Friday, November 4, 2011


The West Australian REPORT: BY: Katherine Fleming,

It was a peaceful end to an extraordinary life.

Sister Eileen Heath died last Saturday, just over a month before her 106th birthday and after a lifetime of service.

Sister Eileen spent her last years at the Shoalwater Aged Care home but lived for decades in the bush, including working with Aboriginal people in Moore River and Alice Springs. It was, as someone once described it to her, her experience of "life with the lid off".

Awarded the Medal of the British Empire in 1968, Sister Eileen was described in her biography, written by Annette Roberts, as "an angel" by one of her former charges.

She would receive hundreds of notes, wellwishes and flowers on her birthday each year, which the aged care home struggled to find room for.

Her nephew, Noel Heath, said he only got to know his aunt well after she retired but was "always amazed" by the people she knew and her history.

No doubt many of those people will fill the St George Anglican Church in Safety Bay for her funeral on Wednesday.

Born in Fremantle in 1905, Sister Eileen was involved with the Church from a young age and went on to become an Anglican deaconess. Her first posting, at age 30, was to the notorious Moore River Native Settlement near Mogumber, since immortalised in the film Rabbit-Proof Fence.

There was no sanitation and no electricity. Visitors were not encouraged.

Sister Eileen later described it as a dumping ground for unwanted people, out of sight and out of mind.

Despite official resistance, she introduced activities, including scouting and excursions, for the children living in the dormitories, some separated from their families under the policy of the time.

But by 1944, she felt compelled to raise the worsening conditions with the Anglican headquarters in Perth. When her report became public, it sparked a government inquiry.

She was banned from the settlement by the "ropeable" superintendent. She recalled how he came towards her waving a newspaper carrying articles on her concerns.

"It was a very distressing time for me," she said in an interview with the National Library of Australia in 2000. "I was frustrated for the Aboriginal people because I didn't think they were getting the treatment they deserved.

"I was heartbroken leaving there because I didn't want to leave and I would never have left those people, stranded as they were with nobody for them at all."

Sister Eileen moved to Alice Springs in 1946 to become the superintendent of St Mary's boarding school for part-Aboriginal children. She was in charge until the end of 1955, when she moved to Darwin to set up a home for abused and neglected children.

Sister Eileen told the national library she was sorry for the hurt experienced by the Stolen Generation but the removals were done "with the best of intentions".

Sister Eileen retired to WA in 1992. She returned to Moore River several times, including when the land was handed back to its Aboriginal owners.

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