. A place where our brothers and sisters, who continue to suffer today, can at least have a place they can call home and begin their journey of healing and allow for the continuations of reunions and a meeting place. After all, many of us don’t have a place to call home apart from St Mary’s.

Their audience included the then Primate of the Anglican Church, Archbishop Philip Freier, and Bishop Greg Anderson.

Archbishop Philip Freier’s speech on the day included:

Tragically, in the very acts of compassion in caring for children, we complied with Government policies which resulted in deep hurt and trauma to our indigenous brothers and sisters by the unjustified removal of children from their families….

Speaking as the Primate of the Anglican Church of Australia we acknowledge with profound regret that abuses of children may well have occurred at particular times over the long history of St Mary’s Hostel. It is important that we acknowledge this is likely to have been the case. We acknowledge our history, our true history, in both its positive and negative contributions. In this way, by truth telling, we learn together: we celebrate the good and we learn to right the wrong.

Subsequently Archbishop Freier stated:

St Mary’s Hostel in Alice Springs, like many institutions conducted by Europeans for Indigenous people, has a chequered history. It is a place where the race politics of Australia and particularly Central Australia has been lived out in the lives of several generations of Aboriginal people.

Founded by Ken Leslie, rector of Alice Springs (later chaplain at Timbertop, then Bishop of Bathurst), from high motives, it acted from a concern that children with dual Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal heritage were missing opportunities for education. Children were sent by their parents from cattle stations and towns all around the Northern Territory to live at St Mary’s and attend the local government school.

But, like many similar church ventures, it was poorly resourced and could not maintain its early success. It was appropriated by the post-war Government to help its policy of wrongfully removing children from their families.

Last month I took part in the hostel’s 70th anniversary, and it was clear that the Stolen Generations experience was still raw for many who attended. I took the opportunity to reiterate the statement of the Synod of the Diocese of the Northern Territory in 1997: “This Synod recognises the pain and suffering endured by Aboriginal people forcibly removed from their families and apologises for any of our Church policies and actions that have ever contributed, in any way, to that hurt.”

I was able to speak as Primate of the Anglican Church of Australia owning the responsibility of the Church for all of our history, the true history, in both its positive and negative impacts. It is in this way, by truth telling, that we learn together and can find ways of celebrating the good and continuing to right the harm of the wrong. St John’s Gospel is very clear about the liberating power of truth – in fact John 8.32 “The truth will set you free”, is the motto of the Anglican Communion.

I was impressed by the courage of the former residents who have a special bond as well as the dedication of former staff members who have continued to live in Alice Springs.

Our Christian faith acknowledges that, in life, the good and the bad are often mixed together. Our faith calls us to look to a future where the pain of this life is gathered into the sufferings of Christ and transformed through his resurrection. Healing and wholeness await us in the future and breaks in on our present, as we accompany our blessed Saviour through life as his disciples.

On the way to that future, we have the blessing of knowing the encouragement of the good and the beautiful as signs of that future.

Bishop Greg Anderson chaired a meeting in August 2016 to listen to the stories of former residents.

The minutes [2] state:

The Bishop [Greg Anderson] advised that the Anglican Diocese has not decided to sell St Mary’s. It is currently leased to Central Australian Affordable Housing Company. Upkeep costs have been high and continue to be high, with a lot of maintenance required. In addition to the houses on site, they lease some properties to other Aboriginal organisations.

Former St Mary’s residents want a voice on the future of St Mary’s. Heidi Williams, CLP candidate who is running for the seat on Namatjirra advised that Hon Adam Giles MLA, Chief Minister, would like to have been present, but has sent a letter to be read out. The letter was received by ex St Mary’s residents with hope and gratitude.

Further concerns were expressed, and stories shared about the hurt experienced through displacement where language was lost. It was noted that some people were cared for by their Aboriginal parents, they came to St Mary’s for education but then were made wards of the state.

Heidi Williams spoke from a government perspective about the hurt experienced by people feeling as though they are defined by policy.

Further comments about the deep feelings of displacement, the hurt of having identity stripped with no potential of reconnecting with family, land or culture. Some shared of how they relied on one another to steer themselves straight.

