During Lent and Holy Week, parishioners at St Damian’s Bundoora have been given a precious opportunity to pray the Stations of the Cross in a way that helps them connect to the culture and experiences of Australia’s Aboriginal people.

One of the treasures of Aboriginal Catholic Ministry Victoria (ACMV), who commissioned them in 2017, the Aboriginal Stations of the Cross were imagined, dreamed and painted by John Dunn, an Olkola/Djabaguy man from Far North Queensland.

While you will usually find them hanging along the main wall of the ACMV chapel in Thornbury, in Melbourne’s inner north, the Stations have been visiting parishes in Melbourne’s northern suburbs in recent months in an initiative that has introduced them to a new and appreciative audience, inspiring and challenging many on their Lenten journeys.

Stephen Costello, of Sacred Heart Parish in Preston, was instrumental in bringing the Stations to St Damian’s, having organised a similar exhibition in his own parish. Stephen contacted Fr Chau Dong (‘Joe’) Tran, Parish Priest at St Damian’s, to ask if he would be interested in hosting a similar exhibition, and invited him to come and view the Stations.

‘I found it very, very beautiful,’ Father Joe says of the experience of seeing the Stations for the first time. Fr Joe happily agreed to bring the Stations to St Damian’s, and by mid-March, they had been set up in the church, where they will remain until after Easter.

Placed on easels around the interior of the church, the exhibition invites parishioners to quietly make their way from one station to the next, reflecting prayerfully on each stage in Christ’s journey to the cross. At each station, parishioners are prompted by prayers and reflections that help them to make connections between the passion of Christ and Aboriginal people’s own experiences, culture and spiritual traditions.

Fr Joes says the response in the parish has been very positive. ‘They are very happy to see the Aboriginal Stations of the Cross inside St Damian’s for the first time,’ he says. On behalf of the whole community, he expressed his deep appreciation to ACMV and the Aboriginal community for sharing the Stations with them in this way.

The St Damian’s school community has also had opportunities to see and experience the Stations. Fr Joe regularly invites individual classes to participate in weekday Masses, where they have had the chance to view and reflect on the Stations, and some teachers have brought their students on special visits to the church to see them.

Nearby Loyola College in Watsonia has also arranged a short-term loan so that students can experience and pray with the Stations on Holy Thursday, before they are returned to St Damian’s in time for Good Friday, and other parishes in the area have expressed an interest in hosting the Stations in their churches in coming months.

While all Catholics will be able to follow the story and recognise the grouping of the figures, the paintings are also rich with Aboriginal symbolism. Tiny hand prints, for instance, represent the ancestors in the Dreaming (heaven), watching over us for eternity. The circles in the Aboriginal journey tracks represent Aboriginal people from different tribes meeting together. And the colours reflect the Australian continent and the ochres traditionally used for artwork and for body paint in ceremonies and rituals.

When placed together end to end (as they usually are in the ACMV chapel), the Stations span 7 metres. Arranged this way, it’s easy to see how the Stations’ four journey tracks interweave: two undulating Aboriginal tracks integrate the Aboriginal story with Christ’s own Way of the Cross, and along the top and bottom, two tracks made of thorny branches speak of colonisation and its impact on the Aboriginal community. As one of the accompanying reflections points out, ‘the Passion of Christ resonates deeply with Aboriginal people, who identify readily with his innocent suffering.’

Artist John Dunn was himself caught up in the pain of the stolen generations and did not find his family until he was in his 40s, after many years of searching. The process of painting this story was for him a personal discovery of his Aboriginality and his own hurt and isolation. The journey led him to peace and a healing of his spirit, and helped him to understand his own early experiences of suffering and rejection in a new way.

‘Now all the name-calling I had endured seemed to make sense,’ he wrote, ‘bastard, half-cast, the list goes on … One day, I often reminded myself, you’ll be free from all the name calling. I felt I had always been judged and sentenced as I was different from everyone else.’

Parishioner Marie has been deeply touched by these ‘breathtakingly beautiful Stations of the Cross’, even purchasing a set of prayer cards featuring them for her own use. Having only recently arrived in the parish, she has been prayerfully reflecting on the gift of the Stations’ presence in her new parish at this time. ‘These stations are for you,’ she has felt God say to her. ‘They are for all those who can open and listen to my pain and that of my Aboriginal people. Immerse yourself; gaze upon my story—my pain, my story of courage—in every station.’

Hosting an exhibition of the Aboriginal Stations in your parish is a wonderful way to help parishioners build a personal connection to Christ’s passion, and to listen to Aboriginal voices and stories. The Aboriginal Stations of the Cross are available throughout the year for loan by parishes and schools, free of charge, along with a set of easels on which to display them and a PowerPoint presentation to accompany the exhibition.

To enquire about booking an exhibition, or to purchase a set of prayer cards featuring the Stations, please contact Odette Lo Castro at Aboriginal Catholic Ministry Victoria: Odette.LoCastro@cam.org.au

Banner image: Fr Joe Tran and parishioners at St Damian’s Bundoora contemplate the Aboriginal Stations of the Cross. (Photo by Casamento Photography.)