Recalling Methodist ministry in Warruwi

By Rev Bill Harris

Posted in Culture

On Wednesday 27 July, 2016, over 60 people from across the country arrived in the Warruwi (South Goulburn Island) community to mark the centenary of mission activities that commenced in the region in 1916. It was a significant day for many people who worked in Warruwi and Arnhem Land mission communities over many years.

Warruwi is a small island north east of Darwin and across the Coburg Peninsula, and is home to a mostly Indigenous community of approximately 500 people (more information here). The traditional language of the local community is Mawng, with a number of other languages also being spoken. Several Mawng community representatives took part in the centenary event, along with other Warruwi locals, and ex-mission workers from locations across Australia.

Amongst those who gathered were a number of ex-mission workers from South Australia, along with members of their families – Rev Jack Goodluck and his son, Rev Tony Goodluck, Rev Gowan Armstrong, the Harris family (Rev Bill Harris, his wife Margaret, and daughters, Michelle and Anne), and Ken Nowland. Other South Australians passed along their greetings, while still more were discussed as making significant contributions to mission work.

The Warruwi site was chosen by Rev James Watson in 1915. He had been sent to the Northern Territory by the Methodist Church’s Board of Missions to survey possible sites for mission work in the area. As a result of his survey and report South Goulburn Island/Warruwi was selected as the most suitable site to commence mission activities. James arrived to establish the mission on 22 June 1916.

Warruwi later grew some of Australia’s first indigenous ministers. Most notably, Lazarus Lamilami who was the Methodist Church’s first Aboriginal ordained minister. Rev Philip Magulnir was another prominent local leader at a later date – he was the minister of the Warruwi Church when the Uniting Church and the Northern Synod were formed in 1977.

Those gathered for the event recalled many aspects of the Warruwi mission’s history. Attendees also took part in a re-enactment of Rev James Watson’s 1916 arrival by boat, with Regional Patrol Minister Lindsay Parkhill playing the part of James.

The group then gathered at the site of the original church, where a replica now stands (pictured) and serves as the base for the current Warruwi Uniting Church congregation. The old church building is no longer suitable for many of the community’s worship services. A large external stage has been built facing into the town square and this is used for larger worship gatherings.

As part of the celebrations, visitors were welcomed by local pastor Billy Nowaloinba, who later preached at the centenary service. Music was provided by the church band, and dancers performed a smoking ceremony and welcome dances. Refreshments and lunch were provided by the community.

The event also provided a platform for Rev Dr William Emilson to launch his new book, Fighting Spirit: A History of Christianity at Warruwi, Goulburn Island, published by MediaCom, and for the handing over of the Mawng translation of the Gospel of Mark. The latter work was started in the 1960s by nursing sister Heather Hinch/Hewett, and was finally completed in time for the centenary celebrations.

The Warruwi centenary event served as a reminder of the history of the Methodist Church and the Mawng people, and how their past dedication and faith has helped to shape the Warruwi community today.

This article has been edited from the original sent by Rev Bill Harris. The article contains his own reflections and understanding of the Methodist Mission on Warruwi and the recent centenary celebration.

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Comments (1)

  1. Judy Orme 01 september 2016, 14:08(Comment was edited) Link
    Thanks to Bill and to New Times for this article. One small correction — folks travelled to Warruwi for the Centenary Celebrations on Wednesday 22 June 2016 (not 27 July as stated in the article).
    On Monday 27 June, at a special session of the Annual Meeting of the Northern Synod, Rev Dr William Emilsen launched his book «Fighting Spirit: A History of Christianity at Warruwi, Goulburn Island».
    It was great to meet ex- missionaries, family members and friends of Warruwi who travelled to Darwin for the centenary.
    William's book is available for purchase through the Northern Synod Office. Please contact Lucy on (08) 8982 3400