Heidi Williams was asked by the Bishop to convey to Adam Giles that the Diocese of the NT has not made a decision to sell the site. The Bishop also commented that in addition to a committee to consider the future of St Mary’s, it would also be good to follow Adam Giles’ suggestion of have a parliamentary committee to look into care for dislocated peoples.

The hurt of dislocated peoples was further expressed by former St Mary’s residents with the comment made that such actions as caring for dislocated peoples should have no monetary considerations attached to it.

The question was asked as to what sort of structure it would be for people to move back to St Mary’s? There was discussion about a retirement village, but it was also much emotive discussion by former St Mary’s residents about how it could be more than that, it could be a cultural centre or village where people can be with families. It was agreed that it would be helpful to have a committee of former St Mary’s residents established with two or three appointed former St Mary’s residents also having representation on the Alice Springs Property Group. This would enable former St Mary’s residents to have input into the future of the St Mary’s site.

There were no further meetings of the Alice Springs Property Group that the Stolen Generation Group were invited to.

The Stolen Generation Group has approached Bishop Greg Anderson a number of times since then and he has met with them. Each time they expressed their desire for ongoing connection to the place.

In 2019 the Group met with a group from the Anglican Board of Mission at St Mary’s and expressed their desire for connection to the site.

Margaret Furber-Ross, a member of the Group and a Traditional Owner, wrote an insert for the 9th edition of Jose Petrick’s book on the mural, her words appear on the front inside cover dated 13 September 2021:

As Arrernte Traditional Owners of this land we acknowledge the Robert Czako mural and endorse sharing this heritage painting with the Northern Territory community and beyond for future generations. As past residents of St Mary’s Hostel, we acknowledge the home that provided us the opportunity for an education, built friendships and created family. We had a range of experiences here, some better and some worse, but this was our home and we value ongoing connection to the site.

On August 12, 2022 the Australian Anglican Bishops, including the current Primate, Bishop Anderson and Archbishop Freier issued a statement in support of First Nations Peoples which included:

With deep repentance the Australian bishops present at Lambeth 2022 recognize that the Anglican Church of Australia …aided the forced removal of First Nations children from their parents (the Stolen Generations) which has resulted in inter-generational trauma for many First Nations peoples. The Anglican Church of Australia acknowledges its own sinfulness in this regards, has sought forgiveness, but continues to walk with First Nations peoples on the long journey of reconciliation…

We support the ‘Uluru Statement from the Heart’ and encourage a First Nations voice to be heard in the federal and state parliaments of our land. We join with the bishops present at Lambeth 2022 in committing ourselves to ‘walk with and support Indigenous peoples around the world…’

Bishop Greg Anderson met with the Group at the start of October 2022 and told them the land was being sold.

The press release issued by the Diocese of the Northern Territory on 31 October 2022 included:

Ideally, the Diocese will find a buyer who will honour the legacy and heritage of the former residents, including providing access to the chapel with its historic and heritage-listed mural. The Diocese has committed to contributing up to ten per cent of the sale proceeds to recognise, through a practical initiative, the ongoing association former residents have with the site. The Diocese will continue to talk with former residents about this.

The property is now on the market, and expressions of interest closed on 19 December 2022.

The Information Memorandum issued by the Real Estate Agency says:

The chapel contains a heritage listed mural that must be retained intact with any future development of the site. Ideally the vendor would like to find a buyer who would honour the legacy and the heritage of the former residents including providing access to the chapel and the mural.

There are no legal protections/limits as part of the sale and there is nothing holding the Diocese, or the purchaser, to any sort of heritage protection of the site. The heritage listed mural in the chapel must be kept intact but can legally be moved off-site.

The St Mary’s Stolen Generation Group are extremely concerned that St Mary’s will be sold, razed and redeveloped and their ongoing connection to it destroyed.

They are upset that the Diocese of the NT has not responded over the years to their requests for ongoing connection to the land, and has gone to sale without preserving their interest in the site.


[1] The information about the reunion and the 2016 meeting with Bishop Greg Anderson comes from ‘The Robert Czako Mural, St Mary’s Family Services and Beyond’ (now in its 9th Revision) compiled by Jose Petrick’

[2] ‘The Robert Czako Mural, St Mary’s Family Services and Beyond’ (now in its 9th Revision) Compiled by Jose Petrick