Elaine Pelot-Syron and Gordon Syron
Mum – Black Saint of Redfern
The exhibition of historic paintings by artist Gordon Syron and limited edition photographs by his wife and partner, Elaine Syron, celebrate the life of Coleen Shirley Perry Smith AM MBE, better known as Mum Shirl – Black Saint of Redfern.
It is now 21 years since Shirley Smith (Mum Shirl) died, and a fitting time to celebrate her extraordinary life.
Mum Shirl is remembered as a straight talker with an astute ability to read people and an unwavering sense of justice. To those in need she was a woman of boundless compassion, courage and optimism, who had time for everyone. This exhibition has been curated to celebrate and to remember Mum Shirl’s memory and many achievements. She is revered amongst Aboriginal people as the Black Saint of Redfern.
Mum Shirl was a towering presence in Redfern. Not only because of her huge and commanding personality, ‘queenly’ confidence and physical presence. It was her energy and urgency of purpose in the service of people in need and the victims of injustice that defined her. She was seemingly intimidated by no-one and demanded the same attention from prison super-intendents, bishops and politicians as she did from the numerous homeless children who lived under her roof. She never gave any indication that she cared about her own needs: she was always moving, always generous, always available to others.
Mum Shirl (Coleen Shirley Perry Smith), was born in 1921 at Erambie Mission near Cowra, New South Wales and lived there until her Grandfather was expelled from the mission when she was six. Because of her epilepsy, Shirley had no schooling… [and] could not read or write, but would talk at length about how she was ‘schooled’ in Aboriginal culture, language and precious knowledge, which needed to be passed onto everyone who would listen. She married young and moved to Kempsey to live with her husband’s family when she was pregnant but returned to Sydney as the local hospital was segregated. Though her daughter, Beatrice, and husband later returned to Kempsey, Shirley stayed and spent the remainder of her life in Sydney’s inner west, working mainly in Redfern, the hub of Aboriginal political activism.
She settled in Redfern and joined the Catholic church where she met the legendary Father Ted Kennedy. Together they ran the Sunday morning service and often Mum Shirl would stand and tell, in detail, of a family getting evicted or in desperate need of assistance. With the help she enlisted she often assisted all sorts of people and children, never discriminating between black or white…
Deeply immersed in the struggle for equal rights for Aboriginal people, Mum Shirl met regularly with young leaders and activists…She assisted the Police to settle disputes among families and groups and to calm down situations which could end in violence. Calls for help often came in the middle of the night and she was in such demand that she was put under great stress. Her work in the jails saw her involved in The Royal Commission into Prisons and later The Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody.
Mum Shirl was given a State Funeral at St Mary’s Cathedral in 1998. In November 1999, a year after her death and on the 78th anniversary of her birthday, an ordinary seat outside St Vincent’s church in Redfern Street, Redfern, was installed under a plaque on the church façade. The engraved-metal portrait of her has a text that reads: ‘In celebration of the life of Mum Shirl, the black saint of Redfern who gave aid and comfort to all who asked’.
Today her spirit lives on in Redfern as brightly as it did during her lifetime and will do so for as long as the Aboriginal struggle for justice prevails. A woman of magisterial presence and influence, Shirley was, in her time, the most famous and well-known Indigenous figure in the inner-city. Her generosity and influence touched people, regardless of race, in Sydney, across New South Wales and throughout Australia.