Long lost Sister Eileen interview inspires Alice movie


Isabel Smith, nee Almond, who is the subject of a major film project called Finding Miss Almond, was interviewed for a book about Alice Springs icon Sister Eileen Heath, long-time manager of the former St Mary’s Anglican mission.

For 27 years the 40-page transcript remained hidden.

I am Isabel’s grandson, collaborator on the film with Hollywood Director Mark Webber. Finding the text became the trigger for a book about my grandmother’s life of devotion to caring for Aboriginal children, our film’s compelling subject.

In 1996, author and historian Annette Roberts was conducting research for a biography of Sister Eileen called A Life with the Lid Off.

The transcript came to light when I was put in contact with Mrs Roberts by Terry Cleary as the sale of the St Mary’s site by the Anglican Diocese of the Northern Territory erupted into a major local issue in late 2022.

Former residents of the mission, principally the St Mary’s Stolen Generation Group, were concerned about future access to important cultural locations such as the chapel and its heritage-listed 1958 mural by Hungarian artist Robert Czakó.

The mural, which features biblical scenes, saints, and portraits of several people who lived at the hostel at the time, was restored in 2021.

I am pleased that the transfer of the historic hostel came with a commitment to preserving the history and heritage of the location, including the chapel.

Given my grandfather Percy Smith’s former role as superintendent of St Mary’s I was glad to play a small part in helping the former residents to preserve something very important to them. Indirectly I received a document that is very important to me and my family.

The transcript brings my grandmother’s voice back to life for me and includes such crisp descriptions and rich detail, which painted images in my mind perfect for scenes in a film.

Some of the key events recalled include, Isabel’s first meeting with Percy Smith who established the Anglican Church in Alice Springs in 1933.

She describes a quaint, humble, unassuming and slightly built man, she first encountered on the old wooden steps of the original church in Bath Street. This was the spark of their love story, which provides the basis for the film.

Then she laughs about him tucking his long black cassock into his trousers after church and playing table tennis with the children after Sunday mass.

In the mid-1990s Isabel received word that a biography of Sister Eileen Heath was being written by Roberts.

Eileen Heath had been manager of the St Mary’s mission in Alice Springs in the late 1940s and into the 1950s when Isabel and Percy returned to Alice Springs from St Francis House in Adelaide, where they had been caring for a group of Aboriginal children including budding achievers Charlie Perkins, John Moriarty and Gordon Briscoe.

March 20, 1996 was set for an interview. It was a sensitive time as Isabel had been preparing her evidence for the National Inquiry into the Stolen Generation set up by the Keating Government.

The interview reveals much. Isabel initially enjoyed talking with Annette and they were engrossed in discussion for more than three hours.

I could see that my grandmother was a little frustrated at being diverted from time to time from what she was trying to say. She was always very deliberate in the things she would say. Never a wasted word. Having a tape recorder running also made her a little anxious.

The interview forced Isabel to recall great memories of her life with Aboriginal people. She recalled challenges such as her husband teaching Sister Eileen to drive.

Ms Roberts put in a lot of work. Isabel felt that during the interview that Annette was able to delve deeper into the layers of Sister Eileen. To Isabel the final book was quite balanced and the research impeccable and it was favourably reviewed in the Alice Springs News, in a comment by Bob Beadman.

The remarkable thing was that Sister Eileen was still alive at this time, aged 96.

Mrs Roberts pressed on to find a publisher. For a number of reasons, this was delayed for a few years, and by the time the book was published it was 2002.

The interview is an engaging read. It details the first time she met young Charlie Perkins and his mother Hetti and brother Ernie. Their first group mealtime with the other children and their love of Golden Syrup. As part of the interview Isabel Smith said: “Charlie looked a perfect angel and I must say that is how he was to me.

“I never had one bit of bother with Charles, clean, tidy and neat, particular. Hair was always well groomed. Whatever he had, he made the best of it.

“And Ernie wasn’t any trouble. He used to follow in Charlie’s footsteps. Charlie looked after him. That was that.”

Mrs Roberts also revealed that Isabel was reluctant to allow her interview to be used for the book, and did not give permission for more than five years, in 2001, a year before she passed away in 2002, when the book was published.

I wondered why Isabel would give such a detailed interview and then not allow it to be used. Initially I thought it was because she wanted some distance between the 1997 release of the Bringing them Home National Inquiry report. Then I knew she also wanted my father to write a book about Percy Smith, The Flower in the Desert, which was published in 1999.

Mrs Roberts told me last week: “I think the delay in Isabel allowing me to use the interview came from early concerns her son John had about it, because of the tensions that developed between Sister Eileen and the Smiths when they returned to Alice Springs in the 1950s.

“This in fact is the reason I was so delighted to be able to include the interview because it showed the other side of the coin.  Not that it ‘changed’ my thinking about Eileen, but that it showed a fuller picture of three people working in very stressful situations, each giving it their whole hearted effort.”

I did have a 2001 video interview with Isabel, which is now available on the film website, but it is not as detailed and these recollections and less clear as my grandmother was older and weaker, then aged 87 and in the final stages of her life.

If I had not become involved in the St Mary’s sale issue I may never had found this interview.

Without the interview the film script would probably have never been written.

Mrs Roberts said: “Isabel and Percy Smith were an incredible couple, devoting their lives to the welfare of so many indigenous children.”

PHOTOS: Percy Smith, a quaint, humble, unassuming and slightly built man, whom Isabel Almond first encountered outside the original church in Bath Street. At top: Ernie and Charlie (at right) Perkins around the time they were at St John’s Hostel in Bath Street. Charlie became one of Australia’s most energetic spokesman for Aboriginal people and issues, operating privately and as a top public servant, without fear and often with an exuberant sense of humour.

FOOTNOTE: Mr Smith is the script writer and producer of Finding Miss Almond. It is set in part in Central Australia, and recounts the history of Indigenous people who had been in the care of Rev Canon Percy McD Smith MBE and his wife Isabel E Smith OAM, many of whom achieved outstanding careers and greatly advanced the cause of Indigenous affairs.

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