Out of the darkness: Mapoon church opening helps community healing

Published: 19th January 2022

In December 2020, the remote Queensland town of Mapoon celebrated the opening of its new church. LGAQ Team Lead Tony Goode gives us an account of what happened on the day, and the significance of the church opening for the community. 

I drove up to Mapoon from Weipa on the day of the opening. I arrived at around 9 o’clock in the morning and went to have a chat with the CEO and the Mayor. As I walked into the council chambers, it was evident that something special was going on or about to happen. It was palpable. Anyone you spoke to, you could feel their excitement for the day. After a quick discussion with the CEO and Mayor, I drove around to the church and joined the growing number of people arriving for the official opening.  

I’ve been to a lot of churches in my time, and seen people turn up to various church ceremonies, but you could immediately sense that this was something special.

There was one particular group of people who arrived together—all older women—and it was pointed out to me that these were women who’d been flown up specially from New Mapoon, and had been original inhabitants in Mapoon when they were all forcibly removed by the government back in the ’50s. You could again sense their excitement—their joy. Just looking around at the church, the smiles on people’s faces was just infectious as was the sense of joy and happiness.

The ceremony started around 10 o’clock, when people gathered outside the church. Queensland Minister for Rural Communities, Mark Furner, attended and the Mapoon CEO, Tim Rose, was the MC for the day. He welcomed everybody and then passed over to the Deputy Mayor, who did a Welcome to Country. He set the scene beautifully for the day when he said that the opening of the church meant that the community had now completed the circle by coming out of the darkness and back into the light. For such a young guy, a young councillor, the emotion of the day even got to him as he recognised the challenges that his forefathers had faced and how they had taken it upon themselves to rebuild their community.

We then had some Aboriginal dancers do a noteworthy performance for everybody, which again added to the joyous nature of the day. 

We moved straight on to the welcoming of Aunty Edna—Edna Mark—who is the Chair of the Western Cape Communities Co-Existence Agreement (WCCCA), which donated most of the money for building the church. You could tell from the minute she stood up and started to talk about this church, that it was more than just another building opening. It really had meaning to her personally. And though she doesn’t live in Mapoon anymore, the raw emotion and the way she spoke about where they’ve come from and where they’re going showed what this means for the community. It was moving, uplifting and inspiring all at the same time.

When she officially cut the ribbon, I noticed she put the ribbon in her pocket. Someone mentioned later that she said it’s got such meaning to her that she wanted something personal to remind her of this auspicious day.  

We all went into the church then and there were a few more speeches. Mapoon’s wonderful Mayor, Aileen Addo, inspirational leader that she is, welcomed everyone officially to the church. She touched upon the history of Mapoon and the efforts of those who worked so hard to re-establish the community after it was shut down. Mayor Addo acknowledged those older folk who had prayed and hoped and worked for this church being built to complete their community, but had unfortunately passed on. She spoke heartfeltly on how she could feel their presence that day in the church. And when she shed a few tears in acknowledging these people, I don’t think there was a dry eye in the church when that happened. Interestingly, for a white dude from Brisbane, when she said she could feel the spirit of those old folks in the church on the day, I would swear that I too could feel the same presence. 

There was an Aboriginal band in the church who played some tremendous music with the singers and musicians playing not just with great skill and capability but with emotion and passion. It filled the church with joy and graciousness.  

Growing up as a kid, I was told if you were a Catholic you weren’t allowed to go to another church and if you were a Protestant you could only go to a Protestant church but there were two priests here—one Indigenous and one non-Indigenous—of different faiths but standing up together and embracing and welcoming everyone to the church. This sense of community, this oneness and the church bringing people together was typified by just the way those two priests interacted.  

After a bit more music, we gathered up outside for a bit of lunch and some chatting and I had the great opportunity to speak one-on-one with Edna Marks who has the apogee of smiles; it was so infectious. She talked about her father and how much he would have loved the day. When she talked about her dad she had tears in her eyes and spoke with such honest and raw emotion, it made me tear up. And then she smiled—wow, it lit up the room and you couldn’t help but smile yourself. 

People at the church didn’t care if you were a community member or a visitor or a stranger or whether you were Indigenous or non-Indigenous—people just chatted and laughed and shared experiences. So if, as Edna says, the great thing about a church is bringing people together, having a place to go if you need someone to chat to, it was clearly evidenced on that day with people there from all walks of life—talking, chatting, remembering, crying and laughing and celebrating.  

It’s a tragic story, Mapoon, in some respects but it’s an inspirational story. And while we say it’s the community and the township that has been reborn, it’s the people that make it so special. The real celebration on that day to me was not so much about the church, it was about the people, the community, the older people that came back and the newer residents who are carrying on that legacy. The church is just a symbol of their commitment, their passion, and their resilience. They’re the real heroes. 

Note: The bell that hangs on the church is the original bell that hung on the original church that was burnt down. If you look closely at it, you will notice that half of it shines brightly due to that half being polished in preparation for its placement at the front of the church. The other half was left stained from the fires and the destruction. The bell stands as testimony to Mapoon’s journey—its dark days and its fresh and bright future.