Charles Balnaves is Parish Priest at St Joseph’s parish in Meredith, a town 100km by road west of Melbourne.  He had been  involved with the Aboriginal Catholic Ministry (ACM) in the archdiocese for ten years.  He wrote of the vestments designed by the ACM specifically to be placed into his custody on the occasion of his ordination.

  • A Stole was made for me when I was ordained as a deacon – later modified when I was ordained to the priesthood – this is the stole with the platypus.
  • A Chasuble and stole was made for me when I was ordained a priest in 2015. It is based on a story about the Pelican nourishing its young with its own blood. This story is present in many cultures around the world and that includes Aboriginal culture.

Platypus Stole

The stole was commissioned from artist Merrill Bray who belongs to the Eastern Aranda people of Alice Springs at Illbarinja.  Her unique contemporary dot paintings express the world around us at ‘micro’ and ‘macro’ levels.  The first touches the essence of spirit, the intimate vibrations which bring into existence the intentions of our thought.  The second level evokes the galaxies and clusters of stars.  In between, Merrill captures landscapes and seasons, creating new dimensions of space through her use of colour.

In presenting the vestment to Fr Charles, the AMC told the story of stole.

The story of this stole represents your special spiritual journey with us at the Aboriginal Catholic Ministry of Melbourne. Your spirit is seen as the water flowing from the Coolamon, our Aboriginal symbol of the Eucharist. This tells us you were sent by the Creator Spirit to befriend, support and encourage us with your varied and special expertise.

As the water flows continuously to the land, it is creating a clean, safe waterhole for the habitat of the Platypus family, a species unique in the world.

In one Aboriginal legend, the Platypus is known as Women’s Wisdom. Platypus has come into your life so you are being prepared to realise, understand and embrace the potency of your intuition and higher levels of knowing.

Those who have felt abandoned and rejected or who do not belong should seek the wisdom of the Platypus. The Platypus is a creature who swims with its eyes closed. It listens to the heartbeat of Mother Earth for direction.

The Platypus honours both innate masculine and feminine qualities within.

We will also pray that as your spiritual journey continues, you will always walk beside us remembering that we are all one in The Dreaming.”

The Pelican Chasuble and Stole

As the date of Fr Charles’ ordination drew near, there was much discussion between Auntie Betty Pike (a Noongar woman and resident elder and author for the ministry), Vicki Clark (a Mutthi Mutthi and Wemba Wamba woman who was the ACM Coordinator at the time), Sherry Balcombe (an Olkola and Djabguy woman assisting Vicki), Melissa Brickell (ACM member and the Yorta Yorta Wiradjeri artist commissioned to paint the vestments) and others at the ACM. How could their knowledge of Charles whom they had known for ten years be drawn into Aboriginal tradition. This discernment led them to the Pelican.

In times of hunger, the Pelican, it is said, will peck at its chest until it bleeds and feed the blood to its clutch of young to keep them alive. This giving-of-self for the good of others spoke into their understanding of one of the constitutive realities of Aboriginal life/spirituality/Dreaming; it also spoke of Jesus Christ and the giving of his blood on the cross for our salvation; and finally it resonated with their understanding of Fr Charles, who he is and how he tries to be a true follower of Jesus Christ.

On the back of the vestment are shown the feathered wings of the Pelican spread out, covering and protecting its young.

The front panel shows the Pelican pecking at its chest with drops of blood falling past its nest and into a coolamon engraved with a cross.  A link is established between the Blood of Christ and the shedding of much innocent Aboriginal blood. Those fed from the coolamon are nourished with food for the life of the world and food for the future of all Aboriginal peoples.

The accompanying stole is simply decorated with the wounded Pelican on one side and on the other a coolamon above which is a host, the Body of Christ.

Shortly after his ordination, the women of the ACM robed him in these new vestments during a Mass in the then new chapel at the ACM.  They are a beautiful expression of the pastoral relationship between a priest and the community he serves, the community whose culture he has been invited to share.