It was when Gordon Syron was serving a life sentence in Long Bay jail that he first met Shirley Colleen, the Black Saint of Redfern.
Mum Shirl was a social worker and leader in the Redfern community. It was this suburb where she helped raise 60 foster children as well as assisting in the establishment of services such as the Aboriginal Legal Service, Aboriginal Medical Service and the Aboriginal Tent Embassy.
“She’s definitely one of a kind and I doubt we will ever have another like her,” Cyron smiled.
“There were plenty of royal commissions into prisons in her time, people wanted the right to be civilised and that’s what she fought for.”
Shirl’s career in activism began following her brother’s incarceration in which she would visit him in jail along with other prisoners. This is how she met Gordon.
Gordon spent a decade in prison, in which he focused on a passion for painting or chatting to Mum Shirl who would encourage his hobby.
Following his early release, he continued painting and went on to teach art at Eora College as well as exhibiting both at the Athens and Beijing Olympics.
Now a respected artist, Gordon is staging a new exhibition which pays homage to the late Mum Shirl at the Cooee Art Gallery in Paddington and Bondi along with his wife Elaine Syron.
The couple are exhibiting their collection of photographs by Elaine who traveled with Shirl and documented interactions with children she fostered as well as artworks by Gordon.
Mum Shirl’s visits proved beneficial to the inmates at Long Bay which led her to also represent indigenous people unfamiliar with the legal system in court. Her nickname, Mum Shirl, came from her habit of claiming to be prisoners Mum’s when representing them.
Shirl’s significant involvement in the process of indigenous peoples sentencing allowed her to become the only woman in Australia to gain unrestricted access to prisons across New South Wales.
Her welfare work began following the revoking of her access to NSW prisons which led to a long career finding homes for children whose parents could not provide them with proper care. The outcome of this proved quite significant, allowing Shirl to be able to raise over 60 children by the early 1990s.
“Mum Shirl was easily the most influential person in my life,” Gordon said.
“But we hope we don’t need another Mum Shirl because then we had apprentice gangsters and violence in prisons. That’s why she was there.”
Shirl also contributed to the progression of the campaign for land rights by the Gurindji people. With the same group, she also helped establish the Aboriginal Medical Service.
Mum Shirl’s humanitarian-filled life sadly came to an end on April 28th, 1998, following a car crash – leading to her heart attack and hospitalisation for seven months.
While the acclaimed ‘Black Saint of Redfern’ lived in a time of unfortunate circumstances, for the Syron’s and the many children she fostered, Mum Shirl came at the perfect time.
Mum Shirl: Black Saint of Redfern runs until July 27 at Cooee Gallery, 326 Oxford Street, Paddington