Aboriginal Catholic Ministry Victoria (ACMV) touches thousands of lives, a centre of community for Melbourne’s Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Catholics and a beacon of God’s mission in Melbourne, reaching into parishes and schools, hospitals and aged-care homes, with a message of justice, dignity and reconciliation. The story of its earliest days, though, gives us a glimpse of the way the Spirit often starts small, moving powerfully through chance encounters and a shared longing for relationship and connection—through unexpected moments of grace.

Aub Kinchella wasn’t from Melbourne originally. Born in Moree in 1932, he grew up in Dubbo, the only Aboriginal student at De La Salle College. After school, he found work as a baker in Dubbo, and then in Cootamundra. Eventually he ended up in Melbourne, initially living with his sister.

Before long, though, he had ‘hit the grog’ and suffered a heart attack. He ended up living at Galiamble Halfway House in St Kilda and would go on to suffer another two heart attacks. Unwell and adrift in a large city, he struggled to connect with those around him. ‘I’d knocked around in Melbourne, but didn’t meet no one,’ he recalled years later.

If you’re black and the only one there, you feel a bit out of place. A lot of people feel out of place.

In the end, it was his Catholic upbringing—and the faith he’d carried with him though the ups and downs—that provided a crucial point of connection for Aub, and the catalyst for an idea that would not just change the trajectory of his life but enrich the wider Catholic community in his adopted city.

At Galiamble in the mid-1980s, Aub met Richard Ambrose, another Aboriginal Catholic, who worked as an Aboriginal liaison officer with the Health Commission. Aub would later describe Richard as ‘a great inspiration’. ‘You could see the peace and serenity around him,’ he said. ‘He was a terrific bloke.’

When Richard learnt of Aub’s Catholic faith, and of his yearning for a greater sense of belonging, he saw a need and an opportunity. ‘We’ll have to get something going here,’ Richard said.

Slowly and surely, that’s what they did, gathering people together, forging connections. Joyce Smith, a social worker with the Aboriginal Child Care Agency and a member of the board of Galiamble, was a foundational member of the group that began to emerge, along with Kaye Mundine and Nellie Moore. And from the earliest days, they were supported by Srs Andrea Watt RSM and Sr Joan Hamilton RSJ.

Like many great works of the Spirit, ACMV began modestly—a small group of Aboriginal Catholics and some non-Aboriginal friends attending Mass together and gathering to pray and to share meals. To begin with, they would meet at Joyce Smith’s home. ‘Richard and I used to go there because Joyce cooked a good meal,’ Aub later recalled.

We’d sing hymns. Sometimes there’d be one or two of us, or a dozen.

Gradually, the group grew, drawing in others from Galiamble and from Winja Ulupna, the nearby halfway house for Aboriginal women. As Richard told Sr Andrea, ‘Catholic Aboriginal people are so scattered here in Melbourne. I’ve got this dream of gathering people.’

It was during this time that Aub met and fell in love with Barb, who was living at Winja Ulupna. They married at Galiamble and renewed their vows at Holy Spirit Parish in Thornbury. The steadfastness of Aub’s faith drew Barb in, prompting her to seek baptism for herself: ‘Aub is a good Catholic,’ she told Sr Andrea, ‘so I think I’ll follow him.’

As the new community began to form, they would meet with Srs Andrea and Joan at the Aboriginal Child Care Agency and at the Mercy Convent in Fitzroy to share the Gospel and explore the connections between their Aboriginal spirituality and Catholic faith. Their first public function was a Mass at Pallotti College, the Pallottines’ retreat centre in Millgrove—for some, the first tentative step towards reclaiming their Catholic faith.

A group began attending Mass together at St Francis’ in the city. After Mass, over coffee, they would discuss the things that were on their hearts: their deep desire to help their young people reconnect with both their Aboriginal and Catholic spirituality; their dream of finding a place of their own, a place where they could truly be themselves—both Aboriginal and Catholic.

In the intervening years, there have been breakthroughs and setbacks, moments of profound disappointment and others of significant progress and great inspiration. All these years later, that dreamed-of place exists at the ACMV house in Thornbury—a place of hospitality and prayer, education and advocacy. In 2013, the ACMV became a consecrated church. Aub and Barb Kinchella have a special place of honour as ACMV’s founding Elders. While they are no longer physically with us, their steadfast faith and vision continue to bring people together.