Ronda Ross remembers Sister Eileen Heath, 29.11.1905 – 22.10.2011
By KIERAN FINNANE
Ronda Ross was a little girl of about six when she arrived at St Mary’s Children’s Home in Alice Springs. She remembers getting out of a taxi with her older brother and sister, Clive and Fay, and being immediately surrounded by a swarm of other children. Then she heard a voice saying, “Stand back, children, let her breathe!”
It was a “beautiful, gentle voice – always”. It belonged to Sister Eileen Heath, who has passed away just short of her 106th birthday at the end of November. Ronda last saw her in Perth when she was celebrating her 104th.
Sister Eileen always made the smallest girl at St Mary’s feel special.
One way was that during prayers in the chapel she would put the little
girl in a white dress with lace and red ribbon through the collar and
sit her on a small wooden stool next to her. For a while Ronda was this
special girl – “until I was dethroned by Marjorie Horrell!”
Perhaps this is why, so many years later, the tears flow when Ronda
speaks of Sister Eileen’s passing.
“She did so much good. She never raised her voice, even when she was
disciplining you – though other staff did, mind you.”
Ronda and her siblings had been taken to the home in about 1950 or ’51
by their father, Mervyn Andrew, a water-drilling contractor. The son of
Abraham and Bertha Andrew, who started Curtin Springs Station, he had
married their mother, Myrtle McDonald, daughter of the Arltunga
publican, Sandy McDonald, and Korulya, an Eastern Arrernte woman.
They had five children.
“He and Mum had divorced and he ended up with the kids. He wanted to get
us educated and heard that Sister Eileen would look after us.”
This voluntary placement in the home was different to the circumstances
of many other St Mary’s children, who, as children of mixed descent,
were removed from their Aboriginal families. Some of them, says Ronda,
blame the directors of the home for their part in this but Ronda
completely absolves Sister Eileen: “She was just doing her life’s chosen
job, looking after children.”
Life at the home had its strict rules and routines. Everyone did chores:
“Little ones mainly collected firewood for the boiler”. Later the girls
would help with all sorts of cleaning tasks, polishing shoes, ironing
shirts stiff with starch, setting tables, preparing cut lunches for
school the next day.
“We were bussed into town every day and if you missed the bus, you
But there were also lots of enjoyable times, from playing rounders after
school to sitting around an open fire in the staff quarters for picture
nights: “We’d watch Charlie Chaplin and cartoons and we’d be given
Occasionally there were also visits to the cinema in town, to see a
musical, or picnics at Emily Gap or Simpsons Gap – “We’d make a fire and
cook potatoes in the ashes.”
Sister Eileen was good at getting resources for the home and one of
these was her old blue Dodge in which she’d go to town for supplies and
other errands. It was used for St Mary’s participation in the annual May
Day parade, decorated with flowers and blue and white crepe paper
bells: “The older girls would dress in white and stand in the back
singing ‘The Bells of St Mary’s’.”
There were holidays too. Sometimes Ronda and her siblings went to their
mother, who was living in Queensland. Other children would go to their
families too but those who didn’t or couldn’t would go to Adelaide with
Ronda remembers swimming at the beach and being called “a little
blackie” by another child.
“I was upset and dog-paddled back to Sister Eileen and told her. I can’t
remember her exact words but it was reassuring, something like, don’t
worry about it, be proud of who you are.”
Ronda can’t recall any harsh punishments in Sister Eileen’s time: “Only a
smack on the bottom, though the boys might have had a tougher
punishment. There were tougher staff, but not her.
“Later on, I can remember having to scrub 20 chairs in punishment – I
probably deserved it!
“And we all dreaded being forced to drink a dose of epsom salts for
things like raiding a neighbour’s fruit trees, but I can’t remember this
happening in Sister Eileen’s time.”
Religion was an important focus in the home: “A lot of people resent
that, but I don’t think it hurt anyone. I remember we learnt to give. We
all had a penny to put in the plate each week – it was the same bag of
pennies used over and over. We’d all have fun comparing the year of our
pennies.” Ronda left St Mary’s when she was 15. She didn’t see a lot of
Sister Eileen in her early married life, while she was busy raising her
four children, but she later “did heaps of typing for her” when Sister
Eileen became a welfare officer, based in a building where the
courthouse stands now.
“She had instilled kindness in me, a charitable nature – I like to help
people where I can. And she was like that. She started Prisoners’ Aid
here and would visit prisoners in her free time. But she never forgot to
have fun too. I remember going to see her in a Gilbert and Sullivan
musical. She was one of the Three Little Maids in the Mikado.”
Sister Eileen eventually left Alice, going back to WA. Ronda visited her
there on three occasions and had been intending to go back for her
106th birthday. Now she’ll wait for a local memorial service to be
conducted at the Anglican Church.
One of Ronda’s very best friends is Peggy Butcher (later Jones) whom she
met at St Mary’s: “Even though she was older than me, she was smaller
and I took her under my wing. When she was upset she’d try to run away.
I’d have to tell her, ‘Peggy, you can’t walk back to Borolloola!'”
The two went together to Perth to celebrate Sister Eileen’s 100th: “She
knew who we were straightaway and enquired after all the other kids
who’d been at St Mary’s with us. She was godmother to almost all of us
through mass baptism. When we had our big St Mary’s reunion last year,
she told us she wished she could have been there.”
Pictured: ‘Belles’ of St Mary’s (married names in
brackets, if known) from left, Sister Eileen Heath, Ronda’s sister Fay
Andrew (Hampton), Shirley Dixon (Stuart), Ruth Forrester (Swan), Rosalie
Kunoth (Kunoth-Monks). Next to Rosalie in the back row are Wendy Bourke
(Espie), Doris Branson (Campbell), Eileen, or possibly Ivy Foster
peeping from behind the garland, and Mona Bathern. There are three
little girls in shadow next to Rosalie and then in front, Marie Liddle
(Palmer), Peggy Foster and Patsy Clements (McDonald). Standing in Front
of the Dodge is Mrs Lillian Schroder, who travelled with Sister Eileen
and helped her in her work. Photograph courtesy St Mary’s Children Home.
Above right: Peggy Jones and Ronda Ross (right) with Sister Eileen at her 100th birthday celebration.