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Mary Catherine (Katie) Rodriguez (1920–1994)

by Cindy Solonec

This article was published:

Katie and Frank Rodriguez

Katie and Frank Rodriguez

photo supplied by the family

Mary Catherine (Katie) Fraser Rodriguez (1920–1994), Catholic novice, cook, and domestic, was a Nyikina (Nigena) woman born on 24 November 1920 off-Country on Nyul-Nyul lands at Beagle Bay Mission, 180 kilometres (110 miles) north of Broome, Western Australia, to Fulgentius (Yoolya) ‘Eulla’ Fraser, evangelist and drover, and his wife Phillipena ‘Sarah’ (Jira) Melycan. As children her parents had been forcibly removed from their Nyikina Country to Catholic missions, her father to Pago (Drysdale River) and her mother to Beagle Bay. Called Katie by her family, she had been christened Mary, as were all female children born at the mission during the family’s years there, 1919–40. Katie was the eldest of eight children—Aggie, Frances, Edna, Gertie, Dottie, Jimmy, and Leena. Most were born at Beagle Bay and delivered by Aboriginal midwives, except Aggie who was born at Drysdale River Mission. Clare, Katie’s half-sister, was born on Yamatji country in 1929.

In 1923 Yoolya took his family to Pago where Katie’s early home was a small cottage; her parents worked for the Benedictine missionaries. They spent their leisure time with other families who had been removed from their homelands, fishing from the beaches and in the rivers. The family returned to Beagle Bay when she was four, where most of the children received a Western education to primary school level. Catholicism was imposed on them at the mission—while implicitly attempting to deny full access to their own language and culture—and it became an integral part of her life.

From the age of six Katie was raised in the dormitory. Here she was later joined by some of her younger siblings, whom she cared for, while her parents lived in an allocated hut in the ‘colony,’ a residential area distant from the dormitories. Though separated from their parents, the children were allowed to visit whenever they wanted to. Though she enjoyed her schooldays living on the mission, her glowing memories are overshadowed by the fact she was groomed to work as a domestic for gudia (gardiya, kartiya) or non-Aboriginal people.

In January 1939 Katie and three others were the first aspirants to join the newly created order, Sisters of Our Lady Queen of the Apostles at Beagle Bay, the first and only order of Aboriginal nuns established in Australia. Colloquially called the ‘Black’ convent, it was established by Bishop Otto Raible, the Catholic administrator for the Kimberley, who wanted Aboriginal people to evangelise in their own communities. The new order was the responsibility of the white sisters of the order of St John of God. Given that European nuns had acted as surrogate mothers in the mission dormitories, it is no surprise that the girls agreed to join the convent. As a novice Katie fine-tuned her domestic skills and helped the white nuns deliver basic medical aid to the mission’s residents. In 1943 she wrote to the commissioner of native welfare requesting an exemption from the Native Administration Act of 1936, claiming she was supported by Bishop Raible and that her ‘interests are now sufficiently protected by the religious society to which I belong’ (SROWA AU WA S5055). Her application was declined, as only those who had left the mission were eligible. It demonstrated she would always be a lesser child of God in the eyes of white authority, as the commissioner of native affairs wrote in a letter to the hon. minister for the North-West in 1943, claiming that the Aboriginal novices’ vows were, ‘in no way comparable to those taken by the members of the Order of St. John of God’ (SROWA AU WA S5055).

When Katie’s close-knit family left Beagle Bay, she followed them to Derby. Life at the convent had proved restrictive, far removed from Indigenous ways. The austere rules of the convent regulated that novices ‘not speak to anyone outside the convent except what their various duties require’ (Choo 2019, 125), and receive visitors only monthly. The novices had exemplified Christian womanhood for their peers, but Katie abandoned the bishop’s vision and distanced herself from her Catholic superiors. The Black convent would eventually fail, lasting for only eleven years.

After leaving the mission, Katie took on various domestic roles before arriving at Liveringa station, 120 kilometres (70 miles) south-east of Derby, on 27 July 1946 to work as a cook. There she met Spanish-born Frank (born Francisco) Rodriguez and within six months they married on 8 December at Derby. Following their marriage they lived in a worker’s cottage at Liveringa. After a delayed honeymoon visiting her childhood home at Beagle Bay, they moved to Derby in August 1947. The couple decided to buy a residential block, but they were confronted by an administrative hurdle: neither was recognised as an Australian citizen. Katie could apply for citizenship under the West Australian Natives (Citizenship Rights) Act, 1944–1951 but the provisions demanded that she must have adopted a ‘civilised life’ and had ‘dissolved any native and tribal association except with respect to lineal descendants or native relations of the first degree.’ To become a legal citizen in Australia the state required her to abandon any traditional customs and agree to live as a gudia. In September 1948 her application was approved, but she defied the Act by continuing to associate with her extended family, speak Aboriginal languages and savour bush culinary delights. By the end of 1948, she joined Frank back at Liveringa, resuming work as a cook.

