‘Top End’ Challenges
The Northern Territory Unit of Australian Church Women (ACW) became inactive recently, after more than forty years of service. The unit had a slow beginning in April 1975, only four months after the devastation of Darwin on Christmas Day 1974 by Cyclone Tracy. That was a huge leap of faith during an extremely stressful time when the population was seriously depleted and 80 percent of Darwin destroyed. It took three and a half years for the population to return to its pre-Tracy level and many were new to the city, because a good proportion of previous residents elected not to return.
The NT Unit often struggled with consistency of membership, as well as where the leaders were based – sometimes Darwin, sometimes Alice Springs, 1500 km further south with not much in between. Yet, this small unit accomplished many things during those years, especially the coordination of ACW's special day services in the territory.
It can be quite difficult to maintain consistency for groups operating in the NT because of the transient and seasonal population. I lived in Darwin from Easter 1982 to November 1988 and saw firsthand how quickly the community could and would change, as people came and went in quick succession. During the dry season new people would arrive, and the population would increase. Then people began to leave the area as the very humid ‘build up’ preceded the wet season. The average age of Darwin residents was also much younger than the other Australian capital cities, and many of them were single and focused on the potential to get ahead by earning more money in the ‘Top End’.
However, against the odds, the NT Unit was formed in Darwin in April 1975. Here is a brief report from Maisie McKenzie, the founder of this unit:
‘Mrs. Maisie McKenzie writes that the first meeting of the Northern Territory Unit A.C.W. was held at the end of April. "It wasn't exactly an overflowing meeting, but Darwin activities are still in the abnormal category. There has been no rebuilding so far and it is hard to organise functions as our congregations are only about one third their normal strength and there is no stability with people coming and going on R. and R. leave. Most of our fundraising activities have been cut; for instance, our United Church clothing shop has blown away and all the contents ruined. A new, and sad, development is that now many long-time Darwin residents have decided to move south. They simply cannot afford to pay the $40-50,000 necessary to build a new home and are fed up with all the delays."
Two months later, Maisie wrote:
‘As indicated in the last issue of “Women at Work”, the formation of a Unit in the Northern Territory is under way. The following officers have now been elected:-
President:- Mrs Maisie McKenzie (United Church)
Vice-Pres:- Mrs [Captain] Margaret Walker (Salvation Army)
Secretary:- Mrs Eunice Yeomans (Seventh Day Adventist)
Treasurer:- Mrs Fay Cheater (United Church)
F.L.C. Convenor:- Miss Rose Gurapatham (Y.W.C.A.)’
And the following year, a progress report was received from Maisie and featured in the September issue of the Women at Work national ACW newsletter:
‘The slow progress we feel we are making in the Top End is due mainly to difficulty in communication. A thousand miles separates Darwin and Alice Springs, and the only centres in between are Katherine and Tennant Creek.
‘Gradually the churches in Darwin are getting back to normal. The Catholic women went into recess for a year, but began 1976 with a bang by organising the first ever women's diocesan conference for the Catholic women in the N.T. This is, in fact, we believe, the first time any denomination in the N.T. has got their women together in this way.
‘The Anglican women are busy preparing for next year's opening of their new Cathedral being built at present to replace the one destroyed in Cyclone Tracy. The Salvation Army is similarly involved in building a new hostel in the city and a citadel and community centre in the northern suburbs.
‘The Seventh Day Adventist congregation was completely scattered after the cyclone, the women have continued their social work helping various needy cases recommended to them by hospital and clinics.
‘Throughout the whole rugged time of post-cyclone Darwin, the Baptists provided valuable accommodation in their hostel and much appreciated service in their bookroom, the only religious bookshop in Darwin.
‘United Church has concentrated on building up relationships with the Asian church. The Women's Fellowship has set up two scholarships in Indonesian Timor for two girls there. One of the scholarship holders at present is Jo Fanda who has been enabled to do a three year course in Animal Husbandry at Kupang University. The other scholarship is enabling a girl to continue her schooling.
‘United Church families also formed a group and provided money to fulfil a request from the Balinese church for two of their ministers to come to Darwin for three months. These ministers, Wikandra and Nasiun, are working hard, studying English, theology and community development. The enrichment the whole church is receiving far outweighs any financial outlay. When these two return to Bali, two others will come to continue the exchange. Also, from the Church of Christ in Chiengmai, Thailand, a lass who represented her country at the A.C.W.C. meetings in Bangkok in 1974 – Sopit Chockchai – has been brought to Darwin by a church family to help her develop skills needed to further her Christian work in her own country. She will remain here probably for a year.
'Another interesting development of United Church work has been the appointment of a layman to a special ministry. Allan McKay has undertaken a ministry to the many and various categories of itinerants in Darwin, from young people living in communes to government servants here for short periods. This is proving a most worthwhile venture – an eye-opener. and growing point for the whole congregation.’
We pray that the next shift in the population of the NT will bring new church members that can help to reactivate the NT Unit of Australian Church Women.
Women at Work national ACW newsletters: May and June 1975, and September 1976.