John Paul II Chapel, Alice Springs, Northern Territory, Australia
March 07, 2007
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STEPHEN HACKETT & CHRIS MCINERNEY
In November 1986, Pope John Paul II visited Australia. More than twenty years later, his visit is best remembered for his meeting with Indigenous Australians in Alice Springs, a town at the heart of Australia, located geographically in the centre of the continent. There he announced to Indigenous Australians the invitation of the Gospel "to become, through and through, Aboriginal Christians." There he affirmed to Australia’s Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples: ‘You are part of Australia and Australia is part of you. And the Church herself in Australia will not be fully the Church that Jesus wants her to be until you have made your contribution to her life and until that contribution has been joyfully received by others.’ (Pope John Paul II, “Address to Aborigines and Torres Strait Islanders.”)
In the more than twenty years since the visit of Pope John Paul II, the growth of urban Aboriginal Catholic communities in Australia’s Northern Territory, where about 25% of the population is Indigenous, has been a real sign of grace and hope for Aboriginal people, and for the wider Church. The Aboriginal Catholic community in the northern city of Darwin has a former parish church as it spiritual home. However, in Alice Springs, the Ngkarte Mikwekenhe ("Mother of God" in Arrernte language) Community has worshipped in a long narrow room that serves neither the Community nor the liturgy well.
To provide a spiritual home for the Ngkarte Mikwekenhe Community, to perpetuate the message of Pope John Paul II, and to create a national symbol of hope and reconciliation for Catholics – especially Indigenous Catholics - throughout Australia, Bishop Ted Collins MSC of the Diocese of Darwin has initiated a project to build the John Paul II Chapel in Alice Springs. The Ngkarte Mikwekenhe Community has embraced the project as something that will build up their faith, community, and Catholic identity, and enrich their participation in and contribution to the life of the Church in Australia. The Community looks forward to welcoming pilgrims who will come to visit and pray at the John Paul II Chapel, and to hosting people of good will who come seeking to advance reconciliation between Australia’s first inhabitants and those who have come to Australia since white settlement.
The John Paul II Chapel is to be built on the site where the Community already gathers, facing the Todd River and McDonnell Ranges, about 2km from the Alice Springs town centre and local parish. Existing facilities on the site provide for the Community’s art, language, culture, advocacy and development programs, and a room currently used as their chapel.
The Pope John Paul II Chapel has been designed in circular form, which resonates with Indigenous gathering custom, as well with the place of centralized plans in the Catholic tradition. The circle symbolises the coming together of the members of the community in their place of meeting. The circular form enables the gathered members of the community to see and hear each other, and to celebrate the liturgy as a communal act with all participating. The altar, representing Christ, is one with the community in the circle, as are the presider and the ambo. The tabernacle is situated in a distinctive place behind the altar on the central axis, but beyond the circle in which the community celebrates the Eucharist.
The functional layout of the Chapel is Trinitarian, with two of the spaces providing for the gathered community, and the third for altar, ambo, presider, tabernacle, crucifix and image of Ngkarte Mikwekenhe. The baptismal font is located near the entry doors, so that its living water welcomes each person into the Church not just at baptism, but every time they enter the Chapel.
The Chapel is surrounded by and includes a covered verandah, which provides space for outdoor seating near the entry doors, the celebration of the Sacrament of Penance in a Reconciliation Chapel that can be entered from within the Chapel as well as from the garden and verandah area beyond, and a sacristy. This usage of the covered verandah allows for the desired circulation within the Chapel through the ambulatory that surrounds the space in which the community celebrates the liturgy. The Chapel is designed to accommodate 60 people, while on occasion an additional 30 may be seated internally in the ambulatory, and a further 30 outside on the covered veranda.
The Chapel is located on the site in such a way that it has an obvious physical relationship and visual link with the courtyard of the existing buildings, a well-used gathering space in which much of the life of the Community is transacted. It is proposed that the Chapel be constructed of mud brick walls, with the main roof structure comprising steel columns and roof framing, erected on a concrete slab. There are 12 columns supporting the roof, and the mud brick wall sections have been designed to suit construction, but also in 17 separate wall sections, to accommodate tabernacle, crucifix, image of Mary, and the fourteen Stations of the Cross.
The Ngkarte Mikwekenhe Community, which has had considerable input into the design and layout of the Chapel, has asked that the making of the mud bricks and later the landscaping of the site be undertaken by Indigenous participants as part of a Community Development Employment Program. The Community is also involved in designing and making the works of sacred art that will be used in the Chapel. It is hoped that a statue of Pope John Paul II in bronze can be commissioned, to stand outside near the entrance to the Chapel. And it is intended that the familiar Cross and ‘M’ from the coat-of-arms chosen by Pope John Paul II will be used as an architectural feature in the Chapel.
The Diocese of Darwin has provided seed-funding to commence the Chapel project. During the Season of Easter in 2007 an appeal will be launched to raise the funds required to see the Chapel project through to completion. It is hoped that once opened and dedicated, the proposed Pope John Paul II Chapel at Alice Springs, in the "heart" of Australia, will be a significant step forward in realising the vision that was communicated by Pope John Paul II during his 1986 visit to Alice Springs, not just for the Ngkarte Mikwekenhe Community and the Diocese of Darwin, but for all who long for the Church in Australia to become "fully the Church that Jesus wants her to be."
Stephen Hackett MSC is Vicar General and Vicar for Aborigines in the Diocese of Darwin, Australia.
Chris McInerney of Tangentyere Design in Alice Springs is Project Architect for the John Paul II Chapel.