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A Cherbourg Saint

Aileen Brady born 4 August 1927, Barambah station (later Cherbourg Aboriginal reserve), died 23 March 2008, Cairns

Aileen Brady was one of six children born to Henry Willis, of the Kalili people in South West Queensland and Eunice Willis who had come to Queensland from the Solomon Islands via the indentured labour scheme (‘blackbirding’). She was raised under the harsh and paternalistic provisions of the aboriginal protectionist regime of the Queensland State Government.

Aileen’s schooling never went beyond the third grade though she cultivated an inquiring mind and literacy which later enabled her to enter the Singleton Bible College. Her response to the Call of Christ was also her ticket of release from the requirements of the notorious Quensland Acts which severely restricted the movement of the indigenous residents on aboriginal reserves. At Singleton she met and married Donald Brady, who later took the name Kwangji as an elder of the Yelangi people of far North Queensland, and who as a pastor in Brisbane became one of Queensland’s most significant aboriginal leaders of the 1960s and 1970s.

Over a fifteen year period they had eight children (though two predeceased them). Pastor Don Brady’s ministry to his people took them to Fingal and later to Memerambee in the Kingaroy District. Mourners at Aileen’s funeral were told how the family barely survived. There was no electricity in their dwelling and their water supply depended on Aileen lugging water in two four gallon drums, one in each hand, a mile to the shed where they lived. On some cold Saturday nights Aileen mixed a jelly and set it outside on a post during the night so that it would set in time for Sunday dinner as a special treat. While Aileen kept the home front together, Don was working as a pastor as well as working on the main roads.

Conscious of their plight and of Don’s obvious gifts for pastoral and evangelical work, the local Methodist minister facilitated their movement to Brisbane around 1962 where, for about ten years, Don conducted his ministry under the sponsorship of the Methodist church. This was an era when some Aborigines began moving to the city from reserves and missions. The scourge of poverty made these people vulnerable to homelessness and alcoholism in their new environment.

This was also a time when there was virtually no support from community service organizations run by aboriginal people. So the Paddington parsonage which was their home became a haven for scores of ‘lost souls’ who shared whatever Aileen and her children needed for their own survival. As the years passed Don’s work was marked by controversy when he was drawn to activism and the political struggle for the rights of his people. Inevitably, these historical circumstances put enormous pressures on Don and he lived his last years in broken health and confusion. Typical of many indigenous women of her generation, in the face of impossible odds, Aileen stoically and wisely continued to nurture her family.

At the funeral service in the West End Uniting Church, the area where Don began his Brisbane work, several speakers including her grand-daughter, Natarsha (herself now a minister in training), testified how Aileen’s deep Christian faith sustained her throughout her life. Special musical contributions by her eldest son and a spontaneous choir of women who also came originally from Cherbourg added to the moving tributes.

Aileen died on Easter Sunday and was laid to rest in Mt Gravatt cemetery, fittingly on the fortieth anniversary of the assassination of civil rights hero, Rev Martin Luther King Jr. Her remains are with her husband (Kwangji) who died in 1984 and her son Peter who was killed in a motor vehicle accident in 1977. At the graveside it was timely to reflect on the significance of Kwangji and his wife in the story of their people: they helped lay the foundation for confronting the institutional racism which is an undeniable part of Queensland’s story.

Aileen Brady is survived by her children Marceil, Qawanji (Vincent), Graham, William, Matthew and Sharon with many grandchildren and great grandchildren. Their collective stories are wonderful testimony to the capacity of the first Australians not only to survive but to make tangible and important contributions to this nation. For this correspondent, the Brady family has taught profound lessons of the heart while providing an inescapable challenge to address the unfinished task of reconciliation and social justice.