Elsie’s lessons

8 March 2021
Aunty Elsie with Archbishop of Sydney, Anthony Fisher OP, at the presentation of a papal award to Elsie in 2018. Image: Giovanni Portelli/Catholic Archdiocese of Sydney.


Elsie Heiss found solace in her faith as she grew up, created a community where she could feel at home, then spent much of her life helping the broader Catholic community grow in their understanding and acceptance of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people.

Life’s foundational lessons – wisdom, faith, the cost of prejudice and the infinite value of education – materialised from a single incident on a school bus in Griffith, NSW when Elsie Heiss was around nine years old. A white child had spat on her and called her names so derogatory ‘I can’t even repeat them’. Later, she recounted the experience for her father.

‘I said to my father, “I washed spit off myself today, from a white kid on the bus”. And he said, “What did you do?” I said, “I wanted to punch them, but they’d have chucked me off the bus”. He said, “Yes, and they’d have chucked you out of school as well. You need an education. The only way we Aboriginals are going to survive in this country is through education, because that’s the only way we’re going to gain respect”. He said, “Be like Jesus and turn the other cheek”. I said, “Daddy, I’m not Jesus. Jesus turned the other cheek, I want to hit ‘em in the cheek”. He said, “And then they’ll chuck you out of school, you’ll have no education. You’ve got to educate those white fellas what racism’s about, and the only way you’re going to do it is through the church, because that’s the only place you’re going to be accepted”. My father was a wise man.’

Wise, and prophetic, too, for the now 83-year-old Aunty Elsie has spent her life advocating for the Aboriginal community from her position as a deeply cherished member of the Catholic Church.

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