The historic Nguiu Catholic church of the Tiwi Islands made famous in the movie Top End Wedding.
The historic Nguiu Catholic church of the Tiwi Islands made famous in the movie Top End Wedding. Seanna Cronin

Just a hop to a world away

It may look humble from the outside, but Bathurst Island's Nguiu Catholic Church is no ordinary place of worship.

Inside the historic church, made famous in the recent Aussie rom com Top End Wedding, traditional Tiwi Island paintings adorn the chancel and altar alongside objects one would expect to find inside a Catholic church, such as statues of Jesus and the Virgin Mary.

More than 100 years old, it's unlike any other church I've ever set foot in.

The walls, pews and rafters are unadorned, save for ceiling fans and louvres that help to combat the heat.

Catholic traditions meet indigenous art inside the historic Nguiu church of the Tiwi Islands.
Catholic traditions meet indigenous art inside the historic Nguiu church of the Tiwi Islands. Seanna Cronin

Despite feeling half a world away, the Tiwis are a short 30-minute flight or 2.5-hour ferry ride north of Darwin.

Most tourists who venture across the Aspley Strait are day visitors, with both the SeaLink NT ferry and airport servicing Wurrumiyanga (previously known as Nguiu) on Bathurst Island but overnight stays are also possible on either Bathurst or nearby Melville Island, Australia's second largest island behind Tasmania.

Arriving via ferry with a dozen other visitors, we are greeted by our guide Vivienne who runs day tours for Tiwi Design art studio. After a welcome smoking ceremony, Vivienne takes us to the nearby Patakijiyali Museum for a crash course in Tiwi culture.

Staff of Tiwi Design art studio perform a welcome to country smoking ceremony for day visitors.
Staff of Tiwi Design art studio perform a welcome to country smoking ceremony for day visitors. Seanna Cronin

Founded by Sister Anne Gardiner, the last remaining nun on the island, the museum is now managed by two local Tiwi women.

Named the 2017 Senior Australian of the Year for her service to the Tiwi Islands, Sister Anne moved to Bathurst Island in 1953 and went on to teach five generations at the local primary school.

We don't see her during our tour, but I am told Sister Anne, 88, is happy to converse with visitors.

Melville Island and Bathurst Island, the two largest of the Tiwi Islands, as seen from the air.
Melville Island and Bathurst Island, the two largest of the Tiwi Islands, as seen from the air. Seanna Cronin

Like the people of the Torres Strait to the east, the Tiwi Islanders have their own culture, language and traditions unique from the mainland. They do not play the didgeridoo, for example, preferring sticks and singing and have their own songlines and Dreamtime stories.

Art and footy rule here. Known for Australian rules exports Cyril and Daniel Rioli and Anthony McDonald-Tipungwuti, the Tiwis have the highest football participation rate in Australia at 35 per cent.

Artistically, the Tiwi Islanders are accomplished painters, screen printers and wood carvers. Vivienne gives us a lesson in screen printing, which is much harder than it appears.

It gives me a new appreciation for the piece I buy, a simple pattern of silver dots on blue cotton representing ocean waves, as well as the fabric of Miranda Tapsell's wedding dress in Top End Wedding that was printed right here at Tiwi Design.

Using a local species of ironbark, Tiwi carvings are typically painted in the traditional ochre colours of red, yellow, white and black.

Interestingly, the Tiwis also played a pivotal role in World War II. Unbeknown to most Australians, Bathurst Island was the first place in Australia to be attacked and the first place where a Japanese Zero fighter plane was captured intact on Australian soil.

When the Catholic mission sent a warning to Darwin via radio, the Japanese intercepted the message and returned to open fire again.

The sighting of the first warships has even been incorporated into a dance that will be passed from generation to generation.

The writer was a guest of Tourism NT, SeaLink NT and Tiwi Design.



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