The Island of the Living Dead

Part of Father Gabriel Nolan’s duties as Parish Priest at Manly was to service the Moreton Bay islands of Peel and North Stradbroke. Here Father Nolan reflects: 

‘On my first visit to the Lazaret at Peel Island, I was very apprehensive. The Bible, of course, is full of references to leprosy and to the exclusion of lepers from the rest of society. It was difficult not to view the patients at Peel Island in such a manner, so I sought the advice of those who worked amongst the patients: the Matron and the nursing sisters. After their reassurances that it was quite all right to have contact with the patients without the need for any special precautions, I followed their example and moved freely amongst these unfortunate souls. The only warning I was given was to keep my feet covered because at that time it was thought that the Leprosy bacteria might survive in the ground.

‘I visited Peel once a month, arriving on the Wednesday morning, and leaving the next afternoon. My first duty was to chat with the staff over a cup of tea and then visit the patients individually. After a short rest in the heat of the afternoon, I would visit the patients again that night, hearing Confession where appropriate. I visited anyone who wanted to see me, however I was warned that a Japanese patient was particularly violent, so I only went as far as his door to talk to him. He was very resentful, understandably, about being kept there against his will. 

‘Next morning, after sleeping in the Superintendent’s quarters, I would conduct Mass in the Roman Catholic church. Anyone, regardless of their religious beliefs, was able to attend. To minimise the risk of cross infection, patients did not receive wine from the Chalice during Mass. They were offered the bread only. As well as the Catholic Church, the Anglicans had a large Church. Ministers of other religions, notably Cannon Miles, visited on alternate dates to myself.

(EDITOR: The Catholic church was situated at the back of the men’s compound and had once been a hut for several female aboriginal patients. After the aborigines were shifted off Peel up to Fantome Island off Townsville, the hut was shifted using a sled affair to its new position. For a time, it was used as a common room for the men, before being converted to the Catholic Church. Today, its wooden altar remains as well as the nails in the wall on which hung the Stations of the Cross. The fate of the Stations is unknown, but Father Nolan remembers taking the stone relic from the altar back to his Manly Parish when the institution at Peel was closed down.)

Peel Island Lazaret’s Catholic Church following Restoration 11.8.2011. (photo Scott Fowle)

Each patient had their own wooden hut and the whole place was rather beautiful. The only problem was that no one was allowed to leave until they were cured. I visited Peel Island throughout the 1950s, perhaps the best decade of all for this troubled place, because just prior to this, the cure for this ancient disease had been discovered. Most patients responded immediately to the drugs, and only the most advanced cases showed no improvement. To be pronounced ‘cured’ the patients had to produce negative blood smears for each of thirteen months. Thus, the minimum stay for a patient would have to be 13 months. In the past before the cure had been found, this procedure could be heart breaking when after, say, 12 negative smears, a positive one would show up and the patient would have to start the whole process from scratch again.

As well as Mass, I presided over many funerals. These were full ceremonies conducted in the church and at the graveside in the island’s cemetery. All patients used to attend where possible. The Doctor at that time, Morgan Gabriel, was a mighty man. When he first arrived, there was a serious alcohol problem with many of the non-medical staff. Doctor Gabriel had replaced Doctor Lennan, who was himself an alcoholic and unable to control the drinking problems in his staff. As well as being appointed Medical Superintendent of the island, Doctor Gabriel was also given control over non-medical staff. Risking great personal unpopularity, he firmly set new rules for behaviour. Anyone not shaping up would have to ship out. Within a short time, the troublemakers were removed, and morale improved.

I had a problem with some of the relatives of the patients, who tried to get me to use my influence with the Doctor to obtain favours for the patients. I always refused because I thought Doctor Gabriel already had the situation well in hand. Eventually as the curative effects of the drugs became apparent, patient numbers declined to such an extent that there were more staff than patients. Eventually in 1959, the remaining nine patients were transferred to a special annex at the Princess Alexandra Hospital. I never attended them there, though.

Extract from Moreton Bay People – The Complete Collection’.