Everyone’s Mum

As we approach Mother’s Day, Rector of St Aloysius’ College, Milsons Point, Fr Ross Jones SJ pays tribute to a prominent Aboriginal Australian activist, Colleen Shirley Smith, also known as ‘Mum Shirl’.


The College recently celebrated the annual Mother’s Day Dinner. We paid tribute to mothers and motherhood. In these days of reflection concerning the coming referendum on “The Voice”, my thoughts turn to another mum. When I attend regular Board Meetings at Redfern Jarjum College, or Fr Nico visits there weekly as chaplain, we both pass a very formidable statue of ‘Mum’ Shirl, so much a local hero there.

Shirley was a national treasure – a title given to her, in fact, by the National Trust in her lifetime. Such a prominent Aboriginal Australian and activist committed to justice and the welfare of Aboriginal Australians. In our Ignatian language, we would call her an insignis – a servant leader, a person of lasting influence, a great doer of the good. We could list so many of her achievements – founding member of the Aboriginal Legal Service, the Aboriginal Medical Service, the Aboriginal Tent Embassy, the Aboriginal Children’s Service, the Aboriginal Black Theatre, the Aboriginal Housing Company in Redfern, the Detoxification Centre at Wiseman’s Ferry, and recipient of Australian and Imperial Awards. In her day, those were extraordinary achievements for an Aboriginal woman. But she was no ordinary woman.

‘Mum’ Shirl was, in her core, a woman of great faith. She was an integral and committed part of the Catholic Church of St Vincent’s, Redfern, working alongside the legendary Fr Ted Kennedy. Though Shirley was a devout Catholic, one of her favourite observations was, “There’s nothing out of plumb with the Catholic religion; it’s the way Catholics practise it!” Father Kennedy said of her: “She comforted the afflicted – but she didn’t promise not to afflict the comfortable”. Shirley Smith was a social conscience. Our world needs people like her to challenge, provoke and question – and that is at the heart of our Jesuit formation here. We can learn from her.

Colleen Shirley Smith – ‘Mum Shirl’ Photo: Redfern Jarjum College website.

‘Mum’ Shirl also spent considerable time and money finding homes for children whose parents could not look after them and helping displaced children to find their own parents again. Children with nowhere to go often ended up living with her. By the early 1990s she had raised over 60 children. Really a ‘Mum’ in so many ways. Likewise, many people with no family or friends in Sydney arrived at ‘Mum’ Shirl’s Redfern house seeking shelter. There she lived those core gospel values – “When I was hungry and thirsty, you fed me; when I was naked you clothed me; when I was sick you cared for me.”

One of those values which Jesus listed in Matthew’s story of ‘The Sheep and Goats’ was, “When I was in prison, you visited me.” When only ten or so, the family of Smiths was forced to leave the mission where she was born and move to a Tent City at Cowra. From there, Shirley moved on to Sydney. Later she came back to Cowra to raise her nine brothers and sisters. But the Aboriginal Protection Board deemed that the children in her charge were not “in proper care” and consequently removed them to Boys’ and Girls’ Homes in different parts of the State. Shirley successfully fought for their return. Perhaps her first experience of setting the imprisoned free.

Later on, one of Shirley’s brothers was often in trouble with the police and she would regularly visit him in custody, then also visit his friends. This was the beginning of a lifelong practice of visiting prisons to provide social contact and emotional support to persons of all backgrounds and persuasions in custody. It seems this is where she was given her name of ‘Mum’ Shirl, because when she was visiting aboriginal people in custody and was asked what relationship she was to the prisoner, she would simply say, “I’m his mum.” And, in days before IDs and digital records, she would be allowed in.

When Jesus spoke of his own mission, he proclaimed, “I have come to give liberty to prisoners.” So, as his followers on the way, we ought similarly to have an eye for those who have lost the liberty of the human person at his or her best. To restore their full freedom. Locally, that might be to liberate friends or colleagues who are bound up by all sorts of un-freedoms – loneliness, emotional struggles, poor circumstances.

The statue of Colleen Shirley Smith at Redfern Jarjum College. Photo by St Aloysius College, Milsons Point.

With a First Australians focus, it could be to welcome the outcomes of the Uluru Statement from the Heart, to welcome the freedom that comes with truth-telling of our nation’s history. To embrace a real freedom that would allow us to arrive at a national Makaratta, a reconciliation, or a treaty. The ongoing incarceration and the separation of children of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders are, as the Uluru document says, indicators of “the torment of (their) powerlessness”. To be powerless is to be unfree. It could be acting to redress the incarceration rate of Indigenous Australians – 31.8% of the total adult prison population, when Indigenous Australians are just 3.8% of the total population.

Those Indigenous leaders at Uluru spoke of an aspiration, of a hope. They said,

“When we have power over our destiny our children will flourish. They will walk in two worlds and their culture will be a gift to their country.”

When that time comes, such a new freedom will be experienced. For us all. The liberty that Shirley Smith strove for.

As Jesus said to his friends and followers elsewhere in John’s gospel, “You will know the truth, and the truth will set you free.” ‘Mum’ Shirl knew what those words meant. The truth will also set us free.

Fr Ross Jones SJ

This article was originally published in a May 2023 edition of ‘The Gonzagan’ newsletter for St Aloysius’ College, Milsons Point.