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By 1936 Escolastica Martinez, aged 28 and from Cavia near Burgos in the north of Spain, had spent a decade in Western Australia as a Benedictine Oblate Missionary Sister of New Norcia including five years surrounded by the spectacular grasslands and deep gorges of the Wunambal and Kwini Country in the far north Kimberley. In the October of 1936, Escolastica wrote one of her regular letters to the abbot-superintendent of the mission at New Norcia 17,000 miles to the south, and offered him an image of heaven as the ‘savannah’ already enjoyed by the First Nations people in Australia. Escolastica’s local metaphor gave a glimpse of her appreciation for Aboriginal land and people, even as it was coupled with a routine assumption that only Christian baptism would secure that savannah eternally. The paradox is typical of the wider history of Escolatica’s religious community through the twentieth century. 

This paper uses the small clutch of letters from Escolastica Martinez to anchor key themes of race, gender and religious commitment as her community navigated competing imperalisms and hegemonies. It argues that for the Benedictine sisters, a community of mostly Spanish women who worked with Australian Aboriginal women and children in the context of a predominantly Irish Catholic church that was still uneasy with a strongly Protestant, English-speaking and culturally British state where they were classified racially as ‘Mediterranean’ and ‘alien’ under the policies of White Australia, it was the eschatological horizon of ‘heaven’ that both challenged their choices and sustained their commitment.

Katharine Massam is a historian of religion at the University of Divinity in Melbourne, Australia, where she also leads the university’s strategic goal in “Gender and Theology”. Her writing focuses on the intersections of theology and wider culture, particularly in postcolonial settler societies. She has published on monastic theology, the history of education and, most widely, on the lived experience of faith and belief. She has a particular interest in cultural understandings of prayer and work. Most recently she is author of A Bridge Between: Spanish Benedictine Missionary Women in Australia (Australian National University Press, 2020).

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