Adelaide House was the town’s first hospital. It is currently a museum predominantly dedicated to telling the story of Presbyterian Minister Rev. John Flynn (1890-1951) and his significant legacy in this region. Flynn, was a man of great faith and innovation, dedicated to making the outback safer and less lonely for inland settlers.
He was pivotal to the founding of the Royal Flying Doctor Service and the Australian Inland Mission now Frontier Services. During his impressive 39 years with the AIM he established 15 hospitals like Adelaide House and placed patrol padres’ across the Outback. This legacy continues. The RFDS now provides 24/7 emergency care across 80% of Australia, which includes many Aboriginal communities. Frontier Services currently has 14 bush chaplains (both Indigenous and non Indigenous) providing pastoral and practical support to people doing it tough across rural and remote Australia.
However, in 1926, when this hospital opened, there was no acknowledgement that it was built on Central Arrernte land nor was any thought given to what it would mean for Arrernte people. Some of the stone used in its construction was quarried from Heavitree Gap which is their sacred country.
While Aboriginal people were occasionally treated by the Adelaide House nurses (including the fact the first operation done in AH was the removal of a cyst from an Aboriginal man), they were mostly excluded. In this period Aboriginal people were excluded from the town as a whole (except for employment) so this was in line with the times. However, even at that time some of his contemporaries in the church, particularly Dr Charles Duguid, did call him to account on this. And while Flynn’s prolific writings on the Outback are all but silent on the injustices and cruelties that we know were been inflicted upon Aboriginal people at the time, there were other voices protesting in outrage. Inspired by the Uluru Statement of the Heart’s call for truth telling, the church and the Meeting Place Foundation are engaged in a project seeking to tell a fuller, more nuanced story about Adelaide House and the church in Central Australia. We are asking questions about how we hold the story of our pioneer’s hard work and endurance alongside the story of conflict, dispossession, suffering and death of the people who were living here already.
We have called this plan “the Reimagining Adelaide House Museum project.” And this project brings together people from the church, Arrernte people and members of the community. Over a series of meetings we have been talking together about our shared history.
Adelaide House operated as a hospital until 1939. After that it was used as a nursing home, especially for white women and children, although not exclusively, and we have been listening to both positive as well as not so positive stories of those who accessed it and those who were excluded. We are doing this project not to condemn, nor absolve, anyone. Rather we are asking the questions how do we reconcile the elements of our past and also in ourselves still today that are gracious and honourable with those that provoke grief and horror? What responsibilities, rest on us as inheritors of this mixed and complex legacy. We hope that this might yet bring people together not further isolate them.
Uniting Church Minister and Adnyamathnha woman Rev. Dr Denise Champion says, “colonisation affects the whole population—black and white.” Truth is a way forward for us all. Jesus dared to suggest that it will set us free.”