Meet the Author: Katharine Massam

2 September 2021

‘ … it is important for history to keep finding the tools to take religious commitment seriously, on its own terms. And I hope this book contributes to reconciliation in Australia.’

Associate Professor Katharine Massam is the Research Co-ordinator at Pilgrim Theological College, University of Divinity. Katharine’s research explores intersections between Christian tradition and wider culture in postcolonial settler societies, including Australia. Katharine’s latest title, A Bridge Between: Spanish Benedictine Missionary Women in Australia, has recently been shortlisted for the prestigious Australian History Prize in the NSW Premier’s History Awards.

Congratulations on being shortlisted for the NSW Premier’s History Award in the Australian History category. What was your reaction when you found out?

News came by email in the midst of other things, and the subject line did not give the good news away. Once I’d read it twice though and was smiling in disbelief, I was aware of all the people I wanted to tell. There are three communities of stakeholders and a lot of good friends and colleagues who’ve been crucial in this project, including at ANU Press – ‘It takes a village’ to make a book. So there was a wonderful sense of all sorts of good work and important relationships being recognised.

What is your book about and how long did it take you to write it?

A Bridge Between is about a small community of mostly Spanish Benedictine missionary women who worked with Aboriginal women and girls in Western Australia through much of the twentieth century. The story of the Benedictine women stretches through South America, Ireland, Belgium and Rome, as well as the Kimberley and the suburbs of Perth, all linked through a network of villages near Burgos in the north of Spain. So the archive is scattered and fragmented, and the writing happened slowly and in stages over 20 years or so. Most of the people I interviewed I was able speak with several times over many years. That’s rare privilege in academic life.

What part of the book did you have the hardest time writing?

The book starts and ends with an account of a reunion that brought the Spanish sisters back to New Norcia in 2001. It was initiated and largely financed by some of the Aboriginal women who’d grown up at St Joseph’s Native School and Orphanage. It was an occasion full of love as well as pain. It also encapsulated all the complexity and nuance of the full span of the community, theologically as well as historically and politically, including the place of an ‘orphanage’ in the stolen generations, the reality of institutional abuse and the stance of survivors. In the sections on the reunion, I was conscious of wanting to hold open space for a discussion that often dissolves into stereotyping. I had a sense I was on solid sacred ground in trying to communicate the events and emotion of that fortnight, and also that I really needed to do them justice.

Why do you believe this history is important to tell? What impact do you hope your research will have?

Although the written record of the Benedictine women was scattered and fragmented there was a strong vein of memory, especially in Aboriginal families, that pointed to how fundamental they had been in the mission town. So, by making their lives more visible we can understand more about the complexity of their relationships with each other, with who they understood God to be, with the monks and monastic authorities, with the Aboriginal families, with the government and their network of supporters. I hope it lays a foundation for other work about the mission, including by First Nations historians. I hope it also shows that history can engage thoughtfully with questions of spirituality. Those ‘deepest realities’ were not necessarily areas where people were most fluent in the interviews but it is important for history to keep finding the tools to take religious commitment seriously, on its own terms. And I hope this book contributes to reconciliation in Australia. The Noongar theologian Elizabeth Pike points strongly to the significance of storytelling, of listening well and not speaking past each other so as to build relationships between First Nations and other Australians.

You also teach Australian religious history. How do you balance your priorities with teaching and writing, and what do you need in your writing space to help you stay focused?

I’m not sure I can claim anything like balance. Being able to teach in areas that related closely to the work was important though, so every alternate year between 2003 and 2015 the Benedictine community of New Norcia welcomed a cohort of theology students who worked intensively in the archive on a range of topics. That collaboration with the monastery and with the Aboriginal Corporation of New Norcia was fundamental to keeping the project ticking over. In 2015 Sister Veronica Willaway, a Yued Noongar woman who grew up at St Joseph’s and who’d joined the Benedictines as a teenager, joined the group as a resource person too, bringing the Sisters very much into the room. Veronica’s voice is very significant in the story and she also wrote the foreword for the book.

To stay focused when writing I need to turn off the email and give myself permission to work on one thing. Difficult or tangled sections I need to write by hand. I’ve also learnt not to ignore the focus that can arrive in the middle of other things or in the middle of the night. There were sentences I scribbled on the tram or at 4am that made connections I was missing.

You have published several book already. Why did you choose ANU Press to publish your latest book?

So many reasons!

First and foremost: ANU Press offers academic peer review and as an open-access university press those reviews take priority over other questions about profitability. A Bridge Between raises challenging questions and the material is open to exploitation as well as misunderstanding. I knew ANU Press wouldn’t be looking for sensationalism but would expect me to have crafted a nuanced argument. My experience with the Editorial Board of the ANU.Lives series has borne out that intuition in spades. (Let’s also be frank that in the difficult world of publishing on Australia and on religion, ANU Press picked up this project where others were warm about it but couldn’t imagine it on their list.)

Then, ANU Press’ books are affordable and accessible. A Bridge Between is a focused history but not a narrow one. I wanted people to be able to read this without having to borrow it from a specialist library. For some of the stakeholders, including First Nations communities locally and families of missionaries internationally, the free digital download and the affordable print copies are ideal. Even for other scholars who might be reading a blog or a tweet being able to click through to the PDF is a bonus.

ANU Press books are also beautifully produced, and while that involves some work for the authors, that’s also about authors being involved. Being able to include the photographs and to have them reproduced on good quality paper was important to the stakeholders as well as to me. It was part of the story being respected and understood.

What is next for you?

I’m continuing to work on questions about how communities function, in a couple of ways. Firstly, I’m finishing an account of another group of nuns: the Presentation Sisters in Victoria since the Second Vatican Council. (Their records are more or less in one place and in English. Hurrah!) And then I’m reading my way into the history of worker co-operatives, from a base in questions about work as spiritual practice, aiming to understand why, whether and how people have tried to establish ‘economic democracy’. Teaching a new unit called ‘Cooperative Café’ is part of trying to galvanise the writing.