One of the challenges of journalism is to create an opening line that will grab the attention of the reader; however, when you are writing about a Catholic priest who became known as the “Bishop with 150 wives”, your work is done for you.
Born in France in 1872, Francis Xavier Gsell became the founding stone on what some consider to be one of the most successful and enduring Aboriginal Missions in Australian history.
He studied in Rome alongside Eugene Pacelli, the future Pope Pius XII, but on his ordination in 1896, their paths took them to very different destinations on the Catholic tapestry.
At the age of 20, Father Gsell had already joined the Missionaries of the Sacred Heart, with a desire to spread the Good News of Christ to the far corners of the earth.
However, his missionary zeal was put on hold in those first years when he was sent to Sydney in 1897 to teach future missionaries at the Order’s mother-house.
It was not until 1900 that his own active missionary work began in Papua New Guinea.
In 1906, he was appointed Apostolic Administrator of the Northern Territory but his heart yearned to continue missionary work among the Aboriginal people and he applied to the Government Administrator in Adelaide to establish a mission on the Tiwi Islands, north of Darwin.
Fr Gsell was granted 10,000 acres of land on the south eastern corner of Bathurst Island.
With a history of passionately protecting themselves from outside influences, Fr Gsell was well aware of the difficulties he would encounter as he entered this new territory in 1911.
Since Tiwi Islanders had first clashed with Dutch explorers in 1705, they had defiantly guarded their isolated existence from any established settlements.
In the early 19th century, several efforts had been repelled before an English contingent of 86 soldiers and 45 convicts was set up on Melville Island in 1824.
Reports during this time described relations with the locals as “extremely troublesome” and, by 1829, the settlement was abandoned.
The Tiwis saw this as a victory, confirming their sense of purity from the outside world and reinforcing their desire for self-determination.
The word “Tiwi” is literally interpreted as “we people” and their isolation had cemented a nationalistic sense of uniqueness, distinct even from mainland Aboriginals.
Throughout their history there have been up to twenty tribes living on the islands, but they had always lived in co-operation, sharing a common language and cultural inheritance.
However, during the 1890s, more than a decade before Fr Gsell arrived, a small number of buffalo hunters, along with Japanese pearl traders, had established contact with the islanders, introducing both detrimental and advantageous influences from the outside world.
Fr Gsell’s arrival in 1911 was to prove timely as both the hunters and pearl traders had already begun to trade items such as tobacco, knives and axes for local “commodities”, including young Tiwi women.
Armed with an a historical understanding of European/Aboriginal contact on the mainland, Fr Gsell was very delicate and sensitive in his attitude and relating.
“I had to establish contact with the natives, alone, slowly, prudently; I had to … learn gradually their habits and customs so as to penetrate into their minds without hurt or shock,” he was to later write.
Fr Gsell was true to his words. He patiently learnt the Tiwi culture and way of life and came to understand their spiritual values and rituals.
“Our attitude must always try to be of friendly co-operation … above all one must be just”, he stated: “Thus, one must never promise anything which cannot be guaranteed, as one’s word must always be honoured.”
Fr Gsell’s attitude of understanding and respecting the local culture formed a solid foundation for a Mission that began slowly but gradually melded together the Catholic and Tiwi cultures – an influence that can still be seen today.
From the moment this long-bearded cleric was first observed by locals pacing the Bathurst foreshore reading his Bible, Fr Gsell became known as “Whiskers”.
He describes the first ten years on the island as “spade work” – getting to know the Tiwi people and allowing them to observe and gradually build up a trust with him.
It was a period of harmony but he knew he would only the discover strength of this relationship when the inevitable clash of cultures came to the surface.
It came in the form of Martina, a young teenage girl who approached the priest with a dilemma that would determine the future of the entire mission.
It was Tiwi custom for girls to be promised in marriage to older men, sometimes even before they were born. Men were able to have as many wives as they could support.
Girls were usually handed over at the age of 14. Fr Gsell had always accepted this tradition and never challenged it.
Even when Martina desperately pleaded with him to save her from marriage to an elder, he knew he could not intervene.
However, when Martina returned to him the following week with a spear through her leg and an angry mob close behind, he knew that he could no longer be a cultural bystander – Martina’s life depended on what happened next. In a moment of inspiration, Fr Gsell approached the angry mob, including the husband, and began long deliberations that would change the Tiwis’ marriage traditions and the way they related to Fr Gsell from that day on.
Eventually, the appeased mob dispersed with a treasure trove including blankets, flour, a knife, an axe, tobacco and tins of meat and Fr Gsell was left with a vulnerable, relieved young woman whom he had promised to look after.
Martina was to become Fr Gsell’s first “wife” and, once the news spread, many families approached the priest to accept more young women into his custody, including a four-day-old baby.
The girls were placed into the care of Sisters who now lived in the Mission and his “wives” numbered 150 by the time Fr Gsell left in 1938. The girls were free to choose their own husbands once they turned 18, although the custom of only marrying into traditional family lines was maintained.
After negotiating this cultural hurdle, the Mission expanded as the local people realised the caring and protective heart of this missionary man. They also observed that girls taken into care were not deprived of their traditional ways.
The Mission continued to draw more locals from their nomadic existence and into the understanding of paid work (with commodities such as flour and tobacco) as agriculture, forestry and dairy cattle were introduced.
Simultaneously, many aspects of the Tiwi culture became blended into this new lifestyle.
In the first 15 years of the Mission, only 113 babies were baptised and during Fr Gsell’s 27 years on the islands he did not claim a single adult convert.
He did, however, till the soil and plant the seeds that would be harvested by the equally courageous and dedicated members of the Missionaries of the Sacred Heart who were to follow.
Fr Gsell was awarded an OBE in 1936 for his dedication to the Tiwi people. In 1938, he was made the Bishop of Darwin and departed from the islands that he had grown to love.
From l938 until 1948, Bishop Gsell dedicated his life to the 800,000 square kilometres of the Darwin Diocese before retiring in Sydney where he wrote his autobiography, The Bishop with 150 Wives.
Bishop Gsell had contended with an unexplored culture, a harsh climate, crocodiles, snakes, insects, cyclones, loneliness and isolation but had persevered for almost three decades in his desire to take the spirit of his Order – “May the Sacred Heart of Jesus be everywhere loved” – to one of the most hidden corners of the world.
In his retirement speech, he summed up his four decades of service to the inhabitants of the Top End:
“Something has been done during these 40 years … I scattered the seeds in tears, but I gathered the fruits in joy.
“I look back with sadness because I am leaving the place, to which I am much endeared, and as a father is sad when he is separated from his child, I am very sad indeed to be separated from my child – the Northern Territory. Although the distance will be great – for the heart and mind there is no distance.”
He passed away in 1960 at the age of 88, with these words, one hopes, echoing in the deepest recesses of his soul.