Pope Francis meets refugees in Lesbos, Greece 2021 (Vatican Media)

Father Julian Tenison Woods understood the plight of the refugee.

Strange as it may seem, many of the early immigrants to Australia were what we might call ‘forced refugees’. As criminals exported to the new colony in the eastern states, they came against their will, leaving the country of their birth and settling in a new land. The schools which Father Julian and the early sisters established were often catering for the children of these parents and other migrants. In poverty they struggled to feed, clothe and educate their children and grandchildren – much as refugees do today.

Later after the Gold Rushes of the 1850s, many new arrivals brought with them a desire to settle in a new land to ‘provide a better life for their children’ – the universal cry of refugees today. Many of our early sisters were descendants of these new arrivals; indeed some of us still alive today can trace our own histories back to these times.

Children in the early classrooms, as in the classrooms of the sisters post World War II, have been filled with children of people who were migrants and refugees. More recently, many refugees from Sudan have arrived in Australia and a number of sisters have been involved with supporting these families. It is heart-warming to know that the Directors of Catholic Education Departments have offered places to many children of refugee families – following in footsteps of the sisters and often at their request.

Fr Julian loved to mix with people of other cultures. In his letters he speaks of learning Malay, Spanish and Japanese. He decried the fact that imperial colonisation was often equated with territorial conquest at the expense of missionary endeavour.

Fr Julian was often a ‘refugee’ in another sense. He was an intellectual, an English gentleman in the midst of a Church presided over by Irish Bishops. As a result, he was often misunderstood; in fact he was dismissed from South Australia. He often had to raise funds for his own survival by doing scientific work. He died a virtual refugee, cared for by the women who founded St Margaret’s Hospital.

I feel quite sure Fr Julian would agree with the Pope’s words spoken at Lesbos, Greece this year:

Stop ignoring reality, stop constantly shifting responsibility, stop passing off the issue of migration to others, as if it mattered to no one and was only a pointless burden to be shouldered by somebody else. Pope Francis, 6 December 2021

Maria Sullivan rsj