A number of years after arriving, the sisters launched a bilingual school and Gardiner was made principal. She was put in charge of a leadership team that was tasked with helping her run the school.
In her speech, Gardiner said this was her first experience of managing in a cross-cultural context, and it took her years to realize that she could not simply make the school another version of a Western school.
For example, the Tiwi understanding of leadership is drastically different from Western standards. While Gardiner was used to the idea that "the buck stops" with the person at the top, this notion is foreign to the Tiwi people, who have a structure that entails more shared leadership in which problem-solving and decision-making are done in groups arranged based on kinship lines.
Gardiner said she fully realized this only when the Tiwi teacher whom she invited to take over as the next principal refused the job, on the grounds that she believed doing so would be cocky.
After hearing this, Gardiner, who had already been serving on the island for 30 years, said she realized "how little I understood of their cultural life."
It was then that she took a step back and really began to listen to the women, and once she did, they began to express fears and reservations they previously had not voiced.
"If we are serious in working in cross-culturally with others," she said, then "we must be prepared to listen to what they are really telling us...we need to know how to work with their culture, not against it."
In the end, after re-thinking her strategy, Gardiner said the solution they eventually reached for the school leadership was a group structure made up of four women in charge of different aspects of the school, each with unique realms of authority. She also helped the develop skills in management, finances, and the use of computers.
When the time came to expand a small photo exhibit into a full on museum on the Tiwi culture and way of life, Gardiner made sure to listen to the women whom she asked to run the project. Ultimately, the women were successful at running the museum because "they did it their way," she said.
Currently, Gardiner is the only sister left working at the mission on Bathurst Island, with one priest who offers the sacraments.
A beloved figure in the community, she still teaches religious education classes and drives around town on an electric scooter with a banner that says "share a prayer." Being well known throughout the island, Gardiner said people will either stop her with a request or she will approach them and ask for prayer requests, "and in that way let them know I care about them."
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In her comments to CNA, the sister said that while her work might seem invisible and insignificant to the rest of the world, the accomplishments of the people are truly spectacular.
Gardiner also noted how, as with many other mission territories, it is the Tiwi women who form the backbone of Church life on the island.
"If we look back over the years, it is religious and laywomen who have worked in these outback places that have nurtured and kept the faith together. When they didn't have a priest it was the women who were there," she said.
Speaking of women's role in the Church at large, Gardiner said she sees the potential they can offer, but stressed that "we've got to realize that we can't make our own rules," such as pushing for women's priestly ordination.
She urged both women and men in the Church to be involved in its ministries, saying that Pope Francis "asked us to get out there and get the smell of the sheep, to work with the people and hand over to the people as much as we can of what we've been doing."
Elise Harris was senior Rome correspondent for CNA from 2012 to 2018.