In 1952 Frank bought a small 21,000-hectare pastoral lease, 20 kilometres (12 miles) north of Liveringa in Nyikina Country. They named it ‘Debesa’ after a small feedlot near Frank’s village in Spain; to Nyikina people it was gnunda (tata lizard) country. Needing a steady income while the property was set up, they continued living and working at Liveringa. They left the following year after being hired by the agricultural scientist Kim Durack at nearby Camballin. Katie as a cook, and Frank as a builder and labourer. While in Derby, Frank had met Horrie Miller, a West Australian aviator and co-founder of MacRobertson-Miller Aviation Co. Ltd, and brother-in-law of Durack through his wife, the historian Mary Durack. Miller expressed a business interest in Debesa in 1957 and November the next year he became a one-third share partner in the lease. By 1955 Katie and Frank had four children, and like many who lived remotely they moved around between stations and town, but in 1957 they temporarily settled in Derby for the children to start school. Over the years Frank had been steadily working on Debesa in between his other projects, and in 1959 they were able to move into the partially finished homestead. Now established on their own property, they sent their children to boarding school in Geraldton.

Unlike the owners of large Kimberley pastoral properties, Katie and Frank did not delegate management to others but mostly ran Debesa on their own. She played a crucial part in its development, as the right hand to her husband. Frank relied on her not only to manage the household, but also to provide manual labour by putting up and repairing fences, loading trucks, and so on. The workload increased during shearing time, when she impressed the shearers with her culinary expertise and domestic skills—all despite increasing health issues. These labours were likely the cause of Katie’s two miscarriages.

Katie was described as ‘a stoic matriarch who stood five feet five inches tall with a well-rounded figure and long dark hair that she wore in a bun at the back of her head' (Pregelj 2003). She remained close to her family with frequent visits and was always concerned for her full-descent relatives who were dispossessed of their land and camped near station homesteads, often taking food and essentials to them on visits to Liveringa. In turn, some came to Debesa during mustering time, and to help prepare the four Rodriguez children’s necessities for boarding school. Local Aboriginal people, knowing their connections and knowing who Katie’s families were, took pride in empowering her sons with bush knowledge that their gudia father could never teach them.

By 1969 Debesa was struggling to survive as a viable sheep station. Due to financial stress Katie and her husband were pressured to relinquish their rural idyll to Frank’s business partner, Horrie Miller. Having intended to stay at the property, they had no other long-term retirement plans and the Western education the Rodriguez children received had left no money for old age. They moved to Derby, where Katie was close to relatives and friends but missed station life. While she remained in town, Frank took on jobs around the Kimberley, at Liveringa and other stations. In 1974 they planned to visit his birthplace in Galicia, Spain. Unable to provide a birth certificate for her passport application, she instead approached the Catholic diocese for a baptismal certificate which the authorities accepted as identification. Passport successfully obtained, Katie went on her first and only overseas trip. Like many of her contemporaries it is unlikely that her birth was ever registered in Western Australia.

On 25 May 1982, while Frank and Katie were driving from Derby to Kununurra, they collided with a bullock and Katie was badly injured. Her upper chest was slightly crushed, her right foot twisted, and her right big toe severely cut. Gangrene set in and spread through her right leg, so she was transferred to Perth where it was amputated. For the next six months, she struggled to recover, dealing with ongoing health complications while learning to walk again with the aid of a prosthesis. Over the years her condition deteriorated, despite having Frank as her devoted carer she became a wheelchair user. In constant pain, Katie passed away on 7 April 1994 in the Derby Hospital and was buried in the Derby cemetery. She was survived by Frank, their four children, and ten grandchildren.

Katie’s lottery in life was to be born into a European regime with discriminatory policies enacted specifically for Aboriginal peoples that hindered their lifestyles. It is what determined her journey in Australia’s history. But she was a resilient and resourceful woman who on first appearance seemed forthright with ‘her stern face,’ but ‘under the façade was a warm, thoughtful person who others knew they could talk over their problems with’ (Solonec 2021, 149).


Cindy Solonec is Nyikina (Nigena) and third child of Katie Rodriguez.

Research edited by Kiera Donnelly

Select Bibliography

  • Choo, Christine. ‘Daughters of Our Lady, Queen of the Apostles—the First and Only Order of Aboriginal Sisters in Australia, 1938–1951: History, Context and Outcomes.’ Journal of the Australian Catholic Historical Society 40 (2019): 103–30
  • Personal knowledge of ADB subject
  • Pregelj, Pepita. Interview by Cindy Solonec, 7 September 2003. Battye Library
  • Solonec, Cindy. Debesa: The Story of Frank and Katie Rodriguez. Broome, WA: Magabala Books, 2021
  • Solonec, Jacinta. ‘Shared Lives on Nigena Country: A Joint Biography of Katie and Frank Rodriguez, 1944–1994.’ PhD thesis, University of Western Australia, Perth, 2015
  • State Records Office of Western Australia. AU WA S5055-cons1351, 1943/0879, Personal file - Katherine Fraser (Rodriguez)

Citation details

Cindy Solonec, 'Rodriguez, Mary Catherine (Katie) (1920–1994)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published online 2024, accessed online 20 June 2024.

© Copyright Australian Dictionary of Biography, 2006-2024

Katie and Frank Rodriguez

Katie and Frank Rodriguez

photo supplied by the family

Life Summary [details]

Alternative Names
  • Fraser, Mary Catherine

24 November, 1920
Beagle Bay Mission, Western Australia, Australia


7 April, 1994 (aged 73)
Derby, Western Australia, Australia

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