10 May 2023

Torres Strait to celebrate 150 years of Coming of the Light

| Matt Nicholls
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Events are planned on just about every populated island, as well as the mainland, with big celebrations expected in Brisbane, Cairns and Townsville.

Diocese of North Queensland Bishop Keith Joseph said it was an important day on the calendar for all Torres Strait Islanders, as well as Australian Anglicans.

Bishop Joseph will be joined by the Archbishop of Adelaide and other dignitaries on Erub Island, the place where Christianity first came to the Torres Strait.

“The Torres Strait Island ministry is an important part of what we do in the Diocese of North Queensland,” Bishop Joseph said.

“It’s going to be a wonderful day of celebration on Erub.”

Member for Leichhardt Warren Entsch is also flying up to Erub for the celebrations.

“I’m really looking forward to the re-enactment. I got to play Reverend McFarlane many years ago,” the federal MP said.

The Coming of the Light recognises the adoption of Christianity throughout Torres Strait Island communities during the late 19th century.

It began when the London Missionary Society set out to convert people of the south-west Pacific to Christianity.

On July 1, 1871, Reverend Samuel McFarlane, a member of the Society, anchored at Erub Island, accompanied by South Sea Islander evangelists and teachers.

They were welcomed by a Warrior Clan Elder on Erub.

Bishop Joseph said the missionaries helped bring peace to the Torres Strait.

“The 1860s and 1870s were not a happy time in the Torres Strait; there was a lot of warfare going on,” he said.

“A lot of the white men coming were exploiting the locals with blackbirding or stealing their trade goods.

“There was also a lot of violence and unhappiness and the missionaries, when they came, offered them peace.”

The acceptance of the missionaries and Christianity into the Torres Strait is often credited with ending conflict between different island groups.

This allowed interactions between the island to be unified.

This happened through the opening of new churches, festivals on the church calendar and meetings between congregations of different islands.

“For us, the celebration of the Coming of the Light is just like celebrating Christmas Day,” said Father Elemo Tapim, a Torres Strait clergyman.

“On Christmas Day, God came to us in the form of a baby and on July 1, God came to the Torres Strait in the form of a book.”

Bishop Joseph said when the Anglican Church took over from the London Missionary Society, they promoted Torres Strait culture within the church.

“We said to them: this is your church, bring your culture. Dance and sing and do what you want to connect to God.”

While Erub Island’s celebrations will be significant, Bishop Joseph said Coming of the Light events on Thursday Island and in Brisbane would be even bigger.

“There are going to be some massive celebrations for the 150th year. It starts with a re-enactment, then a church service, and finishes with the feasting, which usually goes well into the night,” he said.

Thursday is also a public holiday in the Torres Strait.